‘Children of Deerfield’ Exhibit with 19th-century photos, ‘skeleton suit’ opens at Memorial Hall this weekend

Exhibit with 19th-century photos, ‘skeleton suit’ opens at Memorial Hall this weekend

  • Suzanne Flynt with skeleton suit at Memorial Hall Museum in Old Deerfield. RECORDER STAFF/PAUL FRANZ

  • Historic photo of boy wearing skeleton suit. RECORDER STAFF/PAUL FRANZ

  • Detail of repaired damage to pants of skeleton suit. RECORDER STAFF/PAUL FRANS

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/6/2016 10:09:15 PM

DEERFIELD — Moms have a reputation for holding onto keepsakes.

The same apparently was true in the 18th century.

A little suit was purchased for William Baker, born in 1787 in Conway, when he was 5 years old, and his family was sentimental enough to take care of it and preserve it so that in 1884, the suit was donated by Baker’s daughter-in-law to Memorial Hall Museum.

It was later loaned to sisters Frances Stebbins Allen and Mary Electa Allen, who recruited their nephew Carl to model it as part of a collection of photographs featuring local children.

That photograph and the actual suit young Carl wears will be part of a photographic exhibit called “Children of Deerfield: Photographs by Frances and Mary Allen,” which opens at Memorial Hall Museum this weekend. In honor of Mother’s Day, all mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers will be admitted for free on Sunday. The museum is open weekends only in May, from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults and $3 for children and students ages 6 to 21, according to the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association.

Museum Curator Suzanne L. Flynt said a photograph from the 19th century is quite rare. Having the clothing worn in that photograph is even more unlikely.

“So all the stars aligned so that the museum happened to have this incredibly rare boy’s 18th-century suit, and it was photographed by the Allen sisters,” Flynt said.

The photograph, titled “Old Fashioned Boy,” was reproduced in Alice Morse Earle’s “Home Life in Colonial Days” in 1899.

The suit, called a “skeleton suit” due to its tightness, was partially restored by textile conservator Meg Baker, of Greenfield, who is unsure if she has any ancestral connection to the Baker boy who originally wore it. She works on occasional conservation projects for the museum and said the suit, which is 28 inches tall and had been conserved around 1900, required 40 hours of work. She said the suit’s pattern of leaves and honeycomb helped conceal her work.

“One of the reasons that make this suit so remarkable is that ... most of the time, ones that we see preserved are silk or velvet or very fancy. And this is really like saving your child’s first playclothes that they outgrew,” she said. This suit is made of printed cotton, a less sophisticated fabric. “Thankfully, someone however long ago had done some degree of conservation work on it, so when it came to us, when it came here, we could improve on that.

“So, one of the first things I had to do was remove all of the earlier work … and then I lined everything with either a sheer silk or cotton,” Meg Baker continued. “Basically, I made chaps that fit inside.”

Baker said the visible brown patch on the right leg had been a black patch when she started. She said the material is delicate and fragile and she had to place acid-free boards inside while she stitched. She also used a high-powered, lighted magnifying lens.

Flynt said the suit was originally intended for everyday use.

“Children in the 18th century were expected to be miniature adults. They were supposed to act with decorum. Even little girls sometimes had to wear corsets,” she said. “So … (William Baker) wouldn’t have been like a little boy today, going out and playing rough-and-tumble in it. He would have worn it inside for some sort of supervised family interaction.”

She said “Old Fashioned Boy” and other photographs were donated by the Allen sisters’ grandnieces last year.

You can reach Domenic Poli:
dpoli@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 257.
On Twitter, @DomenicPoli




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