Lost in the folds of a shawl

Part of my job as a costume consultant for this project is to review the metadata for each item and make sure that the title, description and date are as accurate as I know how to make them. A week ago I sat down at my desk with the best of intentions, determined to work through a great pile of images and get them all done. Unfortunately, I had reached only the third one when I was led wildly astray.

The shawl that proved my undoing is a long and narrow stole-like garment, about 13” wide by 78” long that is preserved in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. The ends are patterned with five rows of “botehs,” the floral tear-drop shape we now commonly call “paisleys.” This shawl was made in Europe between about 1805 and 1825 to imitate the designs of shawls made in India and Kashmir, which were highly fashionable in the early 19th century.

What makes this shawl particularly interesting is that with its black ground and gray botehs it was probably designed to be worn by someone in mourning. Not that all black shawls are mourning shawls—a black ground can simply be a fashion color against which the brightly-woven borders stand out in strong contrast. But in this case, the patterned ends are not highly-colored. The little squat botehs are carried out only in shades of gray, one slightly pinkish and another slightly bluish, but all basically gray.

The donor’s name was given in the museum records as a Dr. Hardy Phippen. We know the approximate date of the shawl, and we are almost certain it is a mourning shawl, and therefore it is probably associated with a family death. With those clues, could I possibly trace his family back to a plausible owner?

And that is how I got hooked.

Many hours later, the better part of the day lost in a trance of internet research, I had an answer. Of course I cannot be sure it is the truth, but it is plausible, and it goes like this.
As anyone who works in a museum costume collection knows, most garments descend through a maternal line. Clothing and needlework were often the best ways to remember mothers and grandmothers who may have left little other record. Indeed, our museum costume and textile collections are the record of America women for periods when the men dominated the public sphere. So I was prepared to look back from mother to grandmother to great-grandmother.

The donor of the shawl, Dr. Hardy Phippen, was from a Salem family. He was born in 1862 and never married, so there was no wife to be traced. That meant I had only one or two generations left to investigate.

Thanks to the resources now on the internet, I found that Dr. Hardy’s father was Joshua Phippen (1812-1890). Joshua had two wives, Betsey Barr Holman and Eunice Louise Daniels. Neither of these women were old enough to have worn the shawl but their mothers might have been.

Betsey Barr Holman’s mother was also named Betsey Barr. This earlier Betsey was born in 1786, married Jonathan Holman in 1815 and died in 1827. The Essex Institute has a rare early Kashmir shawl marked “Betsey Barr Salem” that must have belonged to this Betsey, so it is quite possible that she also owned the mourning shawl. However, I have not as yet found a family death in the period I believe is most likely based on the style of the shawl (1815-1820).

After Betsey Holman Phippen died in 1856, her husband married Eunice Louis Daniels, who in 1862 became the mother of the shawl’s donor. Eunice herself was born too late to wear this shawl, and her family was from S Danvers and before that from Maine. I was not successful in tracing Eunice Daniels’ line, but the more tenuous connection with Salem makes it seem somewhat less likely, especially in light of other information about the Phippens.

Joshua of the two wives (Betsey and Eunice) had a brother, George Dean Phippen, who was the first librarian and last surviving founding member of the Essex Institute, which later merged with the Peabody Museum to become the Peabody Essex Museum. This suggests a strong family connection on the Phippen side with the receiving museum, and makes it very likely that Phippen family items would be given there.

So I moved on to the next earlier generation.

The father of Joshua and George Dean Phippen was Hardy Phippen, a sea captain (1778-1868). Captain Phippen was a man of standing in Salem, being the master and/or part owner of several vessels trading out of Salem, and at one point Chief Inspector at the Customs House. He sailed with the father of Nathaniel Hawthorne and with Nathaniel Bowditch when Bowditch was preparing his great book of navigation. Captain Hardy Phippen’s wife was Ursula Symonds (1775-1859), and she is another strong candidate as owner of the mourning shawl.

The interesting fact about Captain Hardy and Ursula Symonds Phippen is that their parents were married to each other. Captain Hardy’s father (another Joshua) and Ursula Symonds’ mother (another Ursula) had both been widowed, and they married each other in 1801, bringing their grown children into a single family. Hardy and Ursula, brother and sister by virtue of their parents’ marriage, then married each other in 1804 bringing the Phippen and Symonds families together again in the second generation.

In December 1818, the elder Ursula Phippen died at the age of 70. It is quite plausible that her daughter and son-in-law would have bought a mourning shawl to mark the death of the woman who had been “mother” to both of them, and the date is perfect for the shawl.
Why this date is so persuasive will have to be the subject of another blog entry, since I have now wasted the better part of the afternoon writing this one (and just trying to sort out maybe one more detail), with the result that I have a hungry husband and that same pile of images to catalog before I sleep. I’ll add pictures as soon as I figure out how. Next week!

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