On 31 January 1867, at her father’s residence, Rachel Cox (1843-1937) married John MacDonald Belyea (1836-1899) wearing this blue dress. With its form fitting bodice, nipped waist and bell skirt, the dress well illustrates the fashions of the late 1860s. Rachel was born at Cambridge about 1843, the daughter of Marcus Wellington Cox (1814-1890) and Hannah Springer (1818-1848). Sharp readers of this blog will note the Cox name is familiar, forming a prominent element of our drawings mystery. Rachel is the daughter that is the link to the Nehemiah Belyea home since John is the son of Nehemiah (1794-1885) and Lydia Earle McDonald (1802-1887).
The massive skirts of the early part of the decade have disappeared, replace with a smaller and more manageable bell shape. The bulk of the skirt has also begun to shift to the back, anticipating the arrival of the bustle in the early 1870s. To gain maximum usage, the dress was worn again and again and may have been altered with the addition of the black velvet piping, possibly for mourning.
Despite her diminutive size, Rachel had at least seven children. In the 1871 Census for Cambridge, Queens County, John and Rachel Belyea were living in the same dwelling as John’s parents, Nehemiah Belyea and Lydia Earl MacDonald. Census returns show that they owned 23 sheep, gathered 100 pounds of wool and wove 83 yards of homespun. In addition, they cut 55 cord of stovewood, and had one boat that they used to fish 1 barrel of gaspereau. In the same census, at the home of Rachel’s father, Marcus Wellington Cox and step-mother Elizabeth Adams Golding, they owned 14 sheep, gathered 70 pounds of wool and wove 75 yards of homespun. Rachel Cox Belyea died in Saint John, 25 March 1937.
For many years the dress was displayed at the Tilley House, but over time the fragile taffeta began to shatter and exposure to sunlight had faded some of the blue to a shade of gray. In 2007 the delicate dress underwent conservation treatment. As part of the treatment, a custom mannequin was made along with a proper petticoat and cage crinoline. In “good health” but still very sensitive to handling and light, the dress was exhibited as part of the Mrs. Tilley’s Tea Party exhibition in the parlor of the Tilley House.
Even with the 2007 conservation treatment, we knew that the dress could not withstand constant exhibition for too many years before it would need to be taken off display for long term preservation. For all museums this is always a difficult choice, but one that is made with the best interests of the object in mind and the mandate to preserve items for future generations.
In this case, however, there was an alternative to removing the dress and its story from public view. Joanne Venart and the students of the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design came to the rescue! Joanne was well know to QC Heritage as a board member and as the creator of a reproduction costumes for individuals and an amazing work she did for the New Brunswick Museum. In the spring of 2013, Joanne and her students—Sandra Aburto-Sanchez, Elyse Bernais, Michelle Duncan, Kelly Hill, Laura McFarlane—embarked on the creation of an authentic reproduction of the blue dress. After several visits in person, the creation of a pattern, decisions on fabric and design – we decided against the black piping – fittings and lots of fun, finally, the finished copy was complete.
The result is truly amazing and was displayed at the Tilley House over the summer of 2013 while the original received a well deserved rest and a new storage box for long-term preservation. We were surprised by the detail shown on the repro that somehow wasn’t as visible on the original. Seeing the excitement of the students was a special part of the process as well and huge thanks go out to all of the people who participated on this worthwhile project.
We know this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship and collaboration between QC Heritage and the NBCCD. Plans are already in the works for a project for 2014 that will see some works reproduced for use in the summer Tilley Tea and Tours program.
To see the wedding dress reproduction, visit the Tilley House this summer!