News Column

'A style of their own:' Harmonists' clothing, textiles on display at Old Economy

June 18, 2014

By Marsha Keefer, Beaver County Times, Pa.

June 18--AMBRIDGE -- Their clothing -- plain and functional, usually the indigo or black typical of pietists -- was remarkable, largely because it was a "style of their own," far different from the fashion prevalent in 19th-century America and Europe.

It stood out, though uniformity -- no one stood out -- was a hallmark of the industrious communal society, a Lutheran separatist group that emigrated to America from Germany in 1803 seeking religious freedom.

Examples of Harmony Society dress and the woolen, silk and cotton textiles members made in the 1800s at their settlement along the Ohio River in Ambridge are part of a new, temporary exhibit on display at Old Economy Village.

"A Style of Their Own: Clothing and Textiles of the Harmony Society" can be viewed during museum hours through Aug. 10.

This is the first time an entire exhibit has been devoted to original Harmonist clothing and it's a rare opportunity to see, said curator Sarah Buffington.

Because of the fabric's fragile nature -- light degrades the fibers, she said -- the clothing and textiles can only be displayed for a short time.

"Rule of thumb is three months," she said, and only again after seven years. Because of light sensitivity, the clothing, when not on display, is stored in acid-free containers in a climate- and light-controlled environment.

The exhibit's most impressive feature is 38 frock coats -- 37 indigo and one black -- in three patterns, though only a very discerning eye could distinguish the differences: Coat length, some with fitted waists, some with pockets.

"Indigo was the most durable color," Buffington said, for both men's and women's clothes. "All other colors fade very quickly."

The coats provide a backdrop to five mannequins attired in men's and women's work or Sunday dress clothes. The focal point, however, is society founder and leader George Rapp's full-length, maroon, silk velvet coat and cap. Hand-stitched, Rapp wore the garment for special and ceremonial occasions.

But the treasured artifact fell into disrepair after Rapp's death at age 89 in 1847. Over the years, it had been worn at various Old Economy events -- particularly "Man's Reach," a play staged in the late 1950s to early 1960s to raise money for site restoration -- causing damage to the lining and soiling, said Buffington.

"The seams were falling apart inside the coat. Silk thread is really fragile."

Museum practices today, however, are different, she said, recognizing these outfits as irreplaceable artifacts that deserve special care and treatment.

Last year, Rapp's coat won third place in Pennsylvania's Top 10 Most Endangered Artifact Contest sponsored by the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts. The campaign was part of Save Pennsylvania's Past to protect and preserve the state's cultural collections.

Buffington said Virginia Whelan, a textile conservator in Philadelphia, restitched and reinforced the coat's lining with new textiles dyed to match. The coat was cleaned to remove dirt and oils that also erode delicate silk fiber.

The cost to conserve the coat was $3,600, Buffington said, paid for through grants and fundraisers.

Harmonists came from the duchy of Wurttemberg, bringing the rural region's style of dress with them, a style considered old-fashioned in America, and often drawing both curiosity and sometimes ridicule from outsiders. Take Emma Passavant, for example, whose 1828 quote appears on a display board: "...when (Gertrude) visits at any place ... she never looks worse than when she means to be dressed well," referring to Gertrude Rapp, George Rapp's granddaughter.

Clothing was fastened with buttons or hooks and eyes. Most of the men's frocks were double-breasted, but because extra buttons would have been wasteful, only one set was used, she said.

A man's work clothes featured wool or a cotton-wool mix, small-fall trousers (a flapped front rather than a fly); white shirt with high collar; and black wool scarves wrapped twice around the neck and knotted; vest; four-button jacket; and straw top hat.

Sunday's dress coat would have been a longer frock coat with seamed waist made of wool or silk.

Women wore full-length dresses and always aprons, even on Sundays, Buffington said. The outfit was completed with a neck ruff and scarf -- usually a 22- to 28-inch square -- folded on the diagonal and draped over the shoulders, and bonnet.

For outside work, women wore a wide-brimmed straw hat to shield their faces from the sun; otherwise their heads were covered by caps that rose to a peak in the back. Sunday caps of silk jacquard featured larger crimped peaks in the back, usually with a ruffled silk ribbon around the crown.

Harmonists operated wool, cotton and silk mills on the grounds. Its wool mill was four stories tall with large carding and spinning machines. The wool had to be processed -- washed, dried and separated according to quality, then dyed. It would then be combed, spun and loomed into cloth.

Harmonists raised Merino, a breed of sheep from Spain, noted for its fine, soft wool. But the fabric produced wasn't as marketable, Buffington said, as Americans wanted something more durable. Thus, Harmonists cross-bred the Merino and also bought wool from surrounding farmers. They purchased bales of processed cotton from New Orleans to use in their cotton mills and raised silkworms, which was a 24/7 operation, Buffington said.

"Silkworms eat constantly," she said, feasting on a diet of mulberry leaves. There were an estimated 2,000 white mulberry trees on the environs in 1836.

Elderly women and children were assigned the duty of tending silkworms in cocooneries, a less labor-intensive job than other chores in the community. The worms' cocoons would be unwound into filaments that were turned into threads to be dyed and woven into cloth.

Gertrude Rapp was the leader of the silk industry in the community, establishing the operation in 1824.

By 1842, Harmonists were spinning 237 pounds of raw silk from 5,535 pounds of silkworm cocoons annually. It took 2,000 to 3,000 cocoons to produce a pound of silk.

The community won gold medals in 1839 and 1844 for silk products entered in competitions in New York and Massachusetts.

On display at Old Economy are books with samples of colorful silk skeins and their natural dye recipes handwritten in old German script.

"They are such vibrant colors," Buffington said. "I call them fireworks. They're just gorgeous," she said of the deep and rich blues, greens, mauves and pinks.

Harmonists sold textiles to "anyone and everyone. They were always taking orders," Buffington said, assisted by agents in Pittsburgh who did business with them.

Society members operating the textile mills worked 12-hour days all year, except one week in autumn to help with harvesting.

"Everything earned went into the community treasury," she said.

They also fought for protective tariffs on imported goods to make their textiles more marketable, said Buffington.

However, several national recessions and a notion that domestic fabrics were of lesser quality than European made, led to the closing of Harmonist woolen and cotton mills around 1845 and the silk industry by 1853.

The exhibit's display cases also show various knitted goods -- caps, bonnets, mittens, leggings and stockings -- Harmonists made, along with various bonnet and hat styles, and textile samples and ribbons, some of which allow visitors to touch and feel the differences in wool flannel, broadcloth, silk satin, silk velvet and silk jacquard.

There are display boards, too, describing the history of Harmonists' textile businesses, along with one showing what fashionable people from 1788 to 1896 were wearing compared to what Harmonists wore.

___

(c)2014 the Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.)

Visit the Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.) at www.timesonline.com

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Source: Beaver County Times (PA)


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