Answer Man: How did the Pilgrims really dress?

News-DemocratNovember 27, 2013 

Q. As usual, I've seen several cartoons in the past few days depicting the Pilgrims in their traditional black/gray-and-white formal clothing that includes the buckled top hats, the buckled shoes and prominent buckle on their suits. One cartoonist even joked about a Pilgrim asking whether his buckles lined up properly. What can you tell me about the origin of this clothing style?

-- W.M., of Fairview Heights

A. I can tell you this: Those cartoonists ought to buckle down and learn some history, because the typical Pilgrim most of us continue to envision bears no resemblance to the people who started to settle the Plymouth Colony in 1620.

Not that I have much room to talk because I, too, have been indoctrinated into seeing those drab suits with the large white collars and cuffs, the blunderbusses and all those shiny buckles every time I hear the word "Pilgrim." Turns out that's about as accurate as the zippers on Susannah Dickinson's dresses in the 1960 version of "The Alamo." (Modern zippers weren't invented until the 1900s.)

The trouble is that few paintings or drawings seem to exist of what the Pilgrims really looked like. Instead, those depictions first started to be made in the late 1600s, so, naturally, the artists used the style of their day to dress their subjects, which then carried over into the 18th and 19th centuries. But for the pilgrims themselves, there were no stiff suits, trapezoidal hats or gold buckles, which were too expensive and not even in fashion, according to Caleb Johnson, who tries to set the record straight at www.mayflowerhistory.com.

Instead, he says, the Puritans were actually a colorful bunch, a fact known because estates were meticulously recorded before going through probate after a death. So, for example, when Mary Ring died in Plymouth in 1633, she was found to have a "mingled-color" waistcoat, two violet waistcoats, three blue aprons, a red petticoat and blue and white stockings.

Church elder William Brewster, who died in 1644, owned green pants, a red cap, a violet coat and a blue suit. And, Gov. William Bradford, who died in 1657, owned a green gown, violet cloak and a red waistcoat.

In general, Johnson says, a woman's dress or gown consisted of a bodice and ankle-length skirt, both often made of wool and of the same or even different colors. Sleeves were often separate and tied to the bodice. A long-sleeve waistcoat was often worn over the top. Occasionally, women might wear a lace collar and cuffs as well as a cloak. Their hair was always pulled tightly back and worn under a coif or hat.

Men usually wore a short-sleeve off-white linen shirt with collar under a doublet, which was relatively close-fitting with long sleeves and broad padded shoulders. A cloak was sometimes draped across the shoulders as well as a lace collar and cuffs. Baggy, knee-length breeches were worn to meet woolen, knee-length stockings held up by ribbons (garters). Shoes were either high-topped boots with turnovers or low-heeled, round-toed shoes, often secured by a ribbon or thong, not buckles. It was all topped by a felt or knit cap -- anything but the cartoon variety, which came decades later.

Q. Is there anything significant about the name of the boat the Pilgrims sailed on, the Mayflower? -- S.D., of Belleville

A. Other than that it seemed to be a popular name for boats back then, not really. Also known as the hawthorn, the mayflower is a popular ornamental shrub or tree in England so it was only natural that owners would name their boats for things of beauty. Experts think the ship even may have had a mayflower carved on its stern.

You have to remember that the ship had been built long before it made its perilous journey across the Atlantic in 1620. Its actual origins are uncertain, but in 1607 it was purchased by Christopher Jones, who led its first recorded voyage, a trading mission to Norway. Unfortunately, on the return trip, the ship encountered a severe storm that forced the crew to dump its cargo overboard to save themselves.

After that, the ship, which could carry about 180 tons of freight, made numerous voyages to France, Spain and elsewhere. Finally, in May 1620, Jones was hired to take the Pilgrims to northern Virginia. Storms, however, forced them off course and they wound up 66 long days later in Massachusetts.

The ship returned to England the following spring and made a few more trading runs, but by then both Jones and the ship were in sad shape. Jones died a few months later, and when the ship went through probate in 1624, it was described as being "in ruins" and valued at just 128 pounds sterling. The historic ship "was almost certainly broken up and sold off as scrap," according to Caleb Johnson at www.mayflowerhistory.com.

To see a replica, visit the Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Mass.

Today's trivia

Who was the heaviest Miss America? The lightest?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: In the 1530s, Puritans in England wanted to eliminate the all of the many church holidays, including Christmas and Easter. Instead, they replaced them with Days of Fasting to observe unexpected disasters and Days of Thanksgiving to celebrate special blessings from God. They carried the tradition to the New World.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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