Glamour Amidst Hardship…

We’ve gotten slightly behind on our Dress of the Week posts!  The life of a small non-profit can sometimes be overwhelming and things get forgotten in the shuffle!  However, our Visitor Services Associate, Tyler Dodson, has researched and written a great post about one of our favorite dresses from “Happily Ever After”…    

The Great Depression brings to mind black-and-white images of people in dire circumstances; families living in shanty towns, men waiting in bread lines, dust storms on the Great Plains, shoeless children sitting on porches.  In contrast to those images is Martha Stone Muse’s wedding dress from 1931, which may suggest a side to the era we don’t usually see or hear about.  While the nation faced some of the most severe economic troubles in its history, the people still had a life to live and try to enjoy.

It would be a mistake to think that depression era people simply gave up.  On the contrary, they fought for their livelihood, and they often banded together in their efforts.  This took the form of neighbors that would lend a hand with basic necessities or provide moral and emotional support.  On a larger scale, communities formed soup kitchens and orphanages to help those in the worst of circumstances.  Nationally organized and officially recognized labor unions gave workers some protection from unfair business practices.  And at the top level, President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were a federal initiative to bring the country out of the depression.  These efforts show that, despite the turbulence, Americans were still alive.

They were also still trying to make the best of that life.  Part of the New Deal was also aimed at bolstering the national identity through cultural enrichment; for instance, the Works Progress Administration operated a group of projects in the arts and letters known as Federal Project Number One.  A growing part of that cultural fabric during this time was sports, particularly baseball, which gave Americans a dynamic past time to get involved in.  These games were often nationally broadcasted on the radio alongside the news, music, and interest segments that people turned to for entertainment.  And in the entertainment industry, motion pictures continued to gain popularity.  This was the beginning of the “Golden Era” of Hollywood that lasted through the 1950s.

Jean Harlow, one of those Hollywood icons from the Thirties, might have even influenced Mrs. Muse on the day she picked out her wedding dress.  And like Mrs. Muse’s wedding, there were occasions that transcended the hard times of the era, when life was celebrated.  The marriage of two people was one such event where deep, powerful bonds and human emotion went beyond worldly matters.  Childbirth was similarly extraordinary.  It’s a primal feeling when another life is created, a connection fused by the love that went into making that life, spanning generations.  Even the death of a loved one could be an occasion to remember and celebrate the joyful times in life.  However brief it was – before the uncertainty and despair crept back in – these moments gave people in The Great Depression, and continue to give people, respite from their troubles.


“Happily Ever After” is on display at the History Museum of Western Virginia through October 16, 2016.  Please come by and check out the 150 years’ worth of wedding inspiration we have on display!

Further Reading

Kennedy, David M.  Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

McElvaine, Robert S.  The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition.  New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.

Terkel, Studs.  Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression.  New York: The New Press, 1986.


Happily Ever After: 1950

We’re continuing to highlight some of the wedding dresses in our current exhibit ‘Happily Ever After.’  Today, our curator, Ashley Webb, will be looking at a classic 1950 dress.  If you’re new to the site, be sure to check out the posts on our 1858 dress, our 1918 dress, as well as the origins of the tuxedo and an 1860 frock coat.  To see more in this exhibit, stop by the History Museum of Western Virginia Tuesday through Saturday 10-4, or Sunday 1-5.



995.4.1 Gift of Elnora Maxey Paitsel

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Happily Ever After: The Origins of the Tuxedo & 1860

This week, we’re switching gears from wedding dresses to the origins of the tuxedo.  Our Visitor Services Coordinator, Tyler Dodson, wrote the following article, placing the revered evening wear in a Western European historical context.  Curator Ashley Webb follows up with the next installment in this series: an 1860 frock coat.

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Happily Ever After: 1918

Museum curator, Ashley Webb, is back to talk about another one of the fabulous dresses included in the exhibition ‘Happily Ever After.’  Make sure to read up on last week’s 1858 dress if you missed that!  Today’s dress: a simple World War I era outfit.


988.77.1.  Gift of L. Franklin Moore.  History Museum of Western Virginia

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Happily Ever After: 1858

If you regularly keep up with the History Museum’s Instagram account or on Facebook, you may have noticed that we have recently installed a new exhibit, which opened on June 3rd.  Titled ‘Happily Ever After,’ museum’s curator Ashley Webb has scoured through the museum’s collection to find a number of wedding related lovelies: dresses, tuxes, veils, shoes, cake toppers, and much more.  Once a week, she’ll be joining us with an in depth look at some of the magnificent items in the exhibition.  Today, she’ll be introducing us to one of our earlier dresses, and possibly one of the more colorful ones: an antebellum wedding dress from 1858.


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The Virginia Slave Trade…

The History Museum of Western Virginia is currently hosting the traveling exhibit To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade, created by the Library of Virginia with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. This exhibit, a smaller version of the original, on view at the Library of Virginia (LVA) from October 2014 to May 2015, takes a closer look into the treatment before, during, and after the sale of African Americans in antebellum Virginia.


1812 ad for the sale of “an excellent carpenter, a brick moulder, a tanner, a good crop hand, 2 women and 5 children.”

While the trans-Atlantic slave trade officially ended in 1808, the United States continued to sell and trade African Americans domestically, with Virginia being a heavy partner in the Upper South.  Sugar and cotton became staples for the American economy, which both needed a large labor force.  Richmond, Virginia, quickly became a hub for slave auctions, and by the 1840s, Richmond was the largest slave-exporter in the Upper South.  When Eyre Crowe toured across the United States as secretary to William Makepeace Thackeray (author of Vanity Fair) in 1852-1853, he took note of the poor conditions of African Americans (England had abolished their slave trade in 1807), sketching scenes surrounding him.


Courtesy of the Library of Virginia


Upon Crowe’s return to England, he published several anti-slavery articles and created several paintings illustrating scenes inside and outside auction houses in Richmond and Charleston, South Carolina.  Two particular paintings illustrate Richmond market’s:  Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia (oil on canvas, 1853), and After the Sale: Slaves Going South (oil on canvas, 1854).  Curator of the LVA exhibit, Mauri McInnis, writes about Waiting for Sale:  “Crowe sought to convey the depth and complexity of the horrors of slavery by presenting an entirely different scene: the moments before the auction. By choosing to represent slaves waiting to be sold rather than slaves being sold, Crowe forced viewers to think about the emotional moments before the sale and to consider the uncertainty faced by these individuals. By leaving their fate ambiguous, Crowe intended to unsettle viewers and generate an emotional response to the plight of the enslaved.” The same can be said for Crowe’s After the Sale.


Slaves Waiting to be Sold, Richmond Virginia by Eyre Crowe, 1861 (Collection of Teresa Heinz)

The History Museum of Western Virginia is proud to host To Be Sold, which will run until June 17, 2016.

For more information on the exhibition at the Library of Virginia, check out their website:

Suffolk Punch draft horses

With Jason Rutledge coming to speak about restorative forestry and his use of the Suffolk Punch draft horse, I decided to look closer at this rare breed of horse.


Jason Rutledge with 1 of his Suffolk Punch horses

The Suffolk Punch is known for its large frame, docile nature, and strong work ethic.  Mature horses typically stand 16-17 hands (about 5 ½ to 6 feet) tall and weigh between 1,600 to 2,000 pounds.  They are universally chestnut in color, ranging from a light red to dark brown, with virtually no white markings except for the occasional white around the feet.

The breed originated in the eastern portion of England and the “Punch” comes from the horse’s solid appearance.  The breed has been around for centuries with William Camden’s Britannia describing a horse to meet the Suffolk Punch standard in 1586.  This makes the Suffolk Punch one of the oldest breed of horse that has also remained unchanged in characteristic.  Early farmers crossbred horses to achieve the Suffolk Punch and the isolated Suffolk region leant to the breed remaining largely unchanged and unknown to other areas.  Used mainly on family farms for its strength and durability, the Suffolk Punch continued to remain a localized breed as it was rarely sold or traded.  Suffolk Punches were also used to haul large scale artillery during the First World War.  However, after WWII, and the mechanization of farming and many other industries led to dwindling numbers of pure Suffolk Punch horses both in Europe and the United States.


The breed eventually made its way to America but never amassed the popularity of other horse breeds.  Suffolks also were exported to other European countries such as Germany, France, Belgium, Russia, and even parts of Africa and New Zealand.  They were crossbred with native horses to produce breeds such as the Jutland and Oppenheimer.  Recently, Suffolks were even sent to Pakistan to be bred with local horses to help improve native breeds.


Suffolk Punch horses are commonly used for hard work such as plowing fields.  They have also been used in forestry, to haul logs and fallen trees, such as what Rutledge does.  Some even use them to pull sleighs in snow.  The Suffolk Punch’s work ethic has been quoted as “work till they drop” and can withstand lots of manual labor.


The Suffolk is currently on the Rare Breed Survival List in England and remains one of the rarest horses on the continent.  The Suffolk Punch faces a similar dilemma here in the states, but thanks to devoted breeders and horse registries, the numbers are seeing an increase.



St. Patrick, debunked


A holiday that has become highly popular and secularized is St. Patrick’s Day.  There are often parades, green, shamrocks, leprechauns, and copious amounts of green beer.  However, there is a much more somber history behind the legend of St. Patrick and most of what is celebrated today is based on myth.

First, St. Patrick was not Irish.  He was born in Britain around 390 BC to a wealthy family.  Around the age of 16, he was captured by Irish pirates, taken back to Ireland and enslaved as a shepherd for about 6 years.  He managed to escape and returned to Britain, where he received religious instruction.

St. Patrick also did not introduce Christianity to Ireland.  The Pope sent Bishop Palladius to Ireland before Patrick.  So some Irish were already converted by the time that St. Patrick made his journey to the Emerald Isle.

Perhaps one of the most famous legends associated with the Saint, is that he drove the all snakes from Ireland.  Ireland IS in fact a snake-less land, but not necessarily because of a sermon that Patrick delivered on a hillside.  Ireland has been surrounded by water since the glacial period and before that, it was covered in ice and water, therefore making it inhabitable but the cold blooded reptiles.  The snake story is most likely a metaphor.  Before Christianity came to Ireland, many pagan sects worshipped a goddess, whose symbol was a serpent.  There was also a cult known as Crom Cruaich that practiced human sacrifice to a serpent God.  This is most likely the explanation for the famous “driving out of snakes” that is often connected with St. Patrick.

Patrick never fully recovered from his early capture and role of servitude in Ireland.  As a result of his time spent enslaved, he never received a full formal education and felt ostracized upon his return to Britain.  Many of his former friends had gone on to higher education and were often in prominent positions, while Patrick had poor writing and oratory skills.  This early trauma left him with deep convictions in his faith that lead him to return to Ireland and become missionary and later Bishop.


St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin

So remember, that while you may be pinched for not wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, the story behind the holiday goes beyond commonly held folklore.



Great Love Stories of History…

A day late and a dollar short!  This post was intended to be published before Valentine’s Day, but clearly, that did not happen.  So we are bringing it to you now, apologies for the delay and we hope you enjoy!

Napoleon and Josephine

France is world renowned for all things romance.  Therefore it should come as no surprise that one of the greatest love stories in history originated in France.  The story of Napoleon and Josephine is well known both for its salacious details and its drama.  Josephine grew up on a plantation on the Caribbean island of Martique and came to Paris to live with an aunt before marrying French aristocrat Alexandre de Beauharnais at the age of 16.  The marriage was not a success by any means.  By age 20, Josephine’s husband had left her and their two small children and narrowly escaped the guillotine during the Reign of Terror.  It’s at this point that Josephine relied on her good looks and charm to win the hearts of other nobility and in the process, have her bills paid.  She eventually landed on Paul Barras, an extremely wealthy governor.  Their affair carried on for some time until Barras started to grow tired of her.  During a grand ball, Barras suggested that Josephine entertain the new military hero, Napoleon.  Josephine used every charm in her arsenal to secure his admiration from that point forward.  Napoleon was young, not known for his good looks, impoverished, and had little experience with women and fell madly in love with Josephine.

Here the story takes a turn.  Some accounts claim that Josephine merely married Napoleon for the potential financial security and military success and not love.  There are many stories of Josephine carrying on sordid affairs while Napoleon was on military conquests and that Josephine made excuses to not join him on these excursions.  Finally, it seems that Napoleon tired of the excuses and began to believe the rumors floating from Paris that Josephine was being unfaithful and divorced her.  It is then that Josephine seemed to have a change of heart and became hopelessly devoted to Napoleon and followed him around Europe during military campaigns even though he refused to be swayed by her sudden dedication.

Other stories are slightly more forgiving and suggest that Josephine and Napoleon were mutually in love and enjoyed their years together but that once Napoleon reached a certain amount of military success and subsequently ruled France, the pressure mounted for an heir.  Since Josephine was considerably older than Napoleon, she could not produce that necessary male heir.  Finally, Napoleon conceded and asked Josephine for a divorce so that he could remarry in the search for a son.  Josephine was destroyed by the separation.


Napoleon walking out & Josephine distraught

Regardless of which version you prefer, it goes without saying that their story was a passionate one.



Cleopatra and Marc Antony

Another well-known love story of history is that of Egyptian queen, Cleopatra and Roman military hero, Marc Antony.  The Roman Empire had grown vast under the rule of Julius Caesar before his assassination in 44 bc; Rome came under the rule of Octavian and Marc Antony, among a few other officials but anarchy was still a threat.  Antony was determined to bring more territory under Roman control and the threat of the Parthians near the present-day Middle East seemed the best place to start.  However, the Roman coffers were running dry and in order to finance this new military campaign, Antony sought out one of the richest rulers in the ancient world.

Cleopatra was very familiar with Roman leaders, having seduced Caesar when she was 22 and giving birth to his son.  Antony sent for Cleopatra to meet with him on several occasions but only to be delayed by Cleopatra’s ambivalence; after all, Cleopatra was a queen herself and did not gain the throne of Egypt by conceding defeat easily.  Eventually however, Cleopatra agreed to travel to Antony to discuss future military alliances.


Depiction of Antony & Cleopatra 

It is said that upon her arrival, Antony immediately fell in love with Cleopatra.  She arrived in a gilded barge with purple sails and had all manner of luxury aboard.  The two became inseparable and soon after, Cleopatra gave birth to twins.  However, trouble back in Rome called Antony back to Italy where he ended up staying for three long years.  Octavian’s power had grown while Antony had been spending time in Egypt.  There was now to be a battle between Antony and Cleopatra against Octavian’s forces.  Even with the might of Egyptian warships and soldiers, Octavian was victorious.   In Roman tradition, Antony committed suicide by falling upon his sword.  After learning of Antony’s death, it is said that Cleopatra requested an asp be brought to her in a fig basket and she died from its bite.  Some historians have claimed that it is much more likely that Cleopatra drank poison rather than succumbed to a snake bite.  Regardless of her method, Cleopatra and Antony cemented their love story forever.  Antony and Cleopatra became such a legend that they were further immortalized by William Shakespeare in the play Antony and Cleopatra and perhaps most famously by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1963’s film, Cleopatra.



Pocahontas and John Smith

One of the first love stories in the New World was that of John Smith and Pocahontas.  Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, the chief of the Algonquian people of the Tidewater area in Virginia.  In 1607, English settlers, including John Smith, landed in Virginia and set up a settlement.  It is believed that not long after their landing, that John Smith was leading an expedition when they were attacked by Algonquian hunters.  The captives were taken back to Powhatan and set to be executed.  It is at this moment; before John Smith was struck his final blow that Pocahontas threw herself on him to shield him.  It was this act of selflessness that moved Powhatan to release Smith and the remaining prisoners.  After Smith’s close call, he and Pocahontas become friends and Pocahontas visited the settlement often and helped prevent the starvation of many of the first colonists that winter by bringing them food.


Pocahontas saving the life of Capt. John Smith 

In 1609, Smith suffered a leg injury from a gun powder explosion and was sent back to England to heal.  For whatever reason, Pocahontas was told that Smith had died.  Heartbroken, Pocahontas did not return to the settlement after that.

In 1613, Pocahontas was captured by English Captain Argall and held hostage for some prisoners and guns Powhatan had taken.  Powhatan agreed to return the prisoners but not the weapons.  This perceived slight caused Argall to hold Pocahontas for quite some time.  Although she did not receive the poor treatment perhaps expected of someone being held hostage, she was appointed a dwelling and fine clothing and was free to go to and from various houses in the settlement.  It was during this period of confinement that Pocahontas met John Rolfe.  They fell in love and were married soon after.  Pocahontas took the English name of Rebecca and they had a son named Thomas.

In 1616, Pocahontas and Rolfe travelled back to England for an audience with King James and the sale of colonial tobacco in England.  Upon their arrival at court, Pocahontas was reunited with John Smith and she was both shocked to see him alive and distraught that she had not had the opportunity to marry her first love.  Soon after their reunion, Pocahontas and Rolfe were set to sail back to Virginia from England but Pocahontas fell severely ill from either some form of dysentery or an upper respiratory ailment.  She was only about 21 years old at the time.

Disney further romanticized the story in an animated film, titled Pocahontas, one of the only Disney pictures based on a historical account rather than a fairy tale.



Shah Jahan & Mumtaz Mahal

This Indian love story is unique in that there is a world famous landmark that stands as a result.  Shah Jahan, sometimes known as Prince Khurram, was the son of one of the first Mughal emperors of India.


Depiction of Shah Jahan & Mumtaz Muhal 

Around 1607, when Shah Jahan was about 14, he was walking through the market when he encountered the 15 year old Muslim Persian Princess Mumtaz Muhal and it was love at first sight.  Jahan returned to the palace and told his father that he wished to marry Mumtaz.  After 5 years, they were married in 1612.  Shah Jahan had several other wives as was customary of the time; however, they were merely figureheads and Jahan rarely spent any time with them.  Mumtaz was his favorite by far and he adored her and even entrusted her with his royal seal.  By 1628, Shah Jahan had taken over as Emperor and subsequently had to travel often for military endeavors and Mumtaz almost always accompanied him on these journeys.  In 1631, while traveling with the army, Mumtaz gave birth to their 14th child, however Mumtaz did not survive.  Shah Jahan was so distraught over the death of his wife that he swore he would never remarry and he promised to build the most exquisite mausoleum over her grave.  Jahan also ordered the court into a mourning period that lasted for two years.  Shortly after her death, Shah Jahan began plans to erect a beautiful monument in honor of his departed love.  It took 22 years for the Taj Mahal to be built.  When Shah Jahan passed away in 1666, he was laid to rest in the Taj Mahal next to Mumtaz so that they may be together forever.  The Taj Mahal is now considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World and stands as a testament to their undying love.


A monument to love 



Queen Victoria & Prince Albert 

The namesake for the Victorian era started with a match made in heaven.  Victoria came to power at only 18 years old.  She was unmarried at the time but the matchmaking had begun prior to her ascension to the throne.  Victoria’s mother and her uncle arranged a meeting between Victoria and her cousin Albert, Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha from Germany.  Victoria was reportedly very smitten, very quickly.  The pair was married on February 10, 1840 and were the first royals to reside at Buckingham Palace.


Victoria posing with Albert

By most accounts, Albert and Victoria were a pair very much in love.  They appeared devoted to each other, spent many hours together, and nine children were the result of their union.  Albert became a close advisor of Victoria’s and helped her make decisions on many aspects affecting Britain.

However, there are stories of a rockier relationship between the two.  Albert was a foreigner and not always well-received by the English people.  He often had to take over Victoria’s affairs as Queen during her frequent pregnancies when she had to step aside.  Victoria has also been reported to both hate being pregnant and detest child rearing.  She was also resentful of Albert taking over her duties as Queen; she did not like to share her power as ruler of England.  Victoria was also cited as having a horrendous temper and often flying into tantrums that terrified the palace servants, her children, and her husband.

Regardless of the state of their relationship, when Albert passed in December 1861, Victoria would fall into a mourning so deep that she was rarely seen in public afterwards.  She wore black the rest of the life (40 years more!) and made few appearances.  She attended to matters of state the best she could but she was never the same after the passing of her husband.

Source: ;

Museum Selfie Day!


January 20th is Museum Selfie Day!  The social media movement started in 2014 and has only gained momentum since.  Museums worldwide have taken advantage of the opportunity to get visitors in their doors that might not otherwise have ventured into their institution; sometimes causing long lines to form in order to take selfies with popular museum pieces.  And while some museums employ a strict “no photography” policy, some museums are trying to embrace the trend of “if you didn’t take a photo, it didn’t happen” and help expand their audience at the same time.  Beyonce and Jay-Z even got in on the museum selfie trend!


Beyonce, Jay-Z,  & Mona Lisa

And according to NY Magazine, this is the quintessential Museum Selfie list:

“1. Making kissy-faces at babely statues.

  1. Engaging in playful stare-offs with statues, especially those of judge-y forefathers.
  2. The mocking surprise-delight face: mouth open, chin tilted down, in front of a painting.
  3. The modest comparison selfie:Look! My facial features are similar to this person who was deemed gorgeous enough to document for the ages, and then proceeded to stand the test of time.
  4. Standing in front of a sculpture or painting of a snarling animal and re-creating the snarl.
  5. Inserting one’s body behind a bust or a taxidermied animal head to give it the body it so clearly desires.
  6. A smiley, cute selfie. Just a regular, standard selfie, but at a museum. You’re so pretty.
  7. Antique-mirror selfie, in front of an old-timey mirror in the old-timey furniture wing. Those mirrors still work after all these years. Amazing.
  8. Modern mirror, in front of a strange, reflective piece of contemporary art. Where are you? Oh, there you are!
  9. Actin’ haughty. Yeah, Madame X does look like she thinks she’s the business.
  10. Interacting with the scene. If an old lady in a Dutch masters painting is pointing in an accusatory way, it is kinda funny to stand on the other end of her outstretched finger and look guilty.
  11. Acting shocked at a nude or a sex scene. Art: so subversive.
  12. Taking pictures of artist’s self-portraits. Look, Edward Hopper and Rembrandt both painted themselves! SELFIES ARE OLD AS TIME.
  13. Selfie with other people taking museum selfies in the background. There is nothing that a proud museumgoer loves more than things that are meta.
  14. Photoshopping a camera into the hands ofMona Lisaor The Girl With the Pearl Earring. We get it!

And the four types of most common, incorrect museum selfies tagged with  #MuseumSelfie:

  1. Museum-bathroom selfies.
  2. Selfies in the woods.
  3. No context, just a face in front of a blank wall. It is possible that this person is art, but again, no context.
  4. Aquarium selfies — though it is impressive that this person appears to be about to kiss that fish.” (taken directly from Maggie Lane’s “The 19 Types of Selfies at Museum Selfie Day”

And while due respect needs to be given and taken into consideration when visiting any museum or cultural institution, the museum selfie trend has helped make art and history more accessible and relatable to the masses, especially younger generations.  It allows a certain “manipulation” of a piece by allowing a person to feel like they are a part of a painting or artifact and lends a certain connection that otherwise is not made.


So in honor of Museum Selfie Day, the History Museum of Western Virginia will offer free admission on January 20th so that people may come and participate by taking a selfie with their favorite piece in our museum!  We sincerely hope that people enjoy this opportunity and that it becomes a yearly trend.