The Maine Historical Society is perhaps not the place you would expect to find contortionist costumes from the Vaudeville circuit of the late 1800’s, but is in fact the place you will find just such a collection.
In the early part of the 20th century, a mid-semester visit home from college, even for an important holiday, may have been out of the question for many students. Transportation options were fewer, and the cost could be prohibitive for families already struggling to pay school fees.
So what to do for the students who remained on campus? At Farmington State Normal School–now the University of Maine, Farmington–it was a yearly tradition for students unable to go home for the Thanksgiving holiday to dress up as children and have a party.
Read much more about the early days of UMF–which celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2014–in this exhibit from university staff and students, We Used to Be “Normal”: A History of Farmington State Normal School.
“A gold-tipped cane, and some amethyst jewelry
Dressing up, standing out, fitting in, that’s our style…”
Last Tuesday, more than 250 students and families gathered at Maine Historical Society to celebrate the close of the fall 2011 session of “Local History, Local Schools.” Approximately 150 3rd graders from the Reiche and Lyseth schools in Portland participated in the three month partnership, which included two classroom visits from museum educators and a trip to Maine Historical Society to see the exhibit “Dress Up, Standing Out, Fitting In: Adornment and Identity in Maine 1750-1950.”
The celebration offers students a chance to show off to their parents an impressive wealth of knowledge about heirloom jewelry, masquerades, and a variety of formal wear over the past two centuries in Maine.
But perhaps most importantly, each student created a primary document that could be used by future historians as evidence of what Maine 3rd graders wore in 2011. Many students wrote about formal occasions and rites of passage, including weddings, confirmations, graduations, funerals and holidays. Others wrote about favorite t-shirts, wool hats and aprons handed down through the family. Each project featured a photograph or drawing of the item of clothing and a personal narrative explaining the object’s signifiance. Here are some excerpts from the students’ writing:
“My brother, cousin and I were taking pictures outside on a summer day. I am wearing a t-shirt that has gray and red stripes. I am wearing new jeans that are blue. I am wearing shoes that are Nikes. I am fitting in with my cousins because we have the same t-shirts. I’m in my neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee. The sun was very hot and bright, too. My mom told us ot sit on the car because she wanted memories in her book of memories. I fit in with the whole neighborhood because we are all wearing t-shirts.” (Nassir Omar)
“One day when I was leaving my grandparents house, Nana said ‘Come here before you leave.’ I wondered why she said come here. So Nana stuck our her hand and took off her ring. She said ‘I want to give you this ring because I gave one to your sister, too.’ The ring was silver and said Love, Dream, Believe. I was so happy I was about to cry tears, happy tears. I never, never take it off, not even when I’m sleeping because it means so much to me.” (Jalelee Saint-Paulin)
“I like to look handsome. I am wearing a black, pink, and blue tie. I am wearing a button-up, long-sleeve shirt and I have a black belt. I am thinking, ‘I am never taking this off!!’ And I like my smile. I wore this outfit to a church. I went to a funeral with my best clothes. I always ask my mom to wear my best clothes. My family thinks I look cute. My clothes and I lived happily ever after.” (Nathan Kerr–who wore the clothes he describes to the celebration!)
The student projects are currently on display in the Showcase Gallery and will be up until the spring.
In addition to the projects, the highlight of the celebration was a musical performance in masquerade by the Lyseth classes. With the help of music teacher Mr. Fen, students sang a version of Marty Robbins’ 1957 hit “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)” with new lyrics based on the “Dressing Up” exhibit. See the video of the kids singing on our Facebook page.
A special thanks to Lyseth teachers Sheila Hayward, Barbara Judge, Pat Ripley and Margaret Slocumb, and Reiche teachers Selene Becker, Maryann Foley and Kristen Fox.
(Editor’s Note: And another special thanks to MHS Education Assistant Rachel Miller for writing this post!)
Our current museum exhibit–Dressing Up, Standing Out, Fitting In: Adornment & Identity in Maine, 1750-1950–is a big hit. After all, who wouldn’t get a kick out of seeing some of the Maine-related clothing, costumes, uniforms, jewels, hats, and the other accessories and accoutrements that have expressed what it means to look one’s best over the past couple of centuries?
The actual artifacts are complemented by a variety of images showing “dressed up” Mainers of the distant (and not so distant) past. These portraits and photographs really grabbed the attention of photographer Heather Frederick of Vox Photographs. Especially interested in vintage photos, Heather raves about the images presented in the show in a recent VoxPhotographs blog post. Some of the items that caught her fancy: a painted portrait of Passamaquody Indian, a colored ambrotype of a firefighter, six miniature tintypes in a tiny locket.
Knowing that Dressing Up’s array of images is but the tip of the Maine Historical Society photo archives iceberg, she ends her post with a wish: “Please: lock me into the photo archives at MHS for a year! My definition of heaven.”
You have plenty of time to catch the exhibit (but don’t put it off!). Dressing Up runs through May 27, 2012.