New Brunswick

Historic clothing discovered in cellar of Loyalist House

Summer students working at Saint John’s Loyalist House came across a surprise while working in the house’s cellar. 

The New Brunswick Historical Society will decide what happens to the clothing

The chest has a metal exterior, wooden interior and is lined with a September 1867 issue of the Saint John Daily Telegraph. (The Loyalist House & New Brunswick Historical Society/Facebook)

Summer students working at Saint John's Loyalist House came across a surprise while working in the house's cellar. 

Buried under lumber was a chest filled with clothing from the 1800s. When Misty McKinney, the summer student manager, opened the chest she knew right away they had to call in help. 

The chest is wooden with a metal exterior and is lined with a copy of the Saint John Daily Telegraph newspaper from September 1867.

"It was quite full, it was hard to tell exactly what we were looking at. We knew that it was fabric but we couldn't make out what condition the pieces were in," she told Information Morning Saint John.

McKinney said she knew not to touch anything until they called clothing historian Bernadette Fowler. 

When Fowler took a look in the box she found picked apart clothing that looked like different sewing projects.

"That is a fabulous thing when you study historical clothing because you really get to look at the construction of it."

The pieces looked like leftovers from sewing projects. They were previously finished clothing items that were being recycled into new articles of clothing. 

The students also discovered a bottle of Great Auk's Head Stout, or Guinness Stout. It's estimated to be about 100 years old. (The Loyalist House & New Brunswick Historical Society/Facebook)

Fowler said it's likely everything in the chest belonged to the Merritt family. The Loyalist House was built for the David Daniel Merritt family between 1817 and 1820 and stayed in the family for six generations. 

The clothing dated back to around the 1860s. The chest had the tops of gowns, a lining to a man's jacket and half of a skirt that dated back to the 1850s.

"That's the neat thing about the clothing is that it tells a story, if you know how to read a book."

Fowler said the clothing shows what the fashion tastes of the family were and even what the family mindset was. 

Condition issues

"They didn't just throw anything out which this chest proves. They reused what they could and kept in the trunk what they couldn't use rather than toss it."

McKinney said it was interesting to discover something that had been there the whole time.

"I've worked in the house for about four years now and to think that this chest had been sitting under our feet this entire time was absolutely mind blowing." 

Sadly, the clothing is not in the best condition. It was found in the cellar that was designed for food storage. The moisture in the cellar along with rodents and insects took a toll on the fabric. 

A cleanup of the cellar at Loyalist House uncovered a treasure chest of historic clothing. Misty McKinney is the summer student manager at Loyalist House and Bernadette Fowler is a clothing historian. Host Julia Wright chats with them about the discovery. 11:01

Now the clothes have been shipped to a freezing facility. They will be frozen to kill anything that could damage the fabric further. 

Fowler recommends to the Historical Society of New Brunswick what they should do with the clothing, but the society makes the final decision.

Some pieces are too delicate to be put on display. 

"When you're dealing with clothing that is this old, any time it is moved, any time it is brought out into the light, you're doing damage to it on a microscopic level." 

Some items could be displayed, but the ones that can't will go into proper storage in a controlled environment to prolong the life of the fabric. 

After the chest was discovered, a former employee reached out to inform staff there was another chest in the attic full of clothing. Those items were also shipped to a freezer facility. 

"To be able to discover two chests in one house has been quite an interesting experience," said McKinney.

With files from Information Morning Saint John

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