Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Dutch-Made Coatee and a Swansdown Waistcoat (Aurora General Advertiser, Philadelphia, 5-22-1804)

Clothing is an incredibly complex part of culture. Often, it is influenced not just by personal choice, but also by ethnicity, economics, and chance, among innumerable other things. When he ran away in May of 1804, John Christian Hintzer was wearing a wardrobe affected by all these factors. Hintzer was a twenty-three-year-old German indentured servant who only rarely spoke. When he did speak, Hintzer's English was broken and lisping. His master, Frederick Woelpper, was a "victuler," something like a grocer and innkeeper of the day. Hintzer was probably put to work at general tasks, perhaps carting hogsheads or firewood, at Woelpper's Vine Street shop. After Hintzer's abscondment, Woelpper turned to the Aurora General Advertiser on May 22nd to offer a sizeable reward for the runaway.

Hintzer wore a blue surtout (a sort of heavier frock coat) which had the interesting feature of a black velvet cape. This material was becoming popular for men's coat cuffs and collars in this period, but by 1804 Hintzer's falling collar ("cape") was becoming unfashionable. His "callico coatee" was likely a lighter cotton jacket with short tails, and Woelpper evidently thought that its being "Dutch made" would make it particularly recognizable. Hintzer probably brought this garment with him on his trans-Atlantic journey, and some aspect of its fit or construction marked it as different from American coatees. Woelpper may not have even been referring to the Netherlands when he said "Dutch," as this term was often used to refer to Germanic cultures (as in "Pennsylvania Dutch").
Hintzer's two waistcoats were also particularly interesting. One was a striped nankeen, a naturally yellow cotton. The other was swansdown, a type of textile which, according to Florence Montgomery, was developed in the early 19th century and generally connoted a fancy wool or wool-and-cotton fabric. In fact, this runaway advertisement (as well as one from the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1800 for an indentured servant wearing "a broad striped swansdown jacket" in 1800) indicates an earlier usage of the term. Writing in 1931, W.B. Crump noted that swansdown had been "popular for waistcoats for many years, especially with horsy men - grooms, huntsmen and coachmen." John Hintzer was no liveried groomsman, but he still had the good luck or good taste to acquire fine waistcoats. His wardrobe was completed by blue wool trousers, new laced shoes, and a unique felt hat. The style - with a buckled ribbon band - might have been another market of Hintzer's German background or just a personal quirk.
Frederick Woelpper understood that Hintzer's wardrobe was as important as any physical description of the man's body. The people who read the Aurora may have seen a dozen medium-height, stoop-shouldered, pock-marked men on the streets of Philadelphia. But combining this with a few unique garments made Hintzer almost unmistakable.

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