Artifact Corner: 1830s Wool Cape

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a beautiful Scottish wool cape from 1833. This cape was purchased by Henry Livingston Webb for his wife Frances Henrietta Delord Webb on their honeymoon. After they were married in our gold parlor room, they went on over a year long honeymoon in Europe. One their way home, they were in England waiting for the boat that would bring them back across the Atlantic to America. During their time in England, Henry needed to go to Scotland for business, and his wife decided to stay behind in England. While he was in Scotland, he bought her this stunning wool cape, and he bought himself a matching wool great coat. This cape is a vibrant shade of red with green, white and yellow stripes. Let’s learn a bit more about plaid or what the Scottish would call a tartan.

So, what is a tartan? According to the Scottish Tartans Museum and Heritage Center, a tartan is “the pattern of interlocking stripes called a tartan is often mistakenly known as “plaid.” Plaide actually comes from the Gaelic word for a blanket, and is specifically used in the context of Highland dress to refer to a large length of material.  The original kilt was known as the “belted plaid” and consisted of a length of cloth (basically a large blanket) that was gathered and belted at the waist. The plaids were most often made from a tartan cloth, and so the confusion between the two terms is understandable.” Tartan or plaid fabric is now very closely associated with Scotland, but it has been used as a pattern by peoples around the world for many millennia. According to the textile historian E. J. W. Barber, the Hallstatt culture of Central Europe, which is linked with ancient Celtic populations and flourished between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, produced tartan-like textiles. Some of them were discovered in 2004, remarkably preserved, in the Hallstatt salt mines near Salzburg, Austria. Also, textile analysis of fabric from the Tarim mummies in Xinjiang, northwestern China has shown it to be similar to that of the Iron Age Hallstatt culture. Clearly this pattern has appealed to people for a very long time.

The more modern tartans that we see today did not exist in Scotland until the 16th Century. So all of the scenes of Scottish men running around in tartan kilts that you saw in the movie Braveheart, totally historically inaccurate. Sorry. For many centuries the patterns were loosely associated with the weavers of a particular area. In the 16th and 17th centuries, tartan was exported from the Highlands to the south at prices fixed in order to prevent overcharging, the prices being determined by the number and shades of color in the cloth. After the battle of Culloden, tartan fabric faced its greatest threat. An Act of Parliament was passed which made the carrying of weapons and the wearing of tartan a criminal offense. This was so strictly enforced that by the 1780’s, most weavers had given up making tartan fabric altogether. In the 1820’s it saw a revival, and has been going strong ever since.

Our cape is from shortly after the revival of tartan cloth, which is an interesting tidbit of its history. The wool itself is in fantastic condition. Wool is a pretty sturdy fabric, and holds up well, even though it’s almost two hundred years old. The silk lining at the collar and the silk draw strings on the other hand have seen better days. Silk is far more fragile, and therefore, this is not surprising. Overall, this piece is in pretty great condition, and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,