Harford volunteers preserve the threads of history

For Harford Magazine
A team of volunteers are sorting and preserving hundreds of textiles at the Harford Historical Society.

Can’t face reorganizing that closet? Imagine how the Historical Society of Harford County must feel.

Over the course of its 132-year history, the small nonprofit has collected thousands of textile pieces — dresses, men’s suits, military uniforms, children’s clothing, stockings, shoes, undergarments, carpetbags, table and bed linens, flags, banners and bunting — some dating as far back as the 18th century.

Most came in the form of donations from local residents emptying their attics or going through the possessions of elderly or deceased relatives.

“We’re the oldest local historical society in the state,” says director Maryanna Skowronski. “People have given us stuff and given us stuff.”

But cataloguing and storing these items often proved impractical.

Today, a group of volunteers is tackling the painstaking task — storing the pieces systematically in acid-free wrappings, protecting against degradation, and repairing and stabilizing them when necessary.

It wasn’t until 2005 that the scope of the problem became clear, says Betsy Lehmann, a historical society board member in charge of the ongoing project.

Their work on a wedding dress exhibit for the Hays House, the living history museum the society operates on Kenmore Avenue in Bel Air, brought it to light.

“We thought we could find all this information,” society volunteer Kathy Scholl recalls. When she and Lehmann went to find out about a particular garment, they learned that, in order to find what they were looking for, they would have to know the year the piece was donated.

“We were just devastated.”

Volunteers began working to reorganize the textiles collection in the basement of their headquarters, an old stone post office on Bel Air’s Main Street. The environment was far from ideal.

“It really wasn’t set up for work space,” says historical society director Maryanna Skowronski.

Much of the society’s cellar was taken up with clunky furnace works. But as the organization renovated over a number of years, it freed up space for tables on which volunteers could examine, repair, photograph and prepare for storage the pieces in the collection. The society installed shelving, tables and computers.

Scholl, Lehmann and other volunteers spend a couple of hours each Tuesday on the project.

Using a keyword-driven program called Past Perfect, the volunteers store all the information they can gather on each piece — including a photo — for later retrieval.

Lehmann says the project’s procedures are still evolving. She has no timetable for getting it up and running, but eventually society members creating exhibits will have a searchable database. If they are looking for a specific type of garment — a pair of knickerbockers, say — or an item tied to a specific time period, they’ll be able to find it quickly and easily. One day, it might even be accessible online.

Volunteers have attended seminars, in historic Williamsburg and at Drexel University in Philadelphia, on stabilizing, repairing, laundering and storing textiles.

“The worst thing is sunlight. It fades things, makes them brittle,” Scholl says. “Dust acts like a little saw.”

They’ve also learned a thing or two about getting these items ready to be exhibited.

“It takes the better part of a day to properly prepare a piece for display,” Lehmann says.

A standard store mannequin won’t work, especially with women’s clothing.

“The shape of bodies has changed. If you’ve ever seen ‘Gone With the Wind,’ you know what I’m talking about. It was a matter of engineering,” she says. Corsets, stays and other devices common in women’s clothing through the Victorian Era forced the female form into an exaggerated hourglass configuration.

In preparing any given dress for display, the volunteer must essentially create the body to fit the clothes, padding the mannequin “so that it looks like a dress that’s being worn as opposed to being on a hanger.”

None of the items in the collection can be traced to a figure of significance in either U.S. or Harford County history. The society cannot point to a nightshirt and say “George Washington slept in this.”

They all have historical value nonetheless, Lehmann says.

“It’s part of our history the same way paperwork and letters are. It lets us see how styles have changed, how clothing changed after the Industrial Revolution, how it changed when the sewing machine and dress patterns came into use,” she says. “It shows us how people lived. It’s part of our social history.”

Attaching a piece to a particular year is an inexact science at best, but the society’s volunteers can usually narrow it down through research into an era’s manufacturing methods and styles. In the final analysis, however, the donator’s account of the item’s origin comprises much of what is knowable about it.

“We research them to the extent possible, but we have to rely on people’s word a lot,” Lehmann says. “If it’s a wedding dress or a baby’s christening dress, we try to get a date if possible.”

Lizanne Smith, a 35-year Harford County resident who lives in Forest Hill, became interested in the society’s textile project about a year ago after visiting the Hays House for a presentation about stoneware in connection with her research into her ancestry.

Being a weaver of table linens and baby blankets, and having sewn since age 11, Smith found herself with plenty to do on the project right off the bat.

“The very first day, there were two dresses needing to be repaired,” she recalls. “It’s so fun to handle 19th-century fabrics and talk about the way things were made.”

Scholl’s connection to the historical society began in 1999, when her then-14-year-old daughter — who has since grown up to be a costume designer — “wanted to play dress up,” she recalls, laughing. The two participated in re-enactments of 18th century life at the Hays House.

After she began working on the textiles project, Scholl got a private tour of the storage facilities at the Fashion Museum in Bath during a trip to England. The experience gave her practical knowledge and a sense of perspective: “They’ve got 100,000 textiles in a lot of tiny rooms.” 

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To Be Clean or Not: In the Days Before Indoor Plumbing

See some the undergarments in the Historical Society of Harford County’s textile collection at this upcoming presentation.

Sunday, March 12 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Hays House Museum, 324 Kenmore Ave., Bel Air
410-838-7691
$5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors

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