So for those of you who follow my escapades on Instagram you will know that last weekend I happened upon a cache of the most incredible 1800s silks.
A trunk that had been hoarded lovingly by a collector friend of mine for many many years. For some reason, last weekend she decided that the day had finally come to share it with the world.
I arrived early to the brocante and as I walked towards my friends stand, a recognised some of my favourite makers hovering around her stand. Kristen of Les Petites Carabistouilles had already gathered a small mountain of delights and before us lay boxes of 1800s silks (bolts and dress cuttings); ribbons (silk velvet and Stephanois passementerie) and several wooden 1800s hat boxes of the most incredible 1800s & early 1900s silk flowers.
It was sensory overload, I felt a very strong (and totally inappropriate) desire to jump into the boxes and just swim in the beauty… of course I didn’t – but I sure felt like it!
From the corner of my eye I spied the wooden edge of a trunk poking out from under my friends stand… I politely asked if I could have a look. She shrugged with a smile, “mais bien sur” adding that the silk was very damaged and that she didn’t think it was ‘good’ for anything.
I inched out the trunk from under the table and pried open its heavy wooden lid open. It was heaven, deep pinks and green brocade, torn silks, sensual scents of time stood still. My friend explained that this was an entire collection that she had purchased with the intention of creating dolls clothes from the remaining silk.
Wrapped in tissue paper amongst the silks were rolls of unused gold embellished ribbons and trims wrapped in twine; beaded and embellished dress panels with echoes of silk at their edges from a century ago when they had been hand-sewn to glorious evening gowns.
It was the most surreal experience to be in this tiny Provençal village town hall and simultaneously transported back in time to the haute couture ateliers of the mid – late 1800s. I felt a huge lump in my throat and a pressure headache building at my temples.
My mind was wrestling with the reality that I couldn’t possibly afford to purchase all of it and yet what was the likelihood that I would ever find anything like this again.
It was terrifying and heady, a combination of intense desire and yet tremendous fear … there was a very high likelihood that I would have to put it all back if the price was beyond my budget.
I worked up the courage to ask my friend what she would accept for the lot.
Her reply…was more than my budget for the next few months buying trips… she saw the look on my face and kindly told me she would keep it safe and I should go have a coffee and think about it.
I called my husband and explained the treasure I had happened upon and he told me he trusted me and would support me on the investment…the decision was made!
My friend wrapped everything carefully for me and just as I collected the last box – she handed me a small package.
It was a gift, for our friendship, she told me it was something so damaged that she didn’t feel right selling it but she knew it would be in good hands.
The next day I took the time to sort through my purchases. Making two piles, one I would really dream to keep and one I would need to sell to finance my wildest dreams. At the bottom of the bag I found her package and I opened it to have a closer look at the items deemed too damaged to resell.
I opened the silk jacket up, the silk crackling with age and I cautiously unravelled the makers ribbon inside.
I felt my heart stop and tears well in my eyes…
I was holding the glorious ruins of an original Callot Soeurs silk jacket, the most incredible gift I have ever received in my six years of collecting.
Over the next few days I have been examining the other nine jackets (and dress remnants), trying to piece together the provenance and researching the makers behind these masterpieces.
One particular piece piqued my curiosity, a hot pink silk jacket with a label on the inside which reads:
“Madame A.G. Russelle, 33 East 20 Street, New-York”
Had this creation been purchased in New York by the young woman? Had she herself travelled to New York or had it been purchased as a gift for her? Who was this A.G. Russelle? This morning I woke with a burning desire to know more!
Google, my dear friend, led me to find the American Architectural Historian, Tom Miller. I wrote to him on the wildest chance he might respond and have a snippet of information about this Dressmaker who once worked from 33 East 20th Street.
Within an hour he reverted and I can’t tell you how I felt my heart explode as I read his mail.
“The house where Madame Russelle ran her dressmaking shop still stands. If you Google streetview it, you’ll see the old brick-faced residence hiding behind a turn-of-the-century commercial front.
Her name was, in fact, Russell, but she added the French-sounding “e” and the “Madame” simply because French fashions (and, actually, all things French) were all the rage. (As a matter of fact, when her name appeared among the list of patrons endorsing the Russian Vapor Baths in 1870, it was spelled as “Mme. A. G. Russell” without the extra “e”.)
In 1862 she hadn’t added the “e” yet and her shop was on Wooster Street. By the end of the Civil War the neighborhood around 33 East 20th Street was seeing the influx of commerce. Broadway, just down the block was seeing the beginnings of what was called the Ladies’ Mile–Manhattan’s major shopping district. She and her husband James seem to have purchased the 20th Street house around 1867. That year in October she advertised for an “Errand Boy Wanted–Immediately; good references required.” She was still spelling her name “Russell.”
James Russell, who touted that he “works on my own” and “does my own buying,” from his shop in the house as early as 1867. The couple, no doubt, lived on the upper floors.
On December 6, 1868 an advertisement in The New York Herald read: “An India camels’ hair scarf makes a pretty holiday present and can be had of me from $4 to $35. James Russell, 33 East Twentieth street, near Broadway.” That $35 price tag would be equivalent to about $600; so by that alone you can see he and his wife were catering to the carriage trade.
James Russell seems to have dealt only in camel hair scarves and shawls. His advertisements list nothing else through the new few years and one mentioned he had just returned from Europe with a new stock.
In 1867 Madame A. G. Russell advertised for dressmakers. “Those only need apply who are capable to make and trim waists.” And James was still selling expensive camel hair scarves and shawls here.
Then, on May 11, 1873 James Russell announced he was “retiring from business in July” and that his building was available to lease. After that date neither he nor his wife appear in the newspapers. In their retirement they may have left town (which would account for their leasing the house).
At any rate, you can definitely date your jacket between 1867 and 1873.
More trivia: Madame A.G. Russell and her husband lived directly across from Thomas Jefferson (his family home was 28 East 20th Street), his family lived in this house until 1872.
Here are some details of the architecture of Madame A.G. Russells couture work (circa 1867-1873)
I don’t know about you – but this just makes me want to do a happy dance, my smile is making my face hurt and I want to know about these silks!
Because I can’t keep it all – I am selling many of the exquisite 1800s silks and trims from this collection on Exquisite Threads – as much as I want to hold on to everything forever – it needs to go out into the world and I know there are makers who will make beautiful creations from this treasure!