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

Friday, December 14, 2012

Historic Costume Recreations, Part 5, Some New Thoughts on a Miner's Overshirt

      When I start a project to recreate something historical in nature, I make an effort to gather as much information as I can. Over the years, I've created many different interpretations of men's mid-19th century overshirts and based on my level of knowledge at the time, some were better than others. Even though these shirts were a staple commodity during the California Gold Rush, no documented original examples of actual "miner's shirts" have surfaced. What we are left with, is the contemporary photographic record of a very popular shirt.

Classic Overshirts on the Job
image source unknown

     One of the best collections of Gold Rush daguerreotypes is found in the book "Silver & Gold" by Drew Johnson and Marcia Eymann, University of Iowa Press, 1998. I highly recommend it for anyone who is serious about studying California Gold Rush clothing.

     From Gold Rush era advertisements to personal journals, I've gleaned only bits and pieces about overshirts with few details of their construction or ornament. The best period catalog illustration with decriptive text I've ever found is the REED, BROTHERS & CO. catalog of 1853, plate 19.

From My Copy of the 1853 Reed Catalog
Showing the Miner's Frock and Descriptive Text
photos by author 2012

      So, even though none of the thousands of Gold Rush overshirts seem to have survived to the present day, you have to wonder, have any mid-19th century overshirts survived anywhere ? Yes indeedy......read on.

Original 1856 Overshirt
Image Courtesy Steamboat Arabia Museum
      I recommend that eveyone who is interested in mid-19th century American History visit the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. The museum houses the recovered cargo of a sunken Missouri River steamboat, lost in 1856. It is a rare opportunity to have a full-immersion  material-culture experience, second only to time travel, as the collection is literally a moment frozen in time. When I first visited the Museum, many years ago I was a bit overwhelmed by the scope of the collection. The Hawley family has accomplished an astounding feat of preservation and continue to add to the exhibits. 

     Years ago, during a visit to the Arabia Museum, the late Greg Hawley told us that they still had several untouched wool overshirts in frozen storage. You can imagine how excited I was, when I later heard that several of the shirts were being carefully conserved and would soon be available for public view. and that the museum's conservator Dr. Judy Wright, had posted before, during and after pictures on Facebook. The shirt, now designated as the "Border Ruffian Shirt" is also featured in a Youtube teaser promoting David Hawley's future Preservation Series of film shorts.

Inside View of Neck Slit During Reconstruction
(note the gussets)
Image Courtesy of Steamboat Arabia Museum and
Dr. Judy Wright

     There were so many things to be discovered from  Dr. Wright's pictures. I was first struck by how casually the garment was constructed. I'm not sure if this represents "cheap" ready-made goods or what but it gave me cause to reflect on my previous replica shirts, with their tiny careful stitches. It appears that a running stitch was used for much of the construction and the seam allowances were just turned over once and left with the raw edge.  I also discovered  that the narrow braid trim only suggested a plastron with its outline. There was also an absence of underarm gussets in the original shirt. Another detail that caught my eye was the straight neck slit, rounded by the insertion of two small gussets at either end and no shape to the front of the slit. You will notice in the photo that opening down the front begins at the neck gusset. In the picture, the narrow, tapered facing hasn't been reattached yet. There appears to be no facing on the other side of the front slit as the edge is just turned back.

My Inspiration for the Latest Shirt
Image Courtesy John McWilliams

     Excitied about all of this new-found evidence, I decided to replicate another Miner's Overshirt incorporating some of these "details" I had just discovered.  True to my Gold Rush interest, I would base my shirt on an unpublished image of a young miner,shared with me, years ago by John McWilliams.

     I already had some madder red, wool flannel,  purchased from Burnley and Trowbridge.  I'm really glad that Needle and Thread of Gettysburg PA still carries the Wooded Hamlet line as they had a perfect narrow wool soutache, that I dyed a royal blue. Remember the "bright colored braid" in the REED cataloge description?  My wife is still my best source for small white china buttons, thank you very much Lindy.

My Replica

      Another thing worth noting in the Arabia shirt (and my replica), is that the front and back body are all one piece. This eliminates the need for a shoulder pieces to re-enforce a shoulder seam found with a two piece body.

Close-up Showing Faux Plastron ala Arabia
 and Patch Pockets
      The Arabia shirt's front slit-facing was quite narrow. At the top, it doesn't match with the end of the collar, leaving the collar end as an extended  tab. For my interpretation, I decided to have mine match, as you can see in the picture,

Slit Opened, Showing Tapered Facing
on the Left

    I also turned all of my seams twice to hide the raw edges, contrary to what the original shirt appears to have had. I felt the wool would contiue to unravel if it was left raw. Perhaps that wasn't a concern in the past. I did use a running stitch for the entire construction, even where I would have normally backstitched.

Small Gusset at Shoulder

    What I learned from this exercise was that maybe there is a place for simply constructed garments in the "Oh so carefully " reconstructed Living History world.  I'm not sure if the Arabia overshirt is typical or atypical but it taught me to think about historic shirts in a different way as there's always "new" information to be discovered.  My shirts will always be interpretations but hopefully reflective of a progressive approach to recreating history.

Close-up of Closed Neckline


  1. I will have to get to the Steamboat Arabia Museum I just watched a YouTube clip on it and it looks great. I've been to the Bertrand Museum a few times it really neat but from the looks of the Arabia Museum it appears as if there are more artifacts to see. I often wonder how many more sunken river boats are out there.

  2. I have made a shirt similar (different front.) They certainly liked the gussets. Anywhere there was to be a 'joining' of the fabrics, most likely for stability when worn to the bare threads as they did.
    Just found your blog - will continue browsing.