Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Eureka Moments # 2, I Was There, I Bought the Shirt to Prove It.

     This post is pretty straight forward so I can spare the reader from a long winded build-up.  Okay.....maybe just a little explanation might help set the stage, so here goes.  It's such an everday thing, to see T shirts or any other apparel, emblazoned with some design, logo or event commemoration, that it's easy to asssume it's a modern or at least, recent concept. I mean, if you go to the concert, you just have to buy a T, right ?  Could such a notion have existed in the California Gold Rush ?  Really ??  Well, let's check it out. Read on.

 Catalog of the Exhibit at the
Oakland Museum 1998
A Bible for Historians
     This tale goes back to around 1996 when a friend of mine, John McWilliams, met with me in Columbia. John is a well respected Daguerreotype collector and a Western Americana expert. He had brought a binder of pictures to show me. I was excited to discover the binder was full of amazing early Gold Rush images, copies of original Daguerreotypes that John and friends owned. John told me that some were to be featured in a future exhibit at the Oakland Museum. The museum would be commemorating the sesquicentennial of the discovery of gold and the exhibit, entitled Silver & Gold, would showcase some of the rarest cased images of the Gold Rush ever assembled. There was also to be a published catalog of the exhibit under the same name. As I flipped through John's binder one of the pictures just blew me away. It was a portrait of a miner wearing a classic miner's overshirt with a twist. This shirt was covered with the repeat printed design of a Pick and Shovel motif and  a Miner standing with a shovel. I couldn't believe my eyes. This image was so compelling that I talked John into giving me a copy if I promised not to show it around until after the exhibit opened.

One of the Shirted Miners
Collection of Matthew R. Isenburg
Image Courtesty of The Daguerreian Society
Close-up of Same Image
Courtesy of
Matthew R. Isenburg
     Granted, it took me a few years to get around to it but as you might expect by now, I eventually had to make a copy of this amazing shirt. More evidence has come to light since '96 and I believe at this time, 5 different pictures have surfaced of miners wearing the same print,  but not the same shirt. I have seen 3 versions myself.  Some skeptics might think it was a mere photographer's prop, but it wasn't, they are different shirts. I'm no fabric historian but the photographic evidence suggests the shirt's designs might have been  resist printed because they are so bold. The fabric itself was most likely wool but that's only an assumption, as no original shirts have surfaced for study and none are likely to. I'm still hopeful that a tiny scrap of the fabric may have landed in a quilt somewhere for me to study. So far no luck.

My Version
Note the Print Direction
Rear View
     The best I could hope for was to create an "impression" of the original . Maybe someday I will reach the level of sophistication to attempt a resist printed version, or more information will be discovered as to how they were actually done. To jumpstart the project, my wife provided me with a nice piece of red wool flannel. After I scaled out the designs and their repeat pattern, I used a small, hand-held silk screen to print the motifs in a white fabric ink. Quirky as it seems, whomever made the original shirts sometimes chose to run the print upside-down on the front, when they assembled the sections of the garment. During this time period, some shirts were made with a single piece of fabric running from the back, over the shoulder, to the front. This is what I interpreted in my recreation.  In the original version I copied, the plastron front piece contrasts by having the print right side-up, thereby reading correctly to the viewer. I love stuff like this, it's not what you would expect at all. Apparently it just didn't matter. All in all, I think the shirt turned out well and captures the fun and spirit of the original. So, now I have the shirt but I was only "there" in my imagination.

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