Monday, October 14, 2013

Matrilineal Monday - A Colonial Dress Code

A few times I have come across court records stating a female ancestor was hauled into court for wearing silk or lace so I knew there was some law in Massachusetts that restricted what certain women were allowed to wear. I have listed my connections below. I found that a sumptuary law was passed in Massachusetts in 1651. According to, such laws can be found as far back in history as ancient Greece and Rome. In fact, I had heard of them, i.e. the restriction of purple cloth to royalty, but I didn't know what they were called or that these laws extended to other time periods. The purpose of the laws throughout history seems to be linked to the fear that excessive spending was morally wrong and flaunting one's wealth could be morally corrupting. It may have also been used to force the average person to buy locally and thereby enrich the local economy. 

The full text of the Massachusetts law can be found here. The gist of it is that the Puritan leaders were upset by the "intolerable excess...especially among people of mean condition." They decided to make issue a reminder to be "sober and moderate" and express their "utter detestation and dislike that men and women of mean condition should take upon them the garb gentlemen by wearing gold or silver lace, or buttons, or points at their knees, or to walk in great boots; or women of the same rank to wear silk or tiffany hoods, or scarves which, though allowable to persons of greater estates or more liberal education, we cannot but judge it intolerable..." 

The standard of wealth sufficient to be allowed to wear such finery?  An estate valued at or above £200.  Today, that would be about $304 using a direct exchange rate but Economic Heritage has a series of interesting calculators. Perhaps the simplest is the real value of commodities which gives a modern equivalent of £23,200 or $35374. 

Who got to be the fashion police? The selectmen of the town were "required" to "take notice of the apparel of the inhabitants.." and "whosoever they shall judge to exceed their ranks and abilities in costliness or fashion of their apparel in any respect, expecially in the wearing of ribbons or great boots (leather being so scarce a commodity in this country) lace, points, etc..." 

And the icing on the cake? 
"...this law shall not extend to the restraint of any magistrate or public officer of this jurisdiction, their wives and children, who are left to their discretion in wearing of apparel, or any settled militia officer or soldier in the time of military service, or any other whose education and employment have been above the ordinary degree, or whose estate have been considerable, though now decayed." 

So when you go to get dressed today, remember...

From Ancestral Lines From Maine to Virginia, by Carl Boyer, page 132:
"Nicholas Noyes' wife, Hugh March's wife, and William Chandler's wife were each presented for wearing a silk hood and scarf; but were discharged on proof that their husbands were worth two hundred pounds each. John Hutchins' wife was also discharged upon testifying that she was brought up above the ordinary rank."

Nicholas Noyes' wife, Mary Cutting, is my 11th great-grandmother.
Hugh March's wife, Judith is my 8th great-grandmother

While I have a William Chandler in my line, this refers to Mary (Fowler) Chandler and I am not related to her.
Frances Alcock was the wife of John Hutchins. She was later accused and arrested during the Salem Witchcraft hysteria and released on bond as the hysteria was dying down in December 1692. The use of spectral evidence had been ruled inadmissible and in January 1693, 49 of the 52 surviving prisoners were released. Love, the daughter of John & Frances, married my 9th great-granduncle, Capt. Samuel Sherborn.

Noyes Line:
Nicholas & Mary (Cutting) Noyes
Peter & Hannah (Noyes) Cheney
John & Mary (Chute) Cheney
Edmund & Mary (Plummer) Cheney
Edmund & Susanna (Middleton) Cheney
Stephen & Mehitable (Cheney) Blaisdell
William & Susannah (Blaisdell) Rowe
Stephen & Elizabeth (Hilton) Rowe
Charles & Loann (Churchill) Rowe
George & Anna (Rowe) Hayes
Estes & Eva (Hayes) Yates
Linona Alice Yates - my grandmother

March Line:
Hugh & Judith March
George & Mary (Folsom) March
Humphrey & Sarah (March) Deering
Ebenezer & Elizabeth (Deering) Emmons
Eliakim & Molly (Wildes) Emmons
Jacob & Sarah (Shepard) Emmons
Gilbert & Laura (Emmons) Yates
Estes & Eva (Hayes) Yates - see above

Sherburne/Sherborn Connections: Sisters of Capt. Samuel, who married Love Hutchins
Elizabeth (Sherburne) Langdon - 10th great-grandmother traces to Fern Lyndell Cotton - my grandmother
Ruth (Sherburne) Moses - 9th great-grandmother traces to Linona Alice Yates

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