One conundrum of studying 18th-century trades is determining what they would be wearing. Clothing is just as much of a tool as a saw, and using the wrong style can impact your work. An overly tight jacket restricts your range of motion, while an overly loose one will constantly get in the way. Light or thin fabrics might wear away too quickly and leave you with nothing to wear. Your breeches or trousers need to provide enough movement to bend, kneel, stand, and climb without strain on the seams or closures, while still providing protection. So with all these factors in mind, let’s take a look at what millwrights might have worn in the 18th century.
This discussion starts with a poem:
In truth, this is a runaway advertisement. Thomas Clemson’s apprentice (or servant, he doesn’t specify) ran away and he would like him returned. Runaway ads give a brief glimpse into what laborers, apprentices, enslaved people, and servants wore in the 18th-century. There is, as always, a deeper hidden story here, but I want to use this as an opportunity to look at the clothing of the working classes. Let’s start to unpack the description of his attire:
His hat, it is of an Antient Date,
Which keeps the Weather from his Pate;
A yellow Jacket, old and torn,
His wretched Carcase doth adorn;
A Homespun Shirt, and look below,
You’ll find his trousers made of Tow,
And also coarse; and for his Shoes,
He did the same this six Months use;
We know he wears an old or worn hat, likely with a wide brim as it keeps the weather from his pate (head). I would also argue it was likely left round, rather than cocked (bent up on three sides), for two reasons: a cocked hat exposes more of the face to the weather, and I believe that Mr. Clemson would have specified it if it were cocked. He also wears an old yellow jacket, but no waistcoat, which suggests a shorter tighter fitting style. His shirt is homespun, likely made of linen, possibly in a check pattern that was common in the period. His trousers are “Tow,” a coarse linen canvas. And finally, his shoes are old and worn.
Let’s now take a look at images from the period so we can determine how each garment actually looked.
From these three paintings, we can get a good idea of the silhouette of round hats in the mid-18th-century. Generally, they were a wool felt disk, with a dome in the middle. They were mostly utilitarian, protecting the face from the sun and rain, and seem to have been common among tradespeople, who may have valued use over fashion. The image on the far right shows what could be referred to as a hat of an “antient date”: the edges and crown heavily warped from constant use and the brim sagging towards the ground.
These are three possible styles of jacket from the mid-18th-century. On the left, we actually have an example of a yellow jacket (that was a stroke of luck!); in the middle we have a jacket worn by someone who appears to be a sailor (check out Kyle Dalton’s British Tars blog for more information on this image); and finally, on the right we have the Arnish Moor jacket which was recovered from a bog in Scotland. All three jackets are in a common style, with tight-fitting and simple sleeves, slit cuffs (though the stocking merchant’s nine cuff buttons might be deemed excessive), and a short skirt. These were utilitarian garments, designed to be worn under a longer coat if weather turned foul.
Underneath the jacket, we have the shirt. In this period, shirts were loose-fitting garments that closed tight at the neck and cuffs. This allowed for ease of movement and kept construction relatively simple. Our runaway’s shirt is made of “homespun,” likely a homemade linen or wool. While a perfectly serviceable fabric, it would not be as fine as professionally produced cloth.
Trousers in this period varied in length and cut: some tapered closer to the leg, while others were broad and loose. It’s hard to say exactly how the trousers in this ad would have looked, but they were linen and most likely sturdy, if a bit coarse. Finding images of trousers proved difficult; they don’t seem to have been common among the British working class (though they were favored by British sailors,) and almost every image of working class clothing from this period is English. Current evidence suggests that trousers were more common in the North American colonies, as they show up often in runaway ads. However, more research is needed to say for certain.
Working shoes for men from this period were leather, fairly low, and fairly simple (though shoemaking is by no means easy). They were either tied, like the image on the left , or buckled, as you can see in the other two. It’s hard to say how the runaway in this ad had his shoes fastened, as it doesn’t say, but we can be fairly certain they fit at least the common style from these three examples.
I hope you enjoyed this dive into clothing in this period. It’s been something we’ve been researching behind the scenes for a while now, and I’ll be sharing more of our findings down the line!
As always, I would normally invite everyone to come visit us in the Millwright Shop, but it’s currently closed due to COVID-19. We will be continuing to post here on the blog, and we’ll be doing more Facebook Live videos, so be sure to follow us on Facebook. Stay safe and check back here next week!
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 Thomas Clemson, Runaway Advertisement, Pennsylvania Gazette, August 14, 1746 https://www.newspapers.com/clip/53037266/millwright-runaway-poem/
 Merriam Webster Dictionary, “Tow Cloth,” accessed June 12, 2020 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tow%20cloth
 Paul Sandby, Bob Nunn, one of the Duke’s gardeners at the Great Lodge, 1752, Royal Collections Trust
 Paul Sandby, London Cries: Boy with a Donkey, 1759, Yale Center for British Art, accessed June 12, 2020
 Paul Sandby, Cane chair weaver, 1759, Museum of London, accessed June 12, 2020
 Paul Sandby, Bob Nunn, one of the Duke’s gardeners at the Great Lodge
 Paul Sandby, The Stocking Merchant, 1759, collection unknown, as found in the British Tars blog by Kyle Dalton
 Jacket, early 18th century, National Museums Scotland
 John Singleton Coply, Watson and the Shark, 1778, National Gallery of Art
 William Hogarth, Sign for Paviour, 1725, Yale Center for British Art
 William Hogarth, The Third Stage of Cruelty: Cruelty in Perfection – The Murder, 1751, Yale Center for British Art
 William Hogarth, An Election IV: Chairing the Member, 1754-55, Sir John Soane’s Museum London
 Nathaniel Dickerson Parr, The Honest Sailor, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
 Squintums farewell to sinners, 1760, Yale University Library
 Shoe, belonging to Peter Francisco, National Park Service Museum Collections
 Paul Sandby, London Cries: A Muffin Man, Yale Center for British Art
 William Hogarth, Sign for Paviour,
Paul Sandby, Bob Nunn, one of the Duke’s gardeners at the Great Lodge, 1752, Royal Collections Trust, accessed June 12, 2020
Paul Sandby, London Cries: Boy with a Donkey, 1759, Yale Center for British Art, accessed June 12, 2020
Paul Sandby, Cane chair weaver, 1759, Museum of London, accessed June 12, 2020 https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/100646.html
Paul Sandby, The Stocking Merchant, 1759, collection unknown, as found in the British Tars blog by Kyle Dalton, accessed June 12, 2020 https://www.britishtars.com/2014/01/the-stocking-merchant-1759.html
Jacket, early 18th century, National Museums Scotland, accessed June 12, 2020
John Singleton Coply, Watson and the Shark, 1778, National Gallery of Art, accessed June 12, 2020 https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.46471.html
William Hogarth, Sign for Paviour, 1725, Yale Center for British Art, Accessed June 14, 2020 https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1671163
William Hogarth, The Third Stage of Cruelty: Cruelty in Perfection – The Murder, 1751, Yale Center for British Art, Accessed June 14, 2020 https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/2069980
William Hogarth, An Election IV: Chairing the Member, 1754-55, Sir John Soane’s Museum London, Accesses June 14, 2020 http://collections.soane.org/object-p78
Nathaniel Dickerson Parr, The Honest Sailor, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, Accessed June 14, 2020 https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/127523.html
Squintums farewell to sinners, 1760, Yale University Library, Accessed June 14, 2020 http://findit.library.yale.edu/catalog/digcoll:553735
Shoe, belonging to Peter Francisco, National Park Service Museum Collections, Accessed June 14, 2020 https://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/revwar/image_gal/gucoimg/guco320pfranciscoshoe.html
Paul Sandby, London Cries: A Muffin Man, Yale Center for British Art, Accessed June 14, 2020 https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1665775