Historian catalogs society's vintage garments, presents library program
An Indiana woman is enjoying her job so much she likens it to “having Christmas twice a week.”
Katie Gaudreau, the public historian at the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County, spends two afternoons each week at the society's Indiana headquarters, where she works on sorting, photographing and documenting the society's extensive collection of textiles from years past. She began the project in 2010 and doesn't expect to complete it until sometime next year.
The collection includes quilts, blankets, doilies and clothing, some of which pre-dates the Civil War. There are 140 numbered boxes of items, most of which have not been opened since the 1980s. Gaudreau and her two assistants — fellow volunteers Veronica Morales and Marcia McCarty — have made it through just over 30 of the boxes.
As each item is unpacked, it is numbered, spread out on acid-free archival paper and photographed. Women's garments usually are put on a dress form for photographing. The volunteers wear white gloves while handling the items so the fibers aren't damaged by any oil from their hands.
After an item is photographed, the photo is entered into a database along with a description of the item and any available information, such as when it was made, the original owner and who donated it to the society. It is then wrapped in archival paper and put into a numbered archival box.
“When we are done, anyone can look at our entire collection on the computer,” Gaudreau said. “It will be much more accessible to our staff as well as the public. It also will keep us from having to search through 140 boxes if there is something someone needs to know about a specific item.” She noted that people will still be able to access an item if there is a reason, such as a family member who might want to see a dress that belonged to an ancestor.
While most of the textiles will be boxed at any given time, the society rotates displays of them at its museum on Indiana's Wayne Avenue.
Also, through a joint effort of the historical society and the Indiana Free Library, visitors to the library will be able to view some of the society's historic garments, accessories and related photographs in a free program led by Gaudreau at 7 p.m. Monday. With clothing spanning an entire century, from 1850 to 1950, the program is meant to show that, even in largely rural Indiana County, the female population has had access to fashionable items through the decades.
Gaudreau plans to have at least seven outfits on display along with the appropriate hats, shoes and undergarments. A question-and-answer session will begin at 6 p.m.
When she began to catalog the historical society's textiles, Gaudreau initially focused on quilts and blankets. One that she considers most interesting and that is currently on display is a crazy quilt made by Mary Ralston in 1885. The quilt's backing fabric of blue and black originally was a dress that Ralston's mother wore to two high-profile events — inaugural balls for President Ulysses S. Grant and for a governor of Pennsylvania.
Gaudreau and her assistants then turned to a selection of hand-made doilies and now are working through boxes of clothing.
“We have a lot of military items, but we keep those separate,” Gaudreau said. “We have a lot a men's and baby's clothes, but most are women's.”
In almost all cases, she said, the garments in the society's collection represent the clothes the original owners would have reserved for important occasions: “People kept or handed down the dress clothes, but they wore out the everyday stuff.”
Gaudreau finds women's clothing the most interesting. “Men's and children's clothes haven't changed that much over the years, but women's are always changing,” she said. “You never know what you're going to find when you open a box.”
Her favorites are dresses from the early 1900s: “We found some really cool flapper dresses from the 1920s and a couple cool ones from the 1880s.”
One dress that is now on display is the 1864 taffeta wedding dress of Elizabeth Ann Coulter Fulton, who lived from 1842 to 1926. One of the things that surprises most people who see the dress is that it is black.
“Very old wedding gowns were not usually white and fancy like they are now,” Gaudreau explained. “Back then a woman wouldn't have thought of having a one-use dress. She had a new dressy dress made for her wedding, then continued to wear it afterward. Women didn't start wearing white dresses for weddings until after 1920.”
The Fulton wedding dress, which was donated to the society by life member Ellen Ruddock in 1983, has an interesting story to go with it. Early this year, Larry Fulton was visiting the area and came to the historical society's extensive genealogy library to see if he could find some Civil War records on his ancestor, Joseph Fulton. While assisting in the search, society Executive Director Coleen Chambers realized that Joseph Fulton was the husband of Elizabeth Coulter Fulton and was able to show Larry Fulton the wedding gown of one of his grandmothers.
According to Gaudreau, most women had sewing machines by 1880 and made their own everyday clothes. But most had their dress clothes and gowns made by a seamstress. Ready-to-wear clothes weren't available until after 1900.
“It didn't matter where you lived. You could be fashionable anywhere,” Gaudreau noted. “There were a lot of women's fashion magazines to show even rural women what was in style, and they copied it. Some of the magazines even had patterns in them.
“In the 1880s, middle class women got the magazines and copied the styles of the wealthy, but they didn't use the same fabrics. By the 1900s, the line between the wealthy and middle class clothing was starting to blur.”
Gaudreau noted women were physically smaller in those times than they are now. They were shorter and, on average, wore a dress size between a 4 and an 8. Now the average woman wears a size 14.
Along with women's clothing, the society has been given hats, undergarments, parasols and furs. “The parasols and furs are tough to deal with,” Gaudreau said. “They disintegrate when they get old.”
Another of her challenges is ensuring that a garment boasting a style from yesteryear is truly old and not a costume or reproduction. “I can usually tell by the amount of wear, the fabric and the style of the print,” she explained.
Gaudreau comes well qualified for her role with the society. She has a master's degree in public history from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She explained that a public history degree is specifically for people who want to work in a museum as a curator, educator, archivist or director.
Chambers is thrilled with the work Gaudreau, Morales and McCarty are doing. “We have an amazing volunteer program,” she said.
That's important to the society because it operates two buildings — the historic Clark House and the former Indiana armory — with limited funding.
“We lost state funding in 2008 like every other historical society, but we still get some county money,” Chambers said. “We are membership driven.... There are no endowments. We get a lot of support from the community, though. All our office and paper supplies are donated, and we have a lot of tradespeople who will do work for us for whatever we can afford to pay them.”
Chambers said students at IUP use the museum extensively and the art and history departments routinely place interns there. “Our art collection is amazing,” she said.
Another area Chambers is proud of is the genealogy library: “We have a fabulous collection of folders of newspaper clippings pertaining to local surnames. People have cut and pasted clippings for years and gave them to us.”
Although she lived in Ligonier for a while, Chambers was born in Indiana and is delighted to have gotten her job as executive director of the society when she and her husband moved back to Indiana. “I feel connected here,” she said. “My grandmother was a sister of Mary Ralston, the lady who made the crazy quilt.”
Jeanette Wolff is a freelance writer.