Sunday, November 18, 2012

The first Thanksgiving at Plymouth

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 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.

Putting the pieces together, we realize Pilgrim clothes were not as drab as myth would have us think. 1621 was the early Baroque period when the Cavalier style was all the rage. Although the flamboyant colors and extravagant details of high society fashion would have been somewhat toned down by Middle Class and Puritan conservatism, Pilgrim attire would have conformed to the style of the day by and large. Women’s dresses would have had shaped bodices and flowing skirts over petticoats. Men would have worn short, fitted jackets called doublets and breeches or pantaloons which ended below the knee. The rest of the leg would have been covered only by hose, except when the knee-high bucket top boots of the day were worn. Both men and women wore the popular falling ruff, a wide circular collar that fell on the shoulders and opened in a V.

As I imagine the assembly of Pilgrims for that first Thanksgiving, I see men in beaver hats with cocked brims sitting around a long table. There is a man wearing a red waistcoat, which stands out in contrast to the otherwise subdued colors worn by the group. Another has a violet velvet cloak lined with taffeta draped over his shoulders. Peeking out from beneath the skirt of the woman sitting next to him is a pair of lace-trimmed, pointed slippers that match her embroidered cap. Across the table from her, another woman wears a dress with a white ruff and sleeves with wide cuffs. She, like many women in the group, wears an apron. Although they are hidden from view, her stockings are held with garters, which unlike ours today, are long, wide ribbons wrapped several times around her upper calves before being tied securely in a bow.

On the right we see what the Pilgrims likely wore. But how did Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag and his entourage of ninety men dress 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.

Image of "The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" by Jennie A. Brownscombe courtesy of Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth.