Tuesday, November 8, 2011
"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" by Jennie A. Brownscombe
It's interesting to learn how people dressed long ago, but that
subject sometimes can’t be separated from history in general. And so before talking about what the Pilgrims wore for the three-day feast that eventually became known as Thanksgiving, let me set the stage by sharing an account of the event by Edward Winslow.
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours ; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others."
The famous painting by Jennie A. Brownscombe, shown above, depicts the first Thanksgiving, but it was painted in 1914 and is therefore an artist’s rendering that can’t be taken literally. So, how do we know what the Pilgrims were decked out in when they celebrated their first successful harvest? Few items the Pilgrims wore still exist, but they would have dressed in the same fashion as people in England at that time. Obviously there were different cloaks for different folks, but we have very few visual records to guide us. Virtually all paintings of that era are of the aristocracy to which the Pilgrims did not belong.
We are, however, able to paint a fairly accurate picture of the Plymouth feast where attire is concerned. Pilgrim wills and inventories describing articles of clothing are a start. In addition, The Mayflower passenger list shows several of the Pilgrims came to America with servants. This points to some of them having been of the Middle Class - skilled tradesmen and merchants. Fortunately for the fashion researcher, there is enough from that period in museum collections to give an idea of how the English Middle Class dressed.
An article by Duane A. Cline at http://rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mosmd/index.htm also gives us insight into the social status of the Pilgrims. “The Pilgrims were certainly knowledgeable of fabrics and clothing construction. In looking at the occupations of the Pilgrims we find that Isaac Allerton and James Chilton were tailors, William Bradford was a fustian-maker, Edward Tilley was a cloth-maker, John Tilley was a silk worker, Francis Cooke and William White were wool combers or carders, and Digory Priest had been a hatter in London. In addition to those clothing-related trades we know that William Mullins was a boot and shoe merchant, and Thomas Rogers was a camlet merchant.”
What did Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag and his entourage of ninety men wear for the occasion, I wonder? Having not read the full texts of the Pilgrims' journals for their first year at Plymouth, I can only surmise. One account describes Massasoit when the Pilgrims first saw him in March, 1621. “The great chief first appeared at the head of 60 warriors, face painted red and wearing a thick necklace of white beads, the sign of his authority.” This account makes no mention of clothes, but it’s safe to assume the Wampanoag were wearing suits of deerskin for their visit to the Pilgrims in March and again for the feast that would become one of America's most loved traditions.
Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag and his entourage are greeted by a Pilgrim.
Image of "The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" by Jennie A. Brownscombe
courtesy of Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth.
If you are interested in 17th century clothing, you might be interested in the museum's current temporary exhibition “What’s Under things? Hidden Colonial Clothing featuring a number of rare survivors of 17th century undergarments. For information, visit http://www.pilgrimhall.org/f_thanks.htm