Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Musician in Leather Breeches (Pennsylvania Gazette, 8-1-1771)

William Wiley was serving his indenture under Zachariah Nieman in Moyemensing Township outside Philadelphia in 1771. Wiley was used to the servant’s life, having previously worked under both Mary Harper and Francis Holton, tavern-keepers in the city. In turn, these women probably each sold the remainder of Wiley’s indenture when they needed cash. And so the young Irishman finally became impatient with his servitude, and ran away in the summer of 1771. He was stocky, “round faced” and “middling chunky,” but Wiley was no bumpkin. He spoke “a little Dutch” and was not only “sly and artful” but also “a great liar.”

Wiley’s clothing reflected his general work as a servant. His worn short jacket was “cloth coloured” (probably buff) and lined with red flannel for warmth and perhaps even a bit of style. He had recently acquired a pair of leather breeches, a garment favored by both gentlemen (for hunting and riding) and laborers (for durability). Leather breeches were also cut differently than cloth ones, often with no inseam and with very narrow trimmed seam allowances facing outwards to allow for the most form-fitting but flexible shape possible. Like his breeches, Wiley's shoes were new, and featured tin buckles polished to a bright finish. His gray wool stockings and beaver hat completed a wardrobe that might today be compared to a contemporary worker's jeans and t-shirt.

In 1771, the colonies were teetering on the precipice of Revolution. As William Wiley was making his own bid for independence, war loomed on the horizon. It is tempting to imagine Wiley a few years later, now in his mid-twenties, in the uniform of a Continental soldier. When he ran away, he was already a skilled musician, experienced with the martial instruments of the day, the fife and drum. The army would have welcomed him, although his military service might have been little different from his old indenture.

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