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

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Cap by Any Other Name, is Still a Cap, or Further Adventures in Historic Headgear

Two Gents in Their Caps
Image Source Unknown
       In the living history field these days, there seem to be a lot of discussion as to the appropriate terminology for some objects. Since there is no agreed apon, central data-base for all of us to dip into, the choice of terms is left to the more or less discriminating among us. As an example, let's take men's mid-19th Century caps. For years the living history community has called them Wheel Caps or Mechanic's Caps and for better or for worse, both names have become firmly fixed into the common language of the hobby.

      In my research, I've seen Gold Rush California  newspaper ads for "Fremont Caps" and  two reprinted 1850's Rubber Goods Catalogs list "Kit Carson Caps". As a westerner I would love to start using those iconic names to describe a cap but it would probably lead to more confusion. For the sake of simplicity I just like to call them "Caps".

From Plate #19, "Workwoman's Guide"
Fig. 53 shows finished cap,
 Fig. 54 shows pieces you will need for the body outside
and a brim
A Gentleman in His Cap With Its Glazed Cover
Image Source Unknown
     What I like about men's caps is that they are relatively easy and fun to recreate. As long as you follow the historic model, you can make a fairly authentic version. There appears to be a lack of surviving examples from this period except  for a handful of rare military versions, so what we are left with is the photographic record and a period pattern.

A Great Example of a Cloth Covered Brim
Image Source Unknown
     The original pattern I've included here is the one found in "The Workwoman's Guide" of 1838. This book is available in reprint and is an incredible resource that I highly recommend. The description of the cap is on page 156 and reads, "This is a remarkably neat cap, and may be worn by either a boy or a man; it is generally made of cloth."  The description continues with instructions on how to make the cap. All of the measurements in this guide are in "nails" which is 2 1/4" and it's best if you make up a ruler in those increments if you are going to follow this historic pattern.

My Cap With its Glazed Cover
Photos Lindy Miller 2011
Same Cap Without its Cover
Cap Showing Lining and Sweatband
Glazed Cover to the Left
     From my experience, it's best to make up a sample in a lesser fabric, to test the pattern. You will need a round piece for the top and four curved pieces which join together at the ends, for the underside. Eventually the top and underside are sewn together with a welted seam. I like to start with the band piece. The band piece is sized to fit your head, allowing for seam allowances, buckram band stiffner, hat lining and sweatband.  The shorter (curved side) of each of the 4 underpieces should be approximately 1/4 the length of the band piece plus seam allowances. Are you with me so far? The longer (curved) side of each of the 4 underpieces will be 1/4 of the circumference of the circle. There's some wiggle room here as the curved underpieces will have a little bias. Sew the joined band piece to the assembled top and you have the basic hat. Next comes the brim and a nice touch here is to sew it to the inside of the band piece with a welted seam (see the photo). I usually use leather for the brim but many caps appear to have cloth covered ones that match the body. At this point you could install the buckram stiffner to the inside of the band piece. Next, create a lining, using the same pattern as the body but smaller and attach it to the inside. Last would be the chin strap and sweatband.

          It is not my intention for this post to be a working pattern for a cap but rather a set of suggestions based on caps that I have made. This can be a simple or complicated project and I hope I haven't contributed to the latter. If you wish to make a glazed cover for your cap, a slight enlargement of the pattern, in a nice heavy muslin will work. You can then paint it black with an oil-based enamel. I found that stuffing the cover with rags before you paint it (several coats) will help keep its shape as it dries. Good Luck and keep reminding yourself that this is a fun one. You will look right smart in your new cap.....Really !!

        As a post script, I've added some pictures that were recently sent to me by my old friend Will Dunniway. These are of one of my first caps, made about 15 years ago and traded to Will for some collodion work. The cap's wear celebrates its many years of service and has given it a comfortable look you can't fake. I like the nifty label too.

Photos Courtesy of Will Dunniway

Friday, April 22, 2011

Men's Mid-19th Century Hat Boxes, A Quick Study of Two Distinct Versions

Mid-19th Century Men in Their Silk Top Hats
Daguerreotype Source Unknown
Are those great hats or what?
      After all my years in the Living History business, there are a few truisms I believe in and one is that your hat can make or break your impression. It's my feeling that when it comes to recreating historic dress, hats are serious fun and deserve special attention. In this post, I'm not going to talk that much about hats but rather my replication of two completely different hat boxes.These boxes are of the type that were intended to protect and store top hats, those ubiquitous tiles of civilization, and as such are an important part of hat lore.

    My interest in hat boxes started when I purchased a fur-felt top hat from Tim Bender of T.P.&H. Trading Co. Tim had worked with me to create a custom version based on measurements of a friend's original mid-19th Century fur-felt top hat. I had Tim leave off the edge binding and ribbon trim, so I could use some original French silk grosgrain ribbon that I had stashed away years before. I was really excited when the hat arrived but never expected the rush I experienced when the hat came out of the box. Tim really nailed it. It looks, feels and wears like an original felt top hat. I really loved being able to add my finishing touches but what it really deserved was a cool box to live in.
Original Mid-19th Century Silk Top Hat
and Its Wallpaper Covered Box
Photo Courtesy of Time Traveler's Antiques

My First Replica Hat Box
Photo Lindy Miller 2011
     After considerable research I discovered that several different styles of hat boxes co-existed in the mid-19th Century. One type was shaped like the hat it protected and another was a large band box, sized big enough to fit the hat. I decided to recreate my version of the shaped variety as it seemed to suit my new Bender hat. My approach was to make a hat-shaped form of thin cardboard, that would be approximately 1/4" to 1/2" larger overall than the hat itself. Sounds easy enough, right?  It turned out that the biggest challenge was the shaping of the box's edges along the brim line to accomodate the hat and allow for a fitted lid. I solved the shaping problem by trial and error. I taped together long pieces of cardboard and wrapped them around the outside of the hat's brim. This way I could trace the curve of the brim onto the cardboard and create a pattern . The box brim assembly needed to be parallel to the main body sides or the eventual lid would bind and not lift off easily.

     When you make a period style cardboard box, the seams need to be strong. Some seams can be lapped and glued but some will butt together. After years of making various boxes, I've learned to take narrow strips of muslin and glue them over the butt joints as a re-enforcement. Some original boxes I've studied, have their seams sewn with a wide overcast stitch. The final steps on the box involved covering the outside in a sweet robin's egg blue paper and lining the inside of the box with reprinted period newspaper. I then added some narrow twill tape ties to secure the fitted lid. In my research I discovered that many original boxes were covered in amazing contemporary wallpaper, as you can see in the image. With all the period papers being reproduced today (Historic Wallpaper Resources), it's another option to consider. In the end, I was rewarded with a fitting home for a very special hat.

Original Mid-19th Century "Bandbox Style" Hat Box
Photo Courtesy Antique Associates
Replica Hat Box  #2
Photo Lindy Miller 2011
     Now, on to box #2. Years ago, while visiting Sturbridge Village with my wife, I fell in love with a straw top hat in their gift shop. It didn't help a bit that several of their costumed interpreters were wearing theirs that day. As you might have guessed, it came home with me but sat boxless for years. Well, if one top hat deserves a box, why not the other ? For this one, I chose the large bandbox style but it still had to be special and not just a big oval box. I decided to copy the wonderful hat image graphics that decorate the sides of many surviving boxes. The inspiration for this box came from several I had seen and the one original example that we own. When they are covered with wallpaper, the hat graphics appear to be overprinted with a woodblock and not part of the wallpaper's original design. After my box was completed and covered in appropriate reproduction wallpaper, I painted the hat graphic on both sides, in the style of a woodblock print. Note also that my box's lid is covered in a different print wallpaper, something you see quite often on originals.

     One little hint that I would like to share is that cardboard typically has a grain. If you take a piece and bend it from opposite directions, you will notice the difference immediately. This doesn't really matter with thinner cardboard but can mean the difference between a smooth bend and not-so-smooth with some thicker varietys. These were both fun projects and I would encourage others to craft their own versions. Period style cardboard boxes are wonderful objects and usually missing in recreated historical scenes. There's no reason for it as they are easier to make than you might think. Craft on !

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Playing With Matches and the Evil Weed or My Adventures with Historical Bad Habits

19th-Century Men and Their Pipes
Image Courtesy of
The Pipe Cabinet
      I must confess, at one time I had a strong affection for smoking cigs but gave up the nasty things over 30 years ago. I never really lost my attraction, I just didn't like the idea of a smoking habit that was too easy and convenient. In my early Living History days I would "occasionally" enjoy a guilt-free clay pipe but it was still rarely.  When I got to a certain age and with the support of my loving wife, I began to explore the idea of becoming a casual pipe smoker. Pipe smoking is a great hobby as it offers the curious dabbler limitless possibilities of pipe styles and tobacco blends. For me personally, the attraction of the historical varietys became the ultimate seduction and worthy of exploration. This post is about a couple of related topics that I hope the reader will find interesting.

The Remnants of My Tobacconist's Shop
Replicas of Cigar Boxes from the Steamboat Arabia
a Bottle of Snuff
and My Replica Matches
Photo Lindy Miller 2011
     In 2009, for Columbia State Historic Park's annual living history event, I decided to portray a Tobacconist. In 1852 there were 3 in the original  town and up until the '09 event, no attempt had been made by the State Park or any volunteer to even suggest they existed. What a shame and what an opportunity to interpret the past ! In my little corner display ( I rented the space from the proprietors of the Coffee Saloon)  I had quite an array of offerings from snuff to cigars and from whole leaf to plugs of chew. All for interpretation mind you and not for public consumption. Along with the tobacco, a variety of clay pipes rounded out the display and I even had replica period matches, which brings me to the first project in this post.

     Many years ago I thought it would be really cool to replicate actual period matches but the more I researched the more unlikely it became. The tragic history of early matches with their white phosphorus was terrifying enough to temper my interest with caution.  With a little more research I discovered that a primitive version of the white phosphorus-free "safety" match (invented in 1844) might be a prime candidate for ressurection.

     The course was set for a successful replication when I discovered an original mid-19th century matchbox and contents,  labeled "P. Cowee's Super Chlorate Matches or Lucifers",  in the collection at Sturbridge Village. Since the label mentions using the enclosed sandpaper to ignite the match it was very likely an early safety match. The history of  the match is readily available online and Wikipedia is a good place to start. I dug around and found several original formulas for matches and finally settled on one that seemed within reach. I needed Potassium Chlorate (5 parts) as an oxidizing agent, Antimony Trisulfide (5parts) would be the ignition promoter, Gum Arabic (3 parts) would act as a binder and lastly, I would add a little lamp black (1 part)  for color. I was very lucky to have a good friend chase down the chemicals for me, which really helped. I then made up a load of proper shaped wood splints and pre-dipped their tips in melted sulphur. I roped my friend Nick Kane into helping create the matches as he had a respirator ( Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that the chemicals were still quite toxic).  When the project was completed, I made up a few boxes for myself and the friends who had helped.  You are probably wondering if they actually worked and I can assure you that when drawn across the treated sandpaper (Red Phosphorus and an abrasive) they sputter and explode into flame just like those legendary originals and man do they stink !

Standing in My Tobacco Patch
About 3/4 Grown
Photo Lindy Miller 2010

A Carrot of Tobacco
Image Courtesy of
The Museum of the Fur Trade
My Restored Meerschaum,
Kid Lined Silk Tobacco Pouch and
Bone Lady-Leg Tamper
My Favorite Kit
     Now, shall we explore my adventures in growing  historic tobacco? To start off, I thought I would try some easy-to-grow variety that had a tie to history. I settled on a strain called Virginia Gold as the seeds were readily available on line and most information suggested it was a good choice for beginners. Mr. know-it-all fell on his face the first year as not a single seed germinated. Dang! Not one to give up so easily, I studied a little more and after improving my starting trays, was rewarded the next year with a million little seedlings. At this point I had to decide how many plants I could realistically grow. We have the poorest soil and too many deer waiting in the bushes for something new to munch. I built a deer-proof compound and transplanted the seedlings to pots. It takes months to grow tobacco to maturity but once it gets going it shoots up like nothing else. After the leaves began to turn yellow, I started to harvest them and bundle them in hands of two or three. Next came hanging them in my ventilated tin shed to color cure to a nice tobacco brown. When everything was right and they were in "case" (moist enough to handle without crumbling but still dry), I began to gather them to be bundled for the next step.

     On a piece of canvas, about 18" square, I laid the leaves out after stripping away the stems. Just for fun, I spritzed the leaves with brandy as they piled on. This part is a little hard to explain but you have to compress the leaves (about 50-60) into a roll and then tightly pull the canvas over that roll. The final step it to bind the roll tight with twine, until it resembles a sort of double-tapered bundle. Historically these were called carrots and apparently some sailors called them periques (there's even a Youtube, "How to make a perique" ) but I was intrigued by the notion of a slow and simple historic way to age tobacco. Most homegrowers today use kilns to speed the process. The old way I chose will take many months to age the baccy into something smokeable but at least it will be chemical free. Believe me I know it will take time as the samples so far have been just a "little" harsh. But hey, what do I know as I usually smoke a nice mild black cavendish blend ( "Yosemite" from the Briar Patch) which the pipe snobs tell me is for beginners. On that note, while I'm waiting for my homegrown to mellow, I'll go enjoy some of that wonderful "beginner's" blend right now in my favorite "historic" pipe.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Recounting of My Adventures to Recreate Period Packaging and Labels

The author evolving with fellow historians.
Note the labeled goods.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park
Photo Ed Sims
     During the earliest days of my volunteering as a docent, I began to question the credibility of any attempts to recreate the past. Seriously ! To me it was overwhelming to imagine what has been lost to the passage of time. Yet in my yearning to gain insight into the past I began to see the nobility in some kind of effort to keep it alive. I think Living History comes with an enormous responsibility to be honest about past people and past things but I have to admit,  in the beginning I was as pitiful as the next guy in my poor efforts. This hobby is as much about evolution as anything else. Evolve or Die, that's my mantra, and I try to live by it. This post is about my work recreating labels for goods from the mid-19 century and a few tricks I learned along that path.

    From the begining I wanted to contribute something postive towards the improvement of our Living History program at Columbia State Historic Park. I found an allly in fellow docent David Peebles, as we both saw the need for more credibility in how we represented Gold Rush merchants and their goods. David and I made that noble effort to break free of the silly romantic hooey that fueled the previous attempts by introducing the O. P. Davis Store at Columbia's Tent Town event  in June of 1994. Our resources were scant and our knowledge was minimal but we had labeled goods and stenciled crates that at least evoked some "feeling" from the past. Granted, we were a little more creative in our re-creations than we should have been but everyone has to start somewhere, right?

A few of my labels over the years
some better than others
Photo Lindy Miller 2005
     From that point forward, I've tried to focus on the most authentic packaging and label representations within my capabilities and needs. Trained as a professional illustrator, I'm lucky to have the advantage of an artist's eye. This came in handy when studying period graghics as many surviving original paper labels are fragmented and need careful reconstruction before replication is possible. In this post, I'm not going to explain the history or dating of labels but rather show a process of replication that works for me and talk about a few resources that I've found helpful.

Original bottles with contents
note the foil labels
Courtesy Steamboat Arabia Museum
     Period appropriate labels can be found in books and some of my favorites are "Package & Print" by Alec Davis, 1967, "Ketchup, Pickles, Sauces, 19th Century Food in Glass" by Betty Zumwalt, 1980 and "The Art of the Label" by Robert Opie, 1987. The Steamboat Arabia museum in Kansas City, Missouri is a mecca for historians for it's collections of preserved cargo from an 1856 wreck. The only labels that survived on the Arabia were the foil ones on some bottled goods but they also have many preserved crates on display for study. Another notable resource is the museum of the Steamboat Bertrand, an 1865 wreck, that is located in the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. Surprisingly, many of the paper labeled goods survived intact from the Bertrand and numerous examples are in their collection  and some are featured in " The Bertrand Bottles" by Ronald R. Switzer, 1974.

    This post is about creating facsimile labels, so I'm not going to discuss period printing or what is the "correct" paper. I'll leave that to people that want to take this to the next level. So how exactly do I recreate the look of a period label ?  First, it starts with what you are working from. If the label is intact and flat, a simple photocopy might suffice but if you have to recreate what's missing, I've found it's best to start with an enlarged version that you can scale down later. I find that cut-and-paste works for me, but Photoshop is probably a better choice for the computer-savvy. On occasion, I hit-up people like my friends Derek or Floyd to clean-up a graphic or rearrange some lettering for me.  For artwork, I use Micron pens from Pigma for detail work and Prismacolor pencils when color is needed. Sometimes a plain ole Sharpie is just the ticket. A word of advice is to keep your creativity in check when restoring a label. Try to be faithful to the original design as much as possible while working to restore what's missing. Sometimes merely flipping the remaining design can do the trick or you might refer to other labels to guide your choices.
Labels and their artwork reading clockwise
Yeast Powder from the Bertrand
Pepper Sauce from author's collection
Byass Porter from online auction
Photos Lindy Miller 2011

Wells, Miller and Provost Label embossing steps
left to right
final embossing plates, rubber stamps, latex mould
My replica foil labels
Pickles and Brandied Peaches Yum!
Bottles by Dog River  Glassworks
    Some of the most challenging labels to recreate are those of embossed metal foil, usually lead or brass. Many examples have been excavated in Gold Rush sites, so this type was particularly interesting to me. I realized that I needed some kind of embossing plate that would leave its impression on soft metal foil. I started with a black and white graphic of the design, drawn to scale. I copied that onto a transparency to produce a reverse version. I then had my local print shop make a rubber stamp of the reverse image so that the rubber stamp was a positive rather than a normal stamp negative. Are you with me so far?  From that rubber stamp, I made a latex mold. From that mold, I cast a hard resin version of the rubber stamp. So what I ended up with was a hard rubbing plate with a positive design. Whew !! Dental tin foil from Pearson Lab Supply is a good substitute for the lead foil that was originally used for some of these labels. The process starts by placing a piece of foil over the plate and then using an art gum eraser, I gently press down until the design appears on the foil. To flatten the background and enhance the design, I found that gently pressing the embossed label over a piece of plate glass, with my fingertips, worked great. The label is then trimmed and glued on the appropriate bottle.

      For those that are curious, I no longer sell my labels but rather encourage others to make their own. In that regard, I hope this post has been at least a little helpful and maybe even evolutionary.