Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Two Antique Baptismal Gowns

A Baptismal gown, circa 1882
[From my own collection]

The 'Baptismal Gown', as we know it today, appears to have evolved in the mid eighteenth century, being in common use by the 19th century. In my family collection are two such treasured gowns, having come from Scotland and both dating from the 19th century Victorian era.

The Ordnance of Baptism being covertly dispensed in the open
air during the time of the Scottish Covenantors, mid 18th
 century. The 'Covenantors' fought hard to maintain their
established Presbyterian forms of worship and sacrament,
often at some considerable risk to their own lives.
[Source : Google Books]

The Sacrament of Baptism with water is part of Christian tradition dating back to the time of Christ. This rite is most associated with John the Baptist who is generally acknowledged to have baptised Jesus. Baptism of adults had, by around 200 AD, evolved to include the rite of infant baptism. The 16th century Reformer Martin Luther considered baptism to be a Sacrament thus ensuring that post Reformation this rite remained an important ritual within the Protestant Church. The Scottish Presbyterian Reformer John Knox wrote in 1560 that; "By baptism we are engrafted into Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his righteousness, by which our sins are covered and remitted."

My Grandfather's Baptismal Certificate
from the Bread Street United Presbyterian
Church Edinburgh, dated 22nd April 1851.
Elaborate certificates had not yet come into vogue.
[From my own Collection]

My forebears, adhering strictly to the beliefs and practices of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, took the baptism of their infant children very seriously. The baptism of a child was treated not only as a solemn holy ceremony but also as a celebration. As part of this important religious rite the infant would be dressed in a traditional white baptismal gown specifically reserved for this sole purpose. While the two gowns featured on this Blog are made of finely woven white cotton cambric, silk was also a commonly used but obviously more expensive fabric for such gowns. But ironically cambric is a more durable fabric than silk so both of my gowns are in excellent condition for their age.

A Baptismal gown, c.1844
[From my own collection]

Both these gowns have a known provenance going back to the 19th century and come from my maternal Grandmothers family. Quite why there are two is a mystery, I am strongly assuming the second and more detailed gown was purchased at a later date when the next generation of my family were born. Baptismal gowns generally became more elaborate as the Victorian era progressed so this is another guide as to age. These gowns are now around 130 to 170 years old.

Close up of the c.1844 gown and showing
the small amount of Ayrshire Lace detailing.

The first gown, and I believe the earliest, is of fine white cotton cambric, 42 inches long, and in a plainer tucked style with a wide neck with narrow ribbon ties, very short sleeves but having a small amount of “Ayrshire” style embroidery in a “V” pattern on the back of the neck and with a simple embroidered edge running down the back, finishing off with more “Ayrshire” embroidery at the bottom.

The Ayrshire Lace detailing added
to the bottom of the c.1844 gown

I am strongly assuming that this plainer gown is the older of the two, possibly dating to the baptism of family children from 1844 onwards. We do know that baptismal gowns in this same style were in common use from at least the early 19th century.

Close up of the more elaborate c.1882
gown showing the Ayrshire Lace
detailing and multiple tucking

The second gown is also of fine white cotton cambric, being slightly shorter than the first at 39 inches, but almost the whole front is decorated with “Ayrshire” style hand embroidery and fine tucking. Again, the neck is wide and the sleeves very short. This would have been a more expensive gown and would be used even if the child were a boy so that does not mean that the other slightly plainer gown was reserved exclusively for boys. I believe this gown was first used in 1882. 

The baby would also have worn an embroidered bonnet and wrapped in a shawl when taken to the Church, almost certainly also wearing undergarments as the gowns themselves are quite thin. None of these items have survived in my family as they would have been in normal use.

A New Zealand Presbyterian Church
 Baptismal Certificate dated 1922. Such
colourful certificates were designed
to be kept as treasured reminders of
this very special event.
[From my own collection]

Being no doubt well wrapped up on a Scottish winter's day in January 1854 did not however prevent the death of little Mary Dykes, a relative from Avondale Parish in Lanarkshire, who was taken by her parents to the local Presbyterian Church at Strathaven for baptism but unfortunately caught a chill and died soon afterwards. Her family would however have taken some spiritual comfort from the fact that their infant child had been baptised prior to her early and untimely death.

A New Zealand Presbyterian Church
 Baptismal Certificate dated 1942.
[From my own collection]

As baptismal gowns were only worn for the ceremony then carefully stored away they have usually survived in good condition, thus becoming treasured family heirlooms through each generation. Such gowns should be stored boxed but well wrapped in acid free tissue paper in a dry environment and kept away from light. They should never be stored in plastic bags. I keep mine lightly folded with extra tissue padding in a wax-lined archival grade cardboard box. But if you are able to obtain an acid-free box, as well as plenty of acid free tissue paper, that would be well worth the added expense. As with any antique fabric they should only be handled with clean washed hands. Some excellent professionally written resources are available on Internet to assist with the care and conservation of old textiles, eg cleaning, pressing, storage, what to avoid or be aware of etc.

Unless otherwise stated all images are from my own collection and may be freely copied for non-commercial use provided this site is acknowledged.

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