Thursday, May 20, 2010

Vests and Waistcoats (Pennsylvania Gazette, 5-30-1787)

If James Curtis (see yesterday's post) wore clothing quite similar to that of a plantation slave, other apprentices fared much better. By the end of the eighteenth century, it had become increasingly common for apprenticeship indentures to include a stipend for clothing, rather than a direct provision of garments. Social critics decried the garish appearance of apprentices as they strolled the streets of the young United States. Lavishly spending on a single fine suit of clothes, these young men managed to achieve a distinctive level of sartorial splendor. Take, for instace, Thomas Jenkins, apprenticed to cooper Moses Harris of middle New Jersey.

Left-handed and with a "down look," Jenkins cut quite the figure when he ran away in 1787. A "dark brown broadcloth coat" and a blue regimental one (probably from militia service) were complimented by a "yellow feathered plush vest" - a heavy velvet waistcoat which, Harris noted, featured a fustian back. Jenkins also wore "new velvet breeches," "white thread stockings" made from fine cotton, linen, or silk, "good shoes, new felt hat, home made shirts, a pair of striped trowsers, blue waistcoat, new checked handkerchief, and several other articles." Several things are apparent from this plethora of garments. First, it is interesting to note Harris's distinction between a vest and a waistcoat, suggesting perhaps the differing cuts of the two garments. Jenkins had both breeches and striped trousers, which were becoming increasingly popular among the upper sort as the century ended. His fine stockings, shoes, and hat may have been recent purchases, while only his shirts were "home made." Jenkins may indeed have been quite the dandy in Hopewell, New Jersey. At the very least, his apparel demonstrates the material comfort of some apprenticeships in early America. The broadcloth and velvet from which his garments were constructed were a far cry from the linen "crocus" and duffel wool which James Curtis wore.

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