GUEST CURATOR: Kathryn J. Severance
What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Jam. & Mat. Haslet, Leather Dressers from Boston.”
This advertisement showcases the opening of a leatherwork “Factory” in Portsmouth that would sell leather products (wholesale to shop owners or retail to consumers) by James and Mathew Haslet, who were “Leather Dressers.” In colonial America, a leather dresser was a tradesman who spent the workday obtaining and then tanning various animal hides (this advertisement mentions deer and moose). These hides would be used to craft various items, including gloves and breeches, as the advertisement mentions. Other items that were crafted from leather mainly consisted of shoes, saddlebags, and belts. It should be noted that shoes were actually put together by tradesmen known as cobblers.
Many tradesmen who were leather dressers actually left England and migrated to the thirteen colonies to provide leather goods and leather dressing services to the inhabitants of the colonies. Unlike in colonial days, in today’s society, products made to imitate leather are actually more commonly found in American homes than are authentic leather products. Of course, imitation leather was not available to the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies, which meant that the toiling process and expertise associated with leather dressing made tradesmen with these skills a necessary part of society.
For more information on leather workers, especially in colonial Virginia, check out this research report from the Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
The Haslets mentioned gloves twice in their advertisement: “Buckskin and Sheepskin Gloves” and “The neatest Mode Gloves for Funerals.” In so doing, they suggest that the former were intended for everyday use but the latter were reserved for the rituals of mourning the dead.
What may not be apparent to modern readers was that “Gloves for Funerals” were intended for the living, not for the deceased. Although the practice declined after the Revolution, in colonial New England families distributed gloves to mourners who attended the funerals of their loved ones. For families from more humble backgrounds this usually meant giving away a handful (pun intended!) of gloves, but wealthier families sometimes distributed hundreds of pairs of gloves. This ritual occurred only occasionally at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but it became a common and expected part of funerals by the 1760s. Elite families distributed funeral gloves to acknowledge their relationships with each other, but also to demonstrate their commitment to the communities of which they were part.
Distributing funeral gloves became a status symbol by the end of the colonial period. It also became a competition and a form of conspicuous consumption that sometimes garnered criticism as an inappropriate expression of luxury. After the Revolution, large-scale glove-giving declined as elites and others forged new relationships as new rhetoric of egalitarianism emerged. Today, the practice of giving away funeral gloves to mourners is little more than a distant memory of our colonial past, not a standard part of our funeral rituals.
For a more extensive examination of funeral gloves, I recommend: Steven C. Bullock and Sheila McIntyre, “The Handsome Tokens of a Funeral: Glove-Giving and the Large Funeral in Eighteenth-Century New England,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 69, no. 2 (April 2012): 305-346.