Museum Mysteries: Who is “Aunt Rebecca” Kingsbury?

changeable-silk-dress

Kingsbury Tea Gown

by Stacen Goldman, FHC Curator

If you’ve already been to see our newest exhibit “History in the Stitches: Framingham Fashion through the Centuries,” then you may remember this tea gown.

You may have learned from the exhibit a little bit about the history and use of the Tea Gown in the late 19th Century, but we didn’t tell you about the mystery that underlies this particular garment, perhaps one of the most puzzling mysteries of our costume collection. Who wore it?

Now, this may not seem like a particularly exciting mystery. This is a question that museums are forced to ask themselves all the time, and more often than not, the answer eludes them. We, however, have just enough information to whet our appetites, but not enough to satisfy our hunger for knowledge! This tea gown is one among a number of items in our costume collection that was donated by a member of the Kingsbury family, an old Framingham family. A few of these pieces (primarily black shawls and outerwear) are additionally marked as belonging to “Aunt Rebecca.” This tea gown is not one of those pieces, so we can’t know for sure that it was Rebecca’s. However, there are a number of clues that lead us to reasonably deduce that it might have been hers.

The first, and most obvious, is dating. The Aunt Rebecca pieces that we have positively identified are dated between 1880 and 1910 and this dress is circa 1893-1896, which falls right in the middle of that range. The next clue is style. Rebecca’s garments are intricate, expensive, and LOUD. I mean that literally; one of the shawls we have from Rebecca is covered in “noisy fringe,” which is fringe made from yarn-covered wooden beads. When in motion, the beads clack against each other, making noise. It’s easy to tell from this shawl that the women who wore it wanted to turn heads.noisy-fringe-side-by-side

The tea gown, while not literally loud, certainly has a lot going on. Between the iridescent patterned silk (which will be addressed in a later blog post), the busy crocheted lace, the velvet collar and cuffs, and the rouching in the back, I would not blame you for calling this dress loud! Each of these details is also rather expensive; this dress is undoubtedly finery. From what we can tell, loud, busy, and expensive was exactly “Aunt Rebecca’s” taste.

After making the educated guess that this dress did, indeed, belong to “Aunt Rebecca,” I wanted to know more about her: Where did she live? Was she married? Was she really as eccentric as her clothing makes her out to be?  So I put our research team to work trying to locate her in the historical record. Fred Wallace, Town Historian, and Ruthann Tomassini, a dedicated genealogist hunted for a “Rebecca Kingsbury” from the late 19th century to no avail. Then it occurred to us that perhaps she was not a Kingsbury herself, but maybe a maternal aunt, or the aunt of someone who married into the Kingsbury family.

I had a breakthrough when I discovered a note in one of our records, stating that an “Aunt Rebecca” piece was likely donated by Esther Kingsbury Fair in 1941. A quick glance at our hand written records indicated that Esther donated 83 costume pieces to the Framingham Historical Society that year! It seems likely that most, if not all, of our Kingsbury pieces came from Esther. I turned to the genealogical record to see if Esther had an aunt named Rebecca.

I found two possibilities, both on Esther’s maternal (non-Kingsbury) side in the Bullard Family of Holliston. The next two paragraphs may get confusing, so here is a visual of Esther’s family tree with our two possibilities highlighted:

kingsbury-bullard-family-treeThe first Rebecca is a great-aunt: Rebecca Bullard, aunt of Esther’s mother Frances Joanna Bullard. However, Great-Aunt Rebecca was born ca. 1820 and died in 1906 and our latest Aunt Rebecca piece dates to 1910. It is possible that the dating on the clothing isn’t exactly right, but this Rebecca would have been of a fairly advanced age when wearing some of what we have in our collection, which doesn’t really seem to line up with her style.  Another strike against great-aunt Rebecca was that she had seven children. It seemed more likely to me that our “Aunt Rebecca” didn’t have any children of her own, otherwise she would have passed her clothing on to her direct descendants, rather than a niece. Great-Aunt Rebecca was a possibility, but things weren’t lining up perfectly.

The second candidate is Alice Rebecca Bullard (1844-1924), Esther’s mother’s sister. It’s fairly common to find a woman who went by her middle name, and Alice Rebecca’s dates line up more closely with the items in our collection. She was childless and was buried with her parents in their plot in Holliston, indicating she was unmarried. These are the hallmarks of a woman who might leave her clothing to a favorite niece. Still, the records I could locate were spotty and there is no clear indication that Alice Rebecca went by her middle name. Yet again, things weren’t lining up perfectly.

So far, this is where we are left with the mystery of “Aunt Rebecca.” Although we have two candidates, her exact identity still eludes us. We haven’t entirely given up hope though! Perhaps you, members of the greater Framingham community, can help us discover more. If you have any information about “Aunt Rebecca,” the Kingsbury family, or the Bullard family, please email me at curator@framinghamhistory.org or call 508- 626-9091. With your help, maybe we can finally illuminate the story behind a significant portion of our costume collection.

 

History in the Stitches: Framingham Fashion through the Centuries is open to the public Wednesday-Saturday, 1-4 PM through the end of April.


FHC Blueprint Inventory 2016

read-manufacturing-blueprint-800x800The Framingham History Center is in possession of a collection of blueprints of various businesses and private properties within the town of Framingham from 1900-1940. We have sorted through roughly 250 blueprints and removed the ones with significant value for our collection. The remaining blueprints are ones we are not keeping for the collection. The town engineer’s office has also been contacted and they have taken what they want and are not interested in the remainder. We invite the public to view our inventory list with the intended purpose of sale.

A sale of the blueprints will occur on Saturday, November 12th from 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. at the Edgell Memorial Library (3 Oak Street, Framingham). The condition of each item has been recorded, however all items are rolled. If you wish to view any item(s), please have a list of the title with you. If you have any questions, please contact laura@framinghamhistory.org .

Note: The sale of these items are first come, first served. Thank you for understanding. 


Blueprints are organized alphabetically first by businesses in Framingham, then by private ownership. Please click the link below to view the inventory in an Excel file.

FHC Blueprint Inventory 2016