Follow the Thread

a textile & costume history blog from the Design Center at Thomas Jefferson University

Misses Pence & Erwin


∼ by Jade Papa

One question I’m often asked about objects in the Textile & Costume Collection is where they came from.  My simple answer to that question is usually along the lines of, “the majority of objects in the collection were donated.”  However, inquisitive students often want to go a little deeper and hear about the person behind the object – who wore it, who made it, who used it.  Knowing these types of details helps add a human touch to objects that, when they’re lying on a table for a student to inspect, seem very impersonal.    

For many of our objects, these personal details are hard to come by.  Even if we are fortunate enough to know the name of the donor, there’s no guarantee that they recorded the object’s history.  How many of us think to jot down details about our clothes?  

In the case of a stunning bodice and skirt trimmed with ostrich feathers that was recently re-discovered among our 19th century garments, we don’t even have a donor name.  The ensemble is classified in our files as “FIC” meaning “found in collection.”  Whatever provenance it may have had has long since disappeared. 

However, not all is lost; there is still a wealth of information that can be gleaned from objects without any known provenance.  Close observation of details such as fabric type and trim, construction techniques, silhouette, measurements, and a whole host of other observable facts provide a wealth of information about not just the object, but about the type of person who would have worn it.  In the example of our green and pink silk bodice and skirt, the fullness gathered into the cap of the sleeves can be read as an indicator of time period.  The tight gathers anticipate the enormous leg-o-mutton sleeves of the 1890s.  The fullness of the skirt, concentrated in the back, correlates to the bustle era of the mid-to-late 1880s.  The weight and thread count of the silk and the varied use of high quality trims suggest a garment that was at least relatively expensive and thus probably worn by someone of means.    

There is one more detail often found in 19th century garments that, if present, can open up a world of information about a garment.  On the exquisitely finished interior of our bodice (notice the bound seams and the tiny hand stitches) is a narrow, woven waist tape.  This tape would have served to keep the tight fitting bodice from shifting and ruining the elegant effect of the dress.  In addition to the practical purpose it served, it was common for dressmakers to use this tape as an opportunity to mark their creations.  As you can see, the waist tape clearly proclaims that our dress was made by Misses Pence & Erwin, 952 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA.

With this clue, my mind raced at the new research possibilities.  Given its Pittsburgh origins, I figured I’d start at the source.  A quick Google search led me to the Senator John Heinz History Center.  Specifically, I was curious to know if the name Misses Pence & Erwin appeared in any documents – business directories, bills of sale, advertisements – they had in their library.  I composed an email to their librarians and crossed my fingers.  What they discovered and the subsequent paths that information led me down now ensures that the story I tell students about this ensemble is one steeped in the lives of two remarkable women living in the late 19th century.  Stay tuned for my next post to hear all the details!

A special thanks to the amazing staff at the Heinz History Center for helping me follow this thread:

Courtney A. Keel Becraft, Collection Manager
Emily L. Ruby, Curator
Mary Jones, Chief Librarian

Curator and Adjunct Professor, Textile & Costume Collection, The Design Center, Thomas Jefferson University

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