Society diversity

The Maine Historical Society celebrates 200 years with a new exhibit

As part of its 200th anniversary celebration, the Maine Historical Society exhibit showcases Maine fashion in the late 19th century.

PORTLAND, Maine – If you’ve ever wanted to step back in time, look no further than the Maine Historical Society’s new exhibit, Northern Threads: two centuries of dress.

As part of the historical society’s 200th anniversary celebration, the exhibit features collections dating back to 1780 and includes everything from mourning jewelry to dresses to Civil War undergarments.

“We were really excited to show off an aspect of our collections that I don’t think a lot of people knew we had and that really wasn’t very accessible,” said Jamie Rice, deputy director of the Maine Historical Society. “So that’s what this exhibit kind of shows, drawing attention to our specialties, whether it’s clothing from the 1830s or Civil War clothing or recycling old fabrics, creating new dresses from old things. These are different themes in our collection.”

Northern Threads is the first of two exhibits and features clothing from around 1780 to 1889. The second exhibit will begin this summer and will feature clothing from 1890 to 1980. Rice said one of the most eye-catching exhibits once belonged to Captain Granville Sparrow. Sparrow was originally from what was then Deering but is now known as Portland and served with the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment and the Red Diamond Regiment. Rice said Sparrow was keen on collecting wartime artifacts. The exhibit includes Civil War-era woolen underwear and the captain’s uniform coat.

“What’s really great, I think, about this show is that it’s really geographically diverse, so a lot of the clothes are coming from all over Maine,” Rice said. “[We’re] really trying to demonstrate that people in historic Maine were really into fashion, whether it was urban or rural.”

So how did people get into fashion? How did they get trend information? Through dolls.

The exhibition presents a collection of small dolls decorated in the fashion of the 19th century. Rice said people would share them with others to show how people dress and the latest fashions. Believe it or not, Maine was actually quite cosmopolitan back then.

“Especially in the 19th century with the shipping industry,” Rice said. “There’s some great clothes here from Eastport. Eastport was a huge, bustling seaport. You really had a lot of access to European fashion, a lot of English fashion, a lot of French fashion because of the maritime community.”

The Silhouettes in sequence collection is also part of the exhibition. It shows how the shape of women’s dresses evolved. The collection also includes a waistcoat worn by Portland’s first postmaster.

“Our collection is made up of clothing that was made in Maine or worn in Maine or has some sort of association with Maine,” he said.

One of the most extravagant pieces in the collection belonged to Mary King Scrimgeour. She moved to Lewiston from Ontario in the 1870s with her husband who took a job at the Bates factory as chief engineer.

“She was an inventor,” Rice said. “She invented a radiator accessory. She had a patent for it. She and her husband were inventors, and she’s very stylish. We have a great collection of her clothes.”

One of the oldest garments in the collection belonged to a child in North Yarmouth. It’s a baby’s dress and it dates from 1785.

“She was the youngest of 13 children, so they didn’t need to pass it on anymore,” Rice said. “That’s how he survived.”

There’s also an entire section devoted to the bustle, which was an iconic look in the late 19th century. It shows what women wore under their dresses to get the right look.

“People could move around much more easily even if it’s a giant dress,” Rice said. “You could move a lot easier now because your legs could move rather than all that tissue.”

The entire exhibition is also available virtually via the Maine Memory Network.

For more information, Click here.

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