Milliners stood at the hub of a global trade in everything from handkerchiefs to pocket pistols, purveyors of a thousand fashionable items. The Margaret Hunter shop marks 60 years of interpreting the milliner’s trade.
Apprentice milliner and mantua maker Abby Cox shares the history of the little shop on Duke of Gloucester Street.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Colonial Williamsburg’s Revolutionary City is history brought to life in every detail. For 60 years, the Margaret Hunter Shop has been bringing some of the smallest of those details into being as they stitch extraordinary garments of revolutionary dress. Abby Cox is our guest today as we look back on 6 decades at the millenary shop. Abby, thank you for being here today.
Abby Cox: Hi, thanks for having me.
Harmony: Well this is a big anniversary; 60 years of millenary. Where does the Margaret Hunter Shop begin? How is it manifested in the early days of Colonial Williamsburg?
Abby: Well, it’s one of our original buildings actually. So when this whole idea of Colonial Williamsburg started to come about, the Margaret Hunter millenary shop was actually a car repair store. And so they had to do a little bit of work. Over time, the idea of having the millenary shop kind of came into being.
It had been the Silversmith’s beforehand, but another interpretive site as well. And then when they started doing the research and realized what it was, that’s when they decided to go ahead and turn it into the millenary shop. So that’s the kind of early stages of it all. When they decided to move forward with the millenary shop idea, it actually was going to be both an interpretive site and also a retail store.
So what happened was, they started our costume collection for the millenary shop. So pieces today that are iconic imagery of our extensive 18th century costume collection were actually originally purchased to be on display in the Margaret Hunter Millenary Shop. We couldn’t handle them, but they were on display which is really funny nowadays, because a lot of guests come in and ask us, “Oh, is this real, oh is this from the 18th century?” And we make reproductions.
But it’s kind of one these little inside jokes where it’s like, “Oh, if you had been here 50, 60 years ago, the answer actually would have been yes.” You could see these original pieces behind glass on display. But if you ever see those old images of the shop from the 1950s and early ‘60s, those garments hanging in the back are actually from the 18th century so our costume collection actually got started from that idea.
Harmony: That is remarkable to think of, because if you see 18th century antique garments now in the museums they would carefully protected from climate, from light and preserved. So how funny to think they started out as displays in the shop.
Abby: I know. It’s totally different, and that’s actually a benefit for us as well because we’re one of the few interpretive sites that also has air conditioning nowadays, and that was because of the pieces in there to help with climate control. So we’re always happy in the summer months. We’re always very comfortable in the summer, which I don’t complain about. Very happy about that.
Harmony: So 60 years ago, it was one of the first interpretive sites. And I think it’s probably got to be, like, clothing is probably at the core of what people think of when they think about the 18th century. It’s so integral to imagining that life and that time. How does the shop change over time? It starts out you said as an exhibition site and as a working trade shop. How does it morph into what it is…
Abby: It’s a retail shop.
Harmony: Oh, retail!
Abby: We actually…my mistress actually really worked hard to bring forward the idea that what we do is actually a trade. Because traditionally, the idea is that milliners are simply shopkeepers. So my mistress, Janae Whitaker, she actually and the other woman she worked with really began to push forward this idea that women worked in the 18th century and our trades were trades and clothing wasn’t made in the home. Clothing was a business, and millenary was a booming business and a good trade to be in for women.
So over time we’ve been able to grow and learn more about our trade and women in the 18the century and all of this really interesting social history and as well as material cultural history as well. So, yeah, we originally sold, like, feathers and hats and perfume and soap. Now we actually make those things too, except soap. We don’t make soap.
Harmony: How wonderful to think though there’s almost two stories there. There’s the 18th century history of the millenary, but there’s also sort of the 21st century history of how we present history. It’s some nice layers there.
Abby: Yeah, it’s a very multifaceted place to work.
Harmony: We should talk about the millenary shop, just in general terms in the 18th century. Who are they making clothing for? What are they doing there?
Abby: The millenary shop, honestly, is for everybody: young, old, rich, poor, free, enslaved, male and female. It doesn’t matter. Everyone needs pieces to live a happy lifestyle, to live a comfortable lifestyle. People are interested in being fashionable, just like today. You know, buying electronic gadgets and computers, and the latest outfit, the latest pair of shoes, the latest bag. We as a society are very into consumerism. We like to shop. We like to have those things. We like the process of that, and it’s the same in the 18th century as well.
So whether we are making things custom for the visitor or the customer, whether it’s a new cap for the lady or a new hat or maybe the gentleman will come in to get a new wig bag or a stock or a cravat. We also would be selling readymade products imported directly from England like tea and snuff and more obscure things like pocket pistols and birdcages and tea tables and tea pots and tea sets. So as a millenary shop, quite literally, we sell a thousand different things. The word there is “mille” like millennium or millipede; it’s a thousand.
And so we sell a thousand different things, but makes us unique from say a general merchant warehouse is, everything is fashionable. So it’s something everybody wants to have. And of course there’s always these different facets to millenary trade.
There’s milliners who go off to work for private ladies and like the aristocracy situation as like a lady’s maid. So you’ll see advertisements for women looking to hire a milliner/mantua maker and hair dresser all in one to be a private lady’s maid for a woman of high status. And that’s a really good position to be in because you have the one person. All you have to do is just make beautiful things for that woman to wear. So there’s different aspects.
And women can work out of their homes and still do a good business for themselves. Margaret Hunter’s sister actually, Jane, she did that. She lived right across the street in the Charlton House, and she ran her own millenary business out of the back of her home.
Harmony: And Margaret Hunter you’re referencing is, of course, the Margaret Hunter who the shop is named for, who was an 18th century figure, the proprietress of that shop.
Abby: Yes. And she and her sister were in the business together until her sister got married and then they separated the business so Margaret could, what we believe is, Margaret could stay her own business woman independent from any brother-in-law or anything like that.
Harmony: That’s wonderful to have so much authentic history about that shop and to be carrying it on. What have been some of the landmark developments in the Margaret Hunter Shop over its 60-year history? As you’re at this point that you’re looking back over 60 years what are some of the big points that you see that are big changes, big steps forward for the shop?
Abby: Our interpretations have evolved over time so when we use to interpret things like the fan language or fashion babies and things like that we’ve now moved away so…
Harmony: What is a fashion baby?
Abby: The idea is, and in some places they seem to have existed, but a lot of people have read and had this idea that the way we communicated fashion in the 18th century -- at least in the time period we interpret-- which is the mid to late 1770s and very early ‘80s, is that they would send dolls over who are dressed in the latest fashions. And that wasn’t going on in our time, but we actually as a shop would interpret that earlier in our interpretive experience and they also interpreted earlier as well so they’re talking about the 1740s and ‘50s.
Harmony: So that’s something that you’ve now realized is not entirely appropriate to the time period.
Abby: Yeah, and but what’s wonderful is that we still have people who come back and remember that. And so they’ll ask us, or they’ll ask us about the fan language. And for me as a fairly new apprentice never been exposed to that interpretation before I’m usually going, “A what?”
Harmony: And fan language would be the way that a lady held her fan to communicate a sort of fan semaphore?
Abby: Yeah, that thing where, you know, if you brush your cheek with the fan it means one thing. Or across your eyes and, you know, hold it a certain way, it does a certain thing. It’s one of those things where, that’s something that’s so wonderful because that’s one of the few things people know about, but it’s a 19th century thing, it’s an earlier 18th century thing.
It’s this kind of nebulous idea that women communicated with their fans. And I always have to laugh to myself, because I’m so not coordinated enough to be able to communicate any sort of secret language using a fan. It’s just so awkward because we’ve practiced it before as a part of our 60th anniversary and I was trying to do it and all I could think of was, “How were these women able to actually do this if this really existed? This is really awkward and I feel really silly right now.”
Harmony: Well it’s a shame it’s not correct to our time period because I can definitely see why people would remember that for years.
Abby: Yeah, it’s something that really sticks out.
Harmony: It’s a fun idea.
Abby: One of the really exciting things that we’ve been doing recently, and one of the big research paramounts is, our former apprentice Brooke Wellbourne who when she as a part of her final project she began to really delve into the idea of something called a polonaise gown. Traditionally in costume history, polonaise gowns were English gowns that had been tied up in the back. And people kept referring to that as a “robe ala polonaise,” because in costume history people also like to use French terminology which is something that we in our shop don’t use since we were an English colony and we spoke English. We chose to use the English terminology.
But Brooke did a lot of research over what a polonaise gown was, what it looked like, how it was constructed, and that actually resulted in her and another woman of the course of several years publishing an article. But she made, what I feel is one of the first accurate robe ala polonaises or polonaise gowns in modern times in our shop as a part of her final project. And so we are really proud of Brooke for the research she has done for that garment and moving forward in the different ideas of clothing and it’s not just 1-2-3, there’s all this variations and so..
Harmony: Over 60 years of the shop’s history, you’ve evolved from being a retail shop that talked a little bit about sewing to now a full-scale sort of research reconstruction shop where you not only interpret the history, but recreate it for people. What a wonderful progression.
Abby: Yeah, it’s really an honor to be a part of. As someone who has studied dress history as a part of my academic background, being able to wear the clothing that we make in that 18th century way, being able to research from our collection these beautiful 18th-century original pieces and then making it as well in front of the public is this wonderful trifecta of experience and education that not only helps us in the millenary shop learn more about what we do, but it creates a really great interpretive experience for our guests as well. Because we can really now engage with them about the nuances of dress in the 18th century, women’s roles in the 18th century and things where, if we weren’t able to do all the things that we did and if the shop wasn’t here, we might be missing out on.
Harmony: So many wonderful layers of history. I feel like a visitor could come and spend the whole day in the millenary shop.
Abby: We’ve had a few, yeah.
Harmony: Just keep learning new things in the millenary shop.
Abby: It’s great. No we love it. That happens every now and then we’ll have a guest, she comes in, usually it’s a she, but sometimes it’s a man, and they come in and they just sit down and they’re interested and they just want to spend time with us and talk to us and pick our brains. We’re more than happy to sit and just talk.
Harmony: Well there really is that much history there and it’s true of all of the trades in the Historic Area so we hope that all of our visitors get a chance to come out and visit the Margaret Hunter Millenary shop in its 60th anniversary year.
Abby, thank you so much for being our guest today.
Abby: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.