I have attended a few Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM) annual meetings in the past but have not for some time now. This year it was held at Genesee Country Village & Museum in New York state. A few friends from Texas were going and another presenting and it was within a day’s drive, so I decided to go. I arrive on Thursday evening and the first activity I wanted to attend was on Friday. Actually, there were several activities on Friday that would have been fun but I chose to attend sessions centered around the Susan Greene Collection at the John L. Wehle Gallery at the village.
The gallery houses a few displays as well as the Greene textile collection. One of the larger exhibits in the gallery is an 1870’s carriage designed for pleasure parties. Not the time period I’m usually interested in but it was impressive none the less.
During this first session we were broken up into groups; one group went through the gallery while another went through the costume vault to see what we wanted to see up close in the afternoon, then we switched. The storage is huge, with dresses, bonnets, hats, caps, undergarments, children’s clothing. Since we had limited time I had to concentrate on just what I really wanted and that was the 1860s dresses. The gallery had some wonderful displays; one gallery was all coverlets.
The last part of the morning was a discussion on calico balls. Susan Greene and Patricia Tice, curator of the gallery, happen to both be working on articles on the subject. They had a small display to coincide with their talks.
Mrs. Greene and Ms. Tice provided some great information on calico fabric and the calico balls. I’ll just hit the highlights here.
• In Britain calico meant unbleached muslin; however, in the US calico was used to describe plain weave cotton fabrics printed with large, bold patterns.
• Calico was inferior to other fabrics. It was a low-end fabric and dresses made from it tended to be plain with little or no embellishment. It was meant for dresses that would be washed and, therefore, would not last long.
The Calico Ball
• Calico balls were fund raisers for various causes such as for the poor, widows or soldiers’ families. The calico dresses were often donated to the poor or working class or the proceeds were donated to charity.
• Calico dresses for these occasions may be elaborately trimmed and trimming removed before being donated.
• At some balls, women would start the evening in calico and then change at midnight remove the calico dress to reveal a nicer dress underneath.
• Prizes were sometimes given for the plainest dress or the neatest made.
• Calico balls continued into the 1940s.
Ms. Tice also provided handouts that included a spreadsheet of calico printing records including year, location, description and price. She included as well a copy of an article from Leslies February 13, 1858 entitled “The Calico Ball at the Academy of Music.”
The afternoon session was devoted to the examination of the originals we had chosen. You can find some pictures of the items I examined along with notes on my blog www.txcwcivilian.org about the collection.
The conference officially started off Saturday night with the opening reception and dinner. Dinner included specialties from the Fingerlakes area including garbage plates (with tutorial), buffalo wings, and beef on weck sandwiches. Also included were white or red hots. Saturday began with breakfast and the keynote speaker Dustin Growick from Museum Hack. They conduct out of the ordinary tours of various museums across the country. His talk was very entertaining and the tours sound like a lot of fun.
In the afternoon I attended a session on Cemetery Theatre in Hawai’i. I love cemeteries so anything to do with them will draw me in. The session covered how the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site produced this program in Honolulu. It is not a ghost tour, but as the presenter described it, more like dinner theater in a cemetery. Professional script writers and actors are involved in presenting different personalities buried in the cemetery or a composite personality from Hawai’i’s history. It was very interesting in hearing the steps involved and the challenges they encountered in making it a success.
Saturday night was dinner and the auction. The ALHFAM auction is a long standing tradition. Attendees bring items from their personal collections or sites to be auctioned either in the silent auction or the regular auction. I bid on several silent auction items and didn’t get any of them, but did win home made maple syrup from Howell Living History Farm in New Jersey. I couldn’t resist taking a taste and it is very good. Not as sweet as store bought.
Sunday began with a very enjoyable session on taverns in early America. The session discussed the use of taverns in travel, the foods served, and, of course, drink. We were even served a rum punch at 9:30 in the morning. It was strong, but tasty; I could drink this while interpreting a tavern.
One of the reasons I attended the conference this year was to hear Carolann Schmitt’s talk historical clothing myths. Carolann did a great job and covered myths such as older women didn’t wear white, black was only for mourning, women had a rib removed for a smaller waist, all the myths we are familiar with. And she refuted them all. During the session, Kandie Carle let us know that she had printed Virginia and Michael Mescher’s information on color and 19th century photographs, “Understanding the Mystery of 19th Century Wet Plate Photographs and Color. Kandie has these for $10 if you would like one, Kandie@EHSCO.org
The afternoon was spent in sessions with Kandie. The first was Clothing Through Time. She had several individuals dressed in different time periods who then appeared behind a black lit screen and produced a silhouette. This was very helpful as you were not distracted by all the trimmings and could concentrate on the shapes. After the models came out and discussed their outfits. The second session was on developing an impression. Kandie and Leah Lambert of the Old State House Museum discussed how to develop a first person impression and provided attendees with worksheets to help with the development; unfortunately the worksheets are not available to the public.
Monday night was the Presidential Banquet. At some conferences, this includes a fashion show with those dressed in period clothes. The venue this year did not allow for the fashion show, however. I had brought my black dinner dress, new white waist, all my undergarments, except my hoop. So I did not dress out, although a few others did. The venue was at the Village Gate, an old factory repurposed into boutique shops, offices and open art space.
-By Annette Bethke