'Downton Abbey - Rochester Style' opens at historical society

10:08 AM, Dec 22, 2013

The Rochester Historical Society decided to curate 'Downton Abbey — Rochester Style' because of the popularity of the PBS drama. (Photo provided by historical society)/


Written By Donna De Palma

If you go

What:
“Downton Abbey — Rochester Style.”
When: Through March 6.
Where: Rochester Historical Society on the second floor of the downtown library’s Rundel building, 115 South Ave.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the following Saturdays: Jan. 11 and 25 and Feb. 8 and 22.
Cost: $5; $3 for youths.
More information: (585) 428-8470 or rochesterhistory.org.

For Downton Abbey fans and history buffs alike, there’s a new exhibit by the Rochester Historical Society that takes a closer look at local clothing and artifacts from late Edwardian times to the Depression.

It was 1912, when Woodrow Wilson was president and the Titanic sank, that fashion and personal artifacts began to reflect the changing times.

With the popularity of Downton Abbey — and its return to WXXI-TV on Jan. 25 — the museum, housed on the second floor of the downtown library’s Rundel building, 115 South Ave., decided to put together its exhibit, says Dan Cody, collections manager and registrar.

You see the contrast between finery and the leisurely lifestyle of the rich and what the masses experienced during WWI,” Cody says. “The elite in America tried to emulate the aristocracy of England, even here in Rochester. It was an era when many of the wealthy had servants. It became a source of status within the elite — whether to have day servants or live-in help and how many. People also dressed to show their status.”

An ornate rosewood pianoforte with mother of pearl keys built here in Rochester in 1855 by Frederick Starr Co. is one of the first items that catches the eye: The sheet music on display reads, “If the Yankees took Berlin.” But it’s the clothing and personal artifacts that define this exhibit. They were strongly influenced by the end of World War I, Prohibition and the passing of the 19th amendment, Cody says.

Women joined the workforce during WWI, enjoyed earning their own money, and stayed on the job. Hemlines rose — ankles and calves suddenly appeared — and the flapper dress emerged.”

When Prohibition hit, Rochester was an active bootlegging town, Cody says. “The lines of dresses became straighter, ‘flour sack’ dresses grew in popularity, large, gaudy jewelry became the rage, the ‘bob’ appeared, and women began smoking in public.”

For the elite of that era, what was a dress without a hat? A wall of hats from velvet to brown straw, satin to ivory silk, some from McNulty’s, a hat shop located on East Avenue in Rochester in the early part of the century, are displayed. One wide-brimmed satin hat with pale mauve ostrich feathers made by Mary McNulty shows “what an essential detail” a hat was to a woman of that day, Cody says.

Hats followed whichever silhouette was in fashion. In the early 20th century, a wide-brimmed hat was used to offset a slender silhouette,” he says. “As women entered the job market and ostentatious displays were considered unpatriotic, close-fitting hats that sat low on the head suited simpler hairstyles.”

The boudoir, a private dressing room or sitting room, became as essential as the ritual of preparing oneself for sleep. The rooms were home to items that reflected the social status of their owners: lilac-scented talc made by Adolph Spiehler, a Rochester perfumer; a decorative aspirin tin from the R.T. French Co.; full-length pink satin gloves in a red-lined glove box; an ivory calling-card case.

Tea was served in the afternoons, and weddings became the most elaborate of affairs. One description: “The bride wore cream georgette trimmed with satin and pearls, with a veil caught with pearls and carried a shower bouquet of brides roses and stevia while her maid of honor carried Killarney roses tied with pink chiffon. … Nephew of the bride, dressed in a white sailor suit, carried the ring in a calla lily.”

These displays of finery are in sharp contrast to the headlines found in the exhibit. “Kaiser has abdicated,” says one headline from Rochester’s The Post Express.

A photo of a billboard asking Americans to conserve coal for the war effort … hints at the conservation effort required to send supplies to the troops,” says William Keeler, librarian and archivist for the historical society.

Meatless Mondays aren’t new, but not for the health reasons behind them now. During the World War I era, they were for conserving meat. In addition, people were urged to use barley instead of wheat to make sponge cake and to knit socks for the troops.

These efforts, put in place by the future president Herbert Hoover, then an administrator, were popularly known as Hooverizing.

What would Robert, earl of Grantham, Cora or Violet or any of the Crawleys from Downton Abbey think of our local version of a privileged life?

Not sure they would give it a second thought, considering the divide between the oceans in those days. Yet, by studying artifacts of a bygone era, we can imagine the dramas that unfolded in Rochester at the time and unlock the stories of the local elite of the early 20th century.