Historic Home is a Petticoat Junction in Lowell

February 14, 2019
LET'S TALK UNMENTIONABLES: From left, Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust Environmental Educator Kathy Hirbour, Stewardship & Education Manager Katie Durkin and Executive Director Jane Calvin with vintage women's undergarments they came across in Spalding House. Hirbour holds crotchless knickers, circa 1880, which made it easier to go to the bathroom wearing long petticoats. Durkin and Calvin show corset covers, circa 1905. A circa-1900 cotton petticoat is on the dressmaker's form. SUN photos /Julia Malakie Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

LOWELL -- Victoria’s Secret they are not.

The ladies who uncovered the turn-of-the-century undergarments at the Spalding House wouldn’t trade today’s bras and underwear for them, either.

But they do provide a window into the many layers women wore under their dresses and gowns in the late 1800s and early 1900s -- and ample teaching opportunities, according to Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust Executive Director Jane Calvin and Environmental Educator Kathy Hirbour.

Yesteryear’s unmentionables have become today’s public exhibit, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

When the Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust acquired the Spalding House from the Daughters of the American Revolution Molly Varnum Chapter in 1996, it included 900 artifacts, including some clothing and textiles “that we really hadn’t inventoried very thoroughly” until recently, Calvin said.

“We thought it would be really fun to feature some underclothing that we found in the collection, and feature it to tell a little bit of a story,” she said.

Drawing upon the expertise of Hirbour, who previously worked for the now-defunct American Textile History Museum, they selected a handful of undergarments from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The items went on display in the bedroom of the 1760 historical home for the last monthly open house on Sunday, and will remain for the next open house on March 10.

Hirbour called it “nostalgic fun” to compare underwear now and then.

“Some of the tops that you wear today might look like a blouse, but it was underwear then,” she said.

Corset covers on display illustrate the slow transition from full cotton bodice in the 1870s to a distinctly Edwardian 1905 silk upper body covering with thin straps, inching a bit closer to today’s brassiere. All of the handmade items -- corset covers, knickers and petticoat -- have details of intricate embroidery, lace and tatting, that were hidden under all the layers of clothing.

“I like the fact there’s something hidden about these, and now we’re ready to just expose everything,” Calvin said.

Hearing the word “crotchless” today evokes images of sexy lingerie, but in the 1800s, it was a matter of function and necessity. In fact, most women’s knickers were crotchless well into the 20th century, until indoor plumbing came along, Hirbour said, showing the flaps on the pair in the exhibit.

As if the tight corsets and layers upon layers weren’t enough, ladies of the time also used bustle pads -- like the spiral wire “bum roll” on display in the same room -- tied at the waist underneath clothing to achieve the hourglass figure desired in the Victorian era or the S-curve of Edwardian times.

Some used hoops or cage crinoline underskirts to hold out their skirts and dresses.

“God forbid you sit down with the hoop. You sit down and the hoop would come flying up,” Hirbour said, waving her hands up over her head.

Calvin and Hirbour said they use the house not only for historical lessons but also those rooted in industry, the environment and human impact on it -- like the intricately carved combs made from the shells of the now-endangered tortoise, and the large amounts of water and chemicals used to grow the cotton used in the clothing.

The Spalding House is open to the public the second Sunday of each month from 2-4 p.m., and during special events. Many group learning opportunities are also available, including badge-earning programs for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. For more information, visit https://lowelllandtrust.org/spalding-house /.

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