Thursday, March 10, 2011

Workers' Clothing in "Exhuming the First American Mastodon"

In 1801, Charles Willson Peale oversaw an excavation in upstate New York that he later commemorated in Exhuming the First American Mastodon (1806-1808).
Peale's painting was a celebration of American ingenuity and determination. Interestingly, the artist's friends and family are on the periphery of the painting. Instead, the central focus of this work is the machine used to remove water from the pit and the workers laboring to pull bones from the earth. Two men work a winch to raise a large bucket from the pit. They wear white "overalls," a sort of tight-fitting trouser with gaitered bottoms that was first popularized by soldiers during the Revolution. The man to the left has neglected to button his right pocket, and it flaps open.
Higher up on the machine, two men tend the water chute, one wearing a brown coatee and relaxing and the other, coatless and wearing suspenders, working the mechanism.Meanwhile, in the pit, men work in shirts or bare-chested. They wear both breeches and cuffed pants. One man wears a low-crowned brown hat with a red ribbon that matches the handkerchief hanging from his vest pocket. Another wears a yellow handkerchief "sailor fashion" around his neck, and has tied an orange cloth around his head.In the left of the painting, watched by a gentleman in boots and a blue coat, workers shovel dirt up from the pit. They also wear a variety of clothes, including cuffed pants, hats of various styles, and colorful vests, including one with a red back.Peale's painting is an interesting depiction of laborers in early America. Many of these young men probably lived on nearby farms, and for them, this was a unique adventure. Their dress provides us a rare glimpse of the clothing of common rural Americans around 1800.

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