Dressing J. Paxton the joiner: using primary documents
The collections team is working feverishly to get ready for the installation of the Southwest outbuilding next week. One of my tasks in all of this is to create a furnishing plan that draws on what we know about Stratford and its residents. In the servants' chamber, we have chosen to highlight the domestic life of the skilled craftsmen who worked here based on archaeology and documentary research. J. Paxton, a joiner, is one of our named residents. From a surviving account book, we know he worked at Stratford, that he borrowed specialty planes from nearby Chantilly plantation, and that he was paid in cash as well as brandy and sugar. But that's about it.
So we have the who, but how do you bring Paxton to life through objects when you have very few clues? Well, I've been using 18th-century runaway advertisements from Virginia newspapers (here and here) as a start. Strange, you may think, but take a look at the entries for indentured joiners* and you get a whole host of details about what joiners like Paxton wore, looked like, how they spoke, or their personality quirks.
"Run away from the subscriber, Robert Robinson, a valuable joiner and carpenter...had on, a fasionable good beaver hat, a fine cloth coat, of a parson's gray color, with hair buttons...light blue worsted (wool) stockings...wears in his sleeves either a pair of black or a pair of oval purple buttons set in yellow metal."
"Run away from the Subscriber...an indented Servant Man named Hugh Rogers,...has light brown straight Hair, is very fond of Liquor, and when drunk is talkative and quarrelsome, but when sober is peaceable and of few Words, by Trade a Carpenter and Joiner, and can saw with the Whip Saw. He had on, when seen upon the Road, a Check Shirt...and a fine Hat about Half worn."
A studied survey of these advertisements left me with a list of clothing and personal articles (as well as some good laughs). Patterns began to emerge that helped illuminate the common dress of joiners working on Virginia plantations in the 18th century. Early next week we'll install reproduction clothing in the chamber, reflecting those findings and ultimately bringing J. Paxton, the joiner, and his companions to light.
*To find indentured joiners in the Colonial Williamsburg database, browse under 'indentured' and then 'joiners' in the list.