Historical research:
“What exactly are we looking for?”, –Sophia Zweifel

16 January 2017

Sophia Zweifel, 2017 Isabel Bader Fellow in Textile Conservation and Research

Every two weeks these updates are provided by Sophia Zweifel, the Isabel Bader Fellow in Textile Conservation and Research. In residence at the Agnes and Art Conservation Program until the end of April 2017, Sophia is investigating historical practices of clothing care and cleaning, using the Queen’s University Collection of Canadian Dress and with the assistance of Gennifer Majors, the Isabel Bader Graduate Intern in Textile Conservation and Research.

Our project of researching historical methods of cleaning, finishing, and caring for 19th– and early 20th-century clothing will involve working closely with a selection of items from the Queen’s Collection of Canadian Dress, performing detailed examinations as well as instrumental analysis to find physical traces of these past practices. However, historical research must first be done in order to answer the question, “What exactly are we looking for?” The household practices of cleaning and maintaining clothing are well documented within 19th-century practical “receipt” books such as Mrs. Beeton’s Household Management or Cassel’s Household Guide, as well as in domestic magazines such as Enquire Within Upon Everything.

A similar but more local version of these practical receipt books is The Canadian Economist, published in 1881 by members of the Ladies’ Association of Bank Street Church in Ottawa. The book was written with the aim of raising money for the Church, while also providing a domestic guide that would be particularly practical for local households. The Canadian Economist described the struggle of following cooking recipes that asked for ingredients that could not be attained “far up the Ottawa River,” “beyond the bounds of civilization,” and the value of the advice granted instead by “kind neighbours.”  More relevant to this project, in their chapter “Washing and Cleaning,” the ladies of Bank Street Church offered practical receipts (or “recipes”) for the care and cleaning of clothing, which they assured their readers were garnered from real experience. They attributed this experience to the difficulty “a few years ago in Ottawa” of finding good servants, and the resulting need for members of the family to perfect domestic “practices that before they were unable to do. “

This question of who in fact was taking on the difficult task of cleaning, finishing and maintaining the clothing in the households of historic Kingston, is one that I will continue to explore. What did the domestic service of a wealthy Kingston household look like at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century? How did the domestic service, and as a result the practices of cleaning and maintaining clothing, change as the city transitioned to a more modern industrial economy? Can the effects of these changes be seen within the designs and finishing methods of garments within the Queen’s University Collection of Canadian Dress?

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