Friday, May 1, 2015

Revisiting the Past in Pictures, Words and Objects

By combining eyewitness images with period documents and artifacts we can improve our understanding of what the past really looked like.  This can be done for any time or place in history when you have a conjunction of pictures, words and/or objects.  In this post, I’ll use all three to examine the dress of late-18th century Spanish California.


In September of 1791, José Cardero, a young, self-taught artist, added two sketches at Monterey, California to a growing portfolio of images he’d made on the Spanish scientific expedition led by Alejandro Malaspina.


Those portraits, and other pictures Cardero made during his visit, are our best pictorial evidence of how the men and women of early Spanish California dressed. And though they were made at the presidio, or fort, at Monterey and the nearby Mission San Carlos, the clothing and hairstyles are typical of what you would have found elsewhere in California at that same time.[1] 

We know this because details of their clothing are confirmed and sometimes explained by contemporary documents, especially the lists of supplies sent every year by sea from New Spain (Mexico) to California.

Unfortunately, the supply lists for Monterey have not been published, but those for the Santa Barbara Presidio have been, in a wonderful Spanish/English edition by the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation.  In addition, the Trust has conducted extensive archaeological investigations at their site, and a few of the pictures I’ll include come from this work.[2] 


The couple, usually identified as a soldier and his wife, are probably wearing their best clothing, judging by the the woman's fabrics, ribbons, and lace and the fact that he sports a highly-decorated cuera, or leather armor.  We might even think that this is an officer and his lady, but the truth is that we just don’t know. The saw-edged bars above the man's coat cuffs look like rank insignia, but not much is known about how presidial soldiers indicated rank on their uniforms.

The woman’s bodice appears to be sleeveless (displaying the full, lace and ribbon trimmed sleeves of her chemise), fitting tightly to her torso and laced up the front.  It is trimmed at the bottom with some kind of tabs - perhaps gathered ribbon.  The lace at the bottom of the bodice is harder to explain.  Is this attached to the bodice or, since her sleeves are also trimmed, is her chemise shortened and worn outside the waistband of her skirt to show the lace?  Other details: she wears two forms of fichu - a black scarf and then a band with ruffled edge. The woman’s skirt could be of damask or printed fabric.  Both Chinese silk (saya saya) and printed cotton (indianilla) appear in the Santa Barbara Presidio supply lists.

My very great thanks to the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sport, Kingdom of Spain; Museo de America, Madrid; and the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation for their generous assistance.

Excerpts from Supply Lists, Presidio of Santa Barbara, California
Invoice, San Blas, March 10, 1792.
150 pairs of side-lacing shoes (150,, pares de Zapatos de abotinar)*

Invoice: Mexico, February 24, 1788
4 pieces of superior printed cotton from Barcelona (4 Piezas Indianillas Superiores de Barcelona)

Invoice: Mexico, January 25, 1789.
8 dozen assorted medium grade neckerchiefs, mostly black (8,, Doz[ena]s Mascad[a]s de ½ m[ar]ca Surtidas abundando negras)


7 dozen crimson stockings, embroidered on the side (7,, Dozenas de Medias Carmesi Bordadas àl Canto)

12 pieces of number 80 ribbon from Genoa, 32 varas, pearl and crimson (12,, P[ie]as Liston n[úmer]o 80,, de Genova de 32 v[ara]s Nacar, y Carmesi)

9 pieces [ribbon] number 40, blue and green, from Granada for lack of it from Genoa (9,, id[em] n[umer]o 40,, azul, y verde de Gran[a]da por falta del de Genova)

Invoice: Mexico, December 29, 1790
30 dozen shoes for men and women, the latter 6 and 7 point (30 dozen[a] Zap[ato]s para homb[r]e y Muger estos de 6,, y 7,, puntos)

90 pieces of fine, narrow genuine Brittany linen (90 Piezas Bretañas ang[osta]s lex[itimas] finas)

10 pieces of Chinese silk (10 piezas Sayasayas)


6 bundles of blue glass beads (6,, Maz[o]s de Abalorio Azul)

6 bundles of large garnet beads (6,, d[i]chos Granate gordo)

12 varas of fine wide lace from Lorraine (12,, varas de Encaxe fino ancho de Lorena)

2 pieces of gold cloth ribbon (2 p[ie]zas liston de Tela de Oro)

2 pieces of watered ribbon, 1 pearl and the other black (2 d[i]chas Id[em] de Aguas 1 nacar y otra negra)

6 dozen fine black hats with low, flat crowns and silk lining (6. Dozenas Somb[rero]s neg[ro]s copa chata forro de seda)

90 pieces of fine, narrow genuine Brittany linen (90 Piezas Bretañas ang[osta]s lex[itimas] finas)



80 pairs of breeches of reinforced blue wool velvet, lined with common cotton fabric, pockets of dressed deerskin, and yellow buttons with loops (80 Pares calsones de Tripe azul reforzado, forrados en Manta Bolsas de Vadana y Boton Amarillo de Aza)


60 blue chupas of cloth from Puruagua with cuffs and collar of 2nd grade scarlet cloth, plain yellow metal button, lined with common cotton fabric, sizes 2 and 3 (60,, Chupas de Paño az[ul] de Puroagua con buelta y collarín de paño grana de 2a. boton de metal Amarillo lisos forrad[o]s en manta de 2a. y 3a. talla)

10 pieces of Chinese silk (10 piezas Sayasayas)

Requisition: Santa Barbara, December 5, 1791

50 bundles of large green and dark blue glass beads (50,, mazes de Abalorio gordo verde y az[u] obscuro)


30 pesos in imitation pearls (30,, p[esos?] en perlas de papelillo)

*I differ with the translation given in the Santa Barbara Trust publication.  Zapatos abotinados were described by later eyewitnesses as side-lacing shoes or ankle boots worn by horsemen.


A. "Soldier's Wife, Monterey," by José Cardero, 1791. Museo de America,
B. "Soldier of Monterey," by José Cardero, 1791. Museo de America,
C. José Cardero also painted the plaza at Mission San Carlos de Borromeo de Carmelo (Carmel Mission), California, 1791.  This detail shows what is probably a soldier without his cuera (civilian and military dress were nearly identical) and two women. Museo de America
D. A pair of embroidered stocking, Spanish, 18th century. Museo del Traje, Madrid.
E. Assorted glass beads excavated at site of the Presidio of Santa Barbara, California by the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation (SBTHP).
F. Brass button, back and front, roughly 3/4 of an inch in diameter. Note the loop (aza) on the back (SBTHP).
G. A decorated buckle (SBTHP)
H. Imitation pearls (SBTHP)


[1] California’s three other presidios were San Francisco, Santa Barbara and San Diego.
[2] Giorgio Perissinotto, Catherine E. Rudolph and Elaine Miller, Documenting Everyday Life in Early Spanish California; The Santa Barbara Presidio Memorias y Facturas, 1779-1810 (Santa Barbara, California: The Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, 1998).  The supply lists for Monterey are not published, but are located in the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City. 

1 comment:

  1. 80 pair of breeches of reinforced blue velvet. Where they reinforced I. The seat and between the legs? It would seem that they would be, for being mounted.

    I see where tripe( a type of velvet) was made with a cotton warp. Trying to translate using online translators, sometimes it hard to get a good translation.

    I have found a mohair velvet with a cotton warp and mohair pile. Thinking seriously of purchasing it. But in the Anza inventory and other inventory does it mention the breeches as calzones?