Notes on collections at the RIHS
At an event commemorating the 235th anniversary of the Fall of Fort Lee in New Jersey, I watched the re-enactors’ children playing, dressed in period style, and was reminded of children’s struggles with clothing in multiple centuries. The Rhode Island Historical Society is fortunate to own children’s clothing from the 18th and 19thcenturies, including this boy’s jacket (1959.6.1) worn by William Batter of Scituate, Rhode Island around 1762.
Wiliam Battey (1759-1842) was the son of John and Priscilla Battey, Quakers who owned a large farm in South Scituate. William grew up to own and manage a tavern on the main road that connected New York, Providence, and Boston; in 1797, he expanded the tavern and added a sign advertising “Entertainment by William Battey.” Lafayette was supposed to have stopped, and spent the night, at Battey’s tavern, and indeed a Battey child was named Lafayette in honor of the general.
The cut of the coat or frock, with narrow sleeves and proportionally deep cuffs, follows men’s styles of the time, as seen in the Society’s ca.1755 portrait of Thomas Cranston by Joseph Blackburn (1948.1.1).
Still, the jacket is made of washable linen, and the length and fullness of the skirt suggests that this is more likely a linen frock worn before Battey was breeched, rather than a miniature frock coat. Breeching, or moving a boy from skirted garments to breeches and coats, typically took place between the ages of three and seven, and this frock have been saved to commemorate that event.
By the middle of the 18th century, children’s clothes had grown less restrictive and more conducive to movement, play, and washing, than earlier garments had been. We can imagine a very young boy running around a farmhouse in Scituate in this frock, skirts flying; the stylish back is cut to take advantage of the stripes in forming a chevron, and the overall effect is graphically striking. Other frocks from this time are striped, and examples exist at Williamsburg of very similar, though made of finer fabric, garments.
By the end of the century, many young boys were wearing small breeches or trousers and coats, or short jackets with button-on trousers, rather than frocks. We are lucky indeed to have this garment to help us understand the daily life of the past.