Colonial Dress Up

The previous residents of the street where I live periodically dressed up in “colonial” costumes and opened their houses to the public in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s–as late as the 1970s, I believe.  These were “Chestnut Street Days”, and various variations of this event occurred all over the country in the first half of the twentieth century.  For lots of cultural and historical reasons (patriotism, the desire to escape the dark days of depression and war, the constant drive to define what is “American” in an increasingly diverse nation, perhaps it was just fun), Americans loved to dress up in colonial costumes in the last century.  Below is a photograph of  Chestnut Street Day in the 1940s from The National Geographic  Magazine:

All this dressing up was probably inspired by several specific developments.  No doubt the “living history” museum movement had an impact, with the establishment of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s, Salem’s own Pioneer Village in 1930, and Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation in the 1940s.  The popular works of Alice Morse Earle, including Customs and Fashions in Old New England (1893), Home Life in Colonial Days (1898), my favorite Curious Punishments of Bygone Days (1896), and Two Centuries of Costume in America (1903) must have been influential as well, because they were so popular and because they shifted the historical focus from big events to “daily life”.


Alice Morse Earle images:  a 1907 edition of Home Life in Colonial Days with a photograph of a young boy in colonial clothing playing a colonial game, and the punishment for drunkenness from Curious Punishments of Bygone Days.

The other major motivator for colonial dress up days must have been Wallace Nutting (1861-1941), as his hand could be seen everywhere in the first hand of the twentieth century, to which anyone who has browsed a flea market or lower-end antiques store can attest.  Nutting was a retired New England minister turned photographer/antiquarian entrepreneur and author, whose hand-colored (by the 200 colorists whom he employed at the height of his career, in the 1920s) “colonial” photographs were distributed everywhere, individually and in publications like his “States Beautiful” series; by his own estimation he sold ten million images over his career.  Here are several of Nutting’s colonial ladies from photographs he published in the 1910s and 1920s in the collection of the Library of Congress; the last one is titled the “Salem Sea Captain’s Daughter”.

I find these photographs a little odd, perhaps haunting, even creepy, but people seemed to like them a century ago, and well into the last century.  The photographs of everyday people from that time dressed up for occasions like parades and parties rather than staged somehow seem a bit more natural even though they are in colonial costume in the midst of twentieth-century settings. These men below, marching in a parade in Chicago heralding America’s entry into World War One, look like they’re recreating  Archibald McNeal Willard’s The Spirit of ’76, which is probably more design than accident.

2 responses to “Colonial Dress Up

  • thedailydish

    Yes, I agree with you about those photos. They seem “off” to me – not sure why, but they just do. Although I do like the last.

    We went to Strawbery Banke last summer – a rare treat for my husband and I – alone! Someone suggested we take in Old Sturbridge Village next. It’s a pretty long drive for me (with Meniere’s) but hoping maybe we get to it this year. Sounds very neat.

  • Down East Dilettante

    When I took over the board of a historic house museum up here, I confess, grinch-like, that one of my first acts was to do away with the ‘historic’ costumes, complete with high polyester content, worn by the guides/interpreters/docents. Yet, few times I’ve seen it work—twice at Sturbridge, on a fall afternoon, as I passed two men in costume–very authentic costume, digging potatos in a garden, and as I entered the hall of another house, and a man stood at the end of a long hall, again period perfect. Sometimes, for a brief moment it works. The other time is a very creative tour at the sublime Warner house in Portsmouth. But mostly, god save me from grown men in Civil War costumes re-enacting battles in shopping center parking lots—or the silly costume dramas of Williamsburg.

    A very thought provoking post.

Leave a Reply