Friday, October 15, 2010

The Forensic Reconstruction of George Washington, Part 1

Here's another post by guest blogger, Suzanne Adair

How is it possible to forensically create an accurate, life-sized figure of someone long dead without having access to the deceased's bones? The traveling museum exhibit, "Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon," features three life-sized figures of George Washington at the ages of 19, 45, and 57. To create these figures for the exhibit without exhuming Washington, the folks at Mount Vernon sought the expertise of Dr. Jeffrey H. Schwartz, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh. Schwartz collaborated with at least ten other experts.

Schwartz used a laser technique to scan the three-dimensional life mask, bust, and statue created by Jean-Antoine Houdon when Washington was in his early fifties. The associated computer program captured points and extrapolated them, allowed the team to morph the shape of Washington's face and body according to known physiological data about him at various ages. Schwartz also had access to the following for Washington:
  • His dentures
  • His surviving, unaltered clothing
  • Portraits from actual sittings (v. sightings)
  • Text sources such as letters and diaries that described Washington
GWDentures Several issues affected Schwartz's interpretation of Washington. Tooth loss and use of dentures affect the shape of the jaw and mouth. Tooth loss for the first president started when he was in his twenties. By the time he took his oath of office at age 57, he had only one of his natural teeth left in his mouth and used an uncomfortable set of dentures. This set of Washington's dentures is on display in the exhibit.

Also, Washington had contracted smallpox in Barbados when he was nineteen. No records have been found to indicate the amount of facial scarring that he endured from the disease. However, Schwartz believes that a scar visible on Washington's left cheek in some portraits was from smallpox and not the result of a tooth abscess, as sometimes theorized.
According to Schwartz, children of the 18th century were corseted from an early age, boys through about their fifth year. This permanently affected the spine's shape and the body's carriage. Shoulders of adult men were brought back and down. The curve of the lower back was accentuated, as was the belly. In this portrait of Washington, you can see those features.
What were the results when Schwartz and his team pulled all of this together? Check back here on Wednesday for a look at George Washington when he was 19, 45, and 57.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Georgian Secrets: Ladies' Undergarments During the American War of Independence

Suzanne Adair blogs at

She's Clio's guest today cross post blogging about:

Georgian Secrets: Ladies' Undergarments During the American War of Independence

Readers occasionally ask me what ladies of the late 18th century wore for underwear beneath those lovely gowns and petticoats. Did they wear panties? What made their hips so huge and their torsos look like tubes?

On Sunday 19 September, Louise Benner, the Curator of Costumes and Textiles at the North Carolina Museum of History presented the program "From Head to Toe: Clothing in 18th-Century North Carolina." A portion of her program included showing the audience the underclothing beneath the gorgeous polonaise gown that a volunteer named Gina was wearing.

For upper class and many middle-class women, undergarments consisted of the following:

* Shift. Ms. Benner's hand is on the sleeve of Gina's shift. The shift, later called a "chemise," was made of cotton, linen, wool, or silk, had three-quarter length sleeves, and reached to the middle of the woman's calf. Shifts doubled as sleepwear.
* Stays. In the picture, the stays are the greenish garment across Gina's midsection. Stays were heavily boned, usually with whalebone, to keep the torso erect and thus heavily restricted movement in the upper body. Stays also gave women's torsos that "tube" look.
* Panniers. Also known as side hoops, these were tied around the waist. Panniers made the hips look extra-broad beneath the petticoat and lower portion of the gown. If the gown and petticoat were made of heavy material, panniers would be constructed of metal to support the weight of the fabric.
* Pockets. Gina's right hand rests on a pocket, accessible through slits in her gown and petticoat. Women might wear pockets on both hips and/or embroider their pockets. Embroidered pockets could be worn atop the petticoat instead of beneath it.
* Stockings. Made of natural fiber like the shift, stockings were tied with ribbons just above the knee.

A woman such as a laundress who performed physical labor also wore a shift and pockets, but instead of stays and a gown, she wore a short jacket (also called a short gown) with some boning, usually pinned closed across the front. The jacket reached to just below her waist and covered the top portion of her petticoat.

Panties arrived on the underwear scene decades later.

Ms. Benner's presentation was part of a collection of lectures and free programs that supports the traveling exhibition, "Discover the Real George Washington: New Views From Mount Vernon." The North Carolina Museum of History is the only venue in the southeast to host this exhibit, which runs through 21 January 2011. Colonial North Carolina Family Day on 25 September, in which I will participate, is one of the supporting programs.

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