The Soldier's Wedding Gown: Deborah Sampson

Reconstructing a Dress, Reconstructing a Life

Deborah Sampson dress on mannequin

Please note: some images will open larger when clicked.

Of all the tales about women who dressed as men and "served in the ranks" during the American War for Independence, the single best documented case is that of Deborah Sampson. This makes her a figure of unique interest to anyone interested in the era of the American Revolution, anyone who wishes to understand the daily circumstances of its soldiers, the nature of class and gender at the time, or anyone who seeks answers to questions on 18th century American social issues of all types.

Not surprisingly, given her remarkable story, much has been written about Deborah Sampson, including several biographies, beginning with a "memoir" by Herman Mann in 1797, and most recently to date, Masquerade, 2004, a semi-scholarly work by Alfred F. Young. Deborah not only was interviewed by Herman Mann for that first 1797 biography, or "memoir", she even embarked on a lecture tour in 1802-03 to tell her own story to public gatherings. One would think there was little left unknown about her and yet Deborah Sampson remains, in important ways a mystery. Each of those life-stories, including the one she told about herself, was a tale tailored to achieve a certain impression on its audience. As Prof. Young emphasized in choosing to call his work "Masquerade", the real Deborah Sampson has always remained veiled behind a façade of manipulated public image building.

To sum up what we know, Deborah Sampson was approximately 21 years old in 1781, unmarried and working as an itinerant weaver and part-time schoolteacher. She left her home in Middleborough Massachusetts, sometime in the spring of 1782 (Young p. 80) having already begun to experiment in cross-dressing. She meandered about the southeastern Massachusetts region, passing as a young man, from New Bedford to Boston to Bellingham (Young p. 86), before finally enlisting as "Robert Shurtlieff" in Bellingham on May 20, 1782, and being mustered into the 4th Massachusetts Regiment on May 23 at Worcester. (Young p. 114) She served as a light infantryman stationed at West Point, fought in skirmishes in the Hudson River Valley, in the contested area of Westchester County, north of New York City, was wounded twice, once in the head and once in the shoulder, or possibly in the thigh, served as an orderly to Gen. John Paterson, was redeployed to Philadelphia in the summer of 1783, where she contracted a fever serious enough that she was admitted to the military hospital, where her true gender was discovered. Honorably discharged, she returned to Sharon Massachusetts. She married Benjamin Gannett Jr. of Stoughton on April 7, 1785, wearing, according to family history, the dress discussed in this article. She and her husband having been unable to make a financial success of his meager farm, she collaborated with Herman Mann to produce a semi-fictional "memoir" in 1797, and then an "oration" narrating her experiences as a soldier, which she performed before audiences throughout New England and New York in 1802-03, (which would appear to make her also America's first female professional public speaker). After several protracted petitioning processes commencing in 1797, she was awarded a pension as a disabled veteran by Congress in 1805 (Young p. 229), and again in 1821 (Young p. 235), and finally, after her death in 1827, her husband petitioned Congress for a pension as the spouse of a deceased Revolutionary War veteran, and obtained it, the only man ever to do so. (Young pp 267-8)

Despite the military records, the correspondence associated with the petition processes to obtain her veteran's benefits, and so much else written about her, very little remains by way of writings by her, just a journal of accounts she kept briefly while on her lecture tour, and no correspondence to her. In everything written of her, about her, and for her during her lifespan, historical veracity was less of a priority than Federal-era rhetoric, a validation of the Republican virtues of the day, and ever with an eye towards what would sell well. Historians have had precious little to go on. Here is the one known portrait taken of her from life, by Joseph Stone, 1797.

Deborah Sampson portrait

Herman Mann, that schoolmaster turned author who interviewed her in 1797, described her thus: "...her stature is perhaps more than middle size, five feet seven inches... Her waist might displease a coquett...her limbs are regularly proportioned. Ladies of taste considered them handsome when in the masculine garb. ...The features of her face are regular; but not what a physiognomist would term the most beautiful. Her eye is lively and penetrating. She has a skin naturally clear and flushed with a blooming carnation. (quoted in Young, pp. 43-44) ...Her movement is quick, erect and strong."(p.45) He also described her as having small, firm breasts, which she bound with a linen cloth while passing as a man.

How accurate is this physical description? So much of what Mann put into the "memoir" he wrote for her was so patently fictionalized, that, sadly, anything and everything he wrote is suspect. For example, he (or she) invented an unwanted arranged marriage she was fleeing from when she enlisted, and her enlistment date was moved ahead by a year so she could participate in the Battle of Yorktown. As a biographer, Mann seemed less interested in the "facts" and more interested in what we would call today "truthiness", the essence of some larger "Truth" he thought his readers should, or would prefer to, hear.

When the documentary record fails us, we turn to objects, which record history in their own way, and must be carefully interpreted. Yet, even in the way of personal possessions, little survives that was hers, to enlighten us as to what kind of person she was, a woman who could so successfully serve as a light-infantryman, on active duty and living in close quarters with other men for so long, undetected. We have this portrait taken of her, by Joseph Stone in 1797. It shows a strong-faced, rather ordinary looking woman with a long jaw, wearing a modest version of the fashionable dress of its date. Unfortunately, it was of the primitive, folk-limner, rather generic style, of the sort which does not leap off its surface to convey the sense of an individual real person. One object does survive, however, that gown attributed as her wedding dress, which has the potential, if read correctly as a document of material culture, to help eke out a better understanding of this enigmatic woman.

rear view of gown on mannequin

The gown in question is now in the collections of Historic New England, formerly the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. It was donated in 1998 by Ann Gilbert, Carol Bostock Kramer, Susan Bostock Goldstone and Louise Bostock Lehman Sonneborn, all direct linear descendants of Deborah Sampson, great great great granddaughters. The gown has been preserved in the family with the firm family tradition that it was Deborah's wedding dress when she married Benjamin Gannett Jr. in Stoughton on April 7, 1785. It is a copperplate print, blue on an off-white ground.

Detail of printed textile

The fiber has been identified by microscopic analysis twice, once as cotton (by a conservator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) and once as linen (by a conservator at SPNEA), so it is possibly a blend. It is a gown originally made in the late 1770's, which was in like-new condition when it was remodeled about 1785. It bears signs of heavy use thereafter, at least some of which can be attributed to its role as a "venerable relic" worn by various descendants of Deborah's in historical pageants, parades and DAR events. Here it is, c. 1930's, being worn by Helen Louise Monk Weeks, then Regent of the Deborah Sampson Chapter of the DAR.

Helen Weeks, descendant wearing the dress.

Professor Young did not neglect this artifact when he wrote Masquerade, but with all due respect to him, his approach to it was naïve, as is too often the case when traditional historians stray into the unfamiliar territory of trying to interpret the language of material culture. Young had engaged Nancy Rexford to give him her analysis of the garment, and having seen her correspondence to him, I'd endorse everything she said as accurate assessments and conservative speculations about it, including her cautious agreement that it was possible that this could plausibly be Deborah's wedding dress, as family history claims.

But Prof. Young saw this gown through 21st century eyes and allowed himself to indulge in romantic speculation - he saw this as "a pretty... dress, styled in the latest fashion..., made from an imported cotton fabric... too expensive for an ex-soldier sent home 'without a farthing' " (p.174) and from this he extrapolated that "[t]he dress is evidence that Deborah married up, or thought she was doing so, ... entering the class of prosperous middling sort of farmers and might fulfill what Mann called her 'taste for an elegant stile of living' ". (p. 175) A little further on in his book, he refers to the possibility of her wearing "one of her pretty dresses cut to the latest fashion." (p. 182)

But we can take a more in-depth look at this dress, our view informed by a more sophisticated understanding of the nuances of 18th century style, and the implications this dress has for a sense of Deborah's social status. We can also take a very in-depth look at its cut and construction, with particular attention to how and where it was remodeled for her use. This is, I think, the most important information this particular artifact can tell us. What kind of a body did this woman have, in what ways did it differ from the normal 18th century woman's body, such that she could so successfully pass as a man?

As was said, the gown is made of a copperplate print, a bold blue composition of assorted fanciful flowers, several sorts of seashells, and pinecones.


The textile is 35 ½" selvedge to selvedge, and the print overlaps the selvedges, meaning the plate was at least 36" wide. I have not been able to find a linear repeat, so the copperplate may have been over 40" long. The fabric is fairly lightweight for an 18th century gown, with an average thread-count of 68 threads per inch. There are no blue threads in the selvedge, which suggests a non-English origin for the textile. The printing of textiles by means of copperplates was first perfected in Ireland in 1752 (Pettit p. 36), and was introduced into England in 1756 (Montgomery p. 205) where it became a thriving business, as copperplate-printed textiles were wildly popular. Copperplate cotton furnishing textiles were being advertised in the Boston Gazette as early as January 1761 (Cummings p. 23). In France, the toiles de Jouy had begun being printed by copperplate around 1770 (Pettit p. 67), and there were other printing works as well, elsewhere in France, and also in Germany and Switzerland (Straten p. 7). So, we may say that this particular textile is probably not English, and is possibly French, but its precise source remains unidentified. It must be noted that the print is unusually large, on a scale we would expect to see on gowns of the 1740's, such as this one from Barbara Johnson's album.

Barbara Johnson's album print 1748

One museum textile which it strongly resembles is a sample at the Victoria & Albert Museum, described as a "toile de Jouy, third quarter 18th century"

Victoria & Albert Museum sample

Another is a copperplate furnishing textile in the Swedish National Museum, dated to the late 1760's, reproduced by IKEA about twenty years ago and the one from which I constructed my replication.

IKEA ekebyeholm

By the time the original fabric was first made up into a gown, c. 1775-77, fashionable dress goods had smaller, more open floral prints, such as these, from Barbara Johnson's Album.

Barbara Johnson album, dress goods of the 1770's

And by 1785, even tinier prints were in vogue, and dark grounds were coming into fashion

Dress goods, 1780's

So despite Prof. Young's speculations, this was never a fashionable dress. My own hypothesis was confirmed when Elizabeth Ann Coleman, Anthea Jarvis and Naomi Tarrant examined this garment in 2001, while on their way to the Costume Society of America meeting in Providence RI. The unanimous consensus was that the printing plate had originally been intended for producing furnishing textiles, and that a canny manufacturer saw some extra money to be made by re-using it to run off some inexpensive light-weight dress goods, marketable because copperplate printing was in fashion, even if the print itself wasn't. And the print, which was unfashionably large in scale for a gown when new, c. late 1770's, was even more so by 1785. Not the "pretty... dress... in the latest fashion" of Prof. Young's fancy, this was never more than a decent, serviceable make-do, respectable if somewhat a little too garish to be in the best of taste.

What did the original dress of c. 1775-77 look like, and where did it come from? A very close analysis of the pieces used to piece out the gown when it was remodeled, where they were placed and where they were taken from, reveals a great deal, so this question can be answered with some confidence.

First iteration of the dress c1777, altered photo


Remake of first version, worn by SAB

It began as a typical robe en fourreau, with open skirts in front, a bodice with center front edge to edge closure, and elbow-length sleeves with self-fabric flounces, probably double flounces. The edge to edge front closure dates this original dress pretty closely, as the very first evidence for this detail in English fashion is c. 1775-77, The Ann Frankland Lewis "Dress of the Year 1775" image now at LACMA, and the "Three Ladies in the Dress of 1777" fashion plate. The original dress had this detail, and shows no evidence whatsoever of the earlier robings style, so therefore it could not have been made any earlier than then.

'Dress of the Year' Ann Frankland Lewis, 1775

A schematic diagram shows approximately how the original gown was cut, and, in red, where it was cut into, and pieces added, during the 1785 remodeling.

Schema of original cutting diagram c. 1775

Schema of remodeling diagram from c. 1785.

The back was re-cut for style, into a shape more fashionable for 1785, with a narrow back cut totally separately from the skirts. Side pieces were added to the bodice back to compensate for the style-difference, resulting in our being unable to tell whether the gown's chest and waist girth had to be altered for size differences as well. The bodice fronts appear to be original and unaltered from the first iteration of the gown.

The torso length seems to have needed no alteration, as the bodice fronts were, as stated, entirely unaltered. The gown as it survives has a 38" bust, a 28" waist, and an underarm torso length of 8 ½ ", pretty average for an 18th century day gown. However, the skirts are 40" long at the side-front.

Cutting diagram, lengthening of skirt

They have been lengthened by five inches, by adding to the top and then repleating them into the tiny pleats fashionable in the mid 1780"s. The fabric used to lengthen the skirts seems to have been in large part taken from the original sleeve flounces, unpicked and pieced out as needed to accommodate the curved waist seam, On the inside, one can see not only the finely hemmed edges of the flounces buried in the skirt pleats, both the straight and scalloped edges of these flounces, but also the stitch-marks and little creases which indicate where these flounces had been gathered to fit the original sleeve.

Photos of skirt piecing, 3 details

Some comments about Deborah's height are appropriate here. Mann said in 1797 that Deborah was five feet seven inches tall, and subsequently elsewhere, that she was 5' 7½ ". Interestingly, the gown rather neatly confirms this height estimate - 5' 7" is the minimum height of a woman this gown would fit. The study of average heights in historic populations is called anthropometric history, a tiny subspecialty of physical anthropology which got its start in the 1970's, and is a fascinating field much too complex to discuss here. What is relevant here is that it is very difficult to estimate average heights for historic populations of women because there were few occasions when women's heights were recorded in any great numbers. But there were for men - notably when they were mustered into military service. Using these military records, we know that the average height for American-born American men at the time of the Revolution was about one inch shorter than it is today. The average height of American-born American men today is roughly 5' 9"; according to the muster-records, then it was about 5' 8". If we take the average height of American-born women today, which is 5' 3", and assume the same ratio of difference, then the average height for American-born women then was one inch less, or roughly 5' 2". In other words, Deborah was nearly average in height for a man of her time, but a good bit taller than the average woman. In terms of height, she would have looked more inconspicuous as a male than as a female. Note also that this gown, which was remodeled for her, had to be lengthened precisely 5", which is precisely the amount by which she was taller than the "average" woman.

Further alterations to the gown reveal still more information about the distinctive features of Deborah's physique. As stated, the gown back was totally re-cut for style, so it is impossible to say if the bodice was also resized in the process. The sleeves, however, reveal that, not only were they remodeled for the longer sleeve style of c. 1785, they were pieced out to make each sleeve wider in the upper arm.

Alterations to enlarge the sleeves

The enlarged sleeve, showing the inserted width and added length,

The inserted strips finished out at 2" wide, but that does not tell us for certain how wide the original sleeve was. A quantitative survey of the sleeve-head width on all the graphed gowns and jackets from the late 1770's through mid 1780's in Norah Waugh, Janet Arnold, Baumgarten's Costume Close-Up and Fitting& Proper produced eleven examples, with an average width at the sleeve head of 13.3". The sleeves on Deborah's gown are now 15", so presumably they were widened by roughly 1½ " or more. Many 18th century working-class women could have had significant upper-arm muscles, such as a laundress, or a weaver, which is what Deborah was. But one could also argue that seventeen months as a soldier at arms, drilling daily with a 10 pound musket and performing all the tasks expected of a light infantryman on active duty, may have given Deborah Sampson even more well developed biceps than she had when she enlisted. Interestingly, when the completed replica garment was fitted onto a broad-shouldered model, a remarkable amount of shoulder width was accommodated by the cut of the sleeves, while still preserving the narrow-backed stylistic lines of a 1780's gown.

Broad shoulders in repro

In keeping with mid-1780's fashions, an "apron-front" panel was added.

The rest of the gown skirts clearly preserve the configuration of the original open robe, with a tape facing the hem at the sides and back, the side-front corners curved slightly up, and the extra fabric turned up into the side-front hem. The added apron-front panel, with identical tape to face its hem, must have come from supplementary yardage.

This argues against this gown having been an item purchased second-hand. On the other hand, the skirts had to be significantly lengthened, which argues against this having been a gown Deborah owned before she ran away to the army. So for once, Prof. Young's speculation seems to be corroborated by the evidence in the cloth - he proposed that the original c. 1775 gown might have originally belonged to Benjamin Gannett Sr.'s late wife Mary, who had died in 1781 (p. 174). We of course have no way of knowing, but the fact that the relatively unworn original gown survived along with extra matching yardage in both fabric and tape is consistent with a hypothesis of it having been a lightly-worn hand-me-down within the family.

While there may have been some extra fabric, there cannot have been much. Making over gowns was common in the 18th century, and visible joins to accomplish this purpose were customary, on gowns of all levels of the social scale. But this gown is remarkable in the number and small size of its piecings. It is a paragon of parsimony. Little corners were eked out with tiny ½" pieces, and there are pieces added in just to extend an insufficient seam allowance.

tiny pieces added in

The tiny ⅛" hem of the recycled flounces butts a ¼ " unfinished seam allowance to achieve the 5" needed to lengthen the skirt.

Hemmed edge of sleeve flounce pieced to raw edge,to lengthen skirt

Such small tolerances require careful stitching, so this gown represents a fabric-thrifty but labor-intensive adaptive re-use. A scarcity of fabric did not permit the luxury of matching the print. Nevertheless great care was taken to make the joins as invisible as possible - where the tiny turned hem of the original flounces could not be used, small seam allowances were folded under once, and everywhere, these edges were sewn in a tiny butted whipstitch at 11 to 16 stitches per inch.

A look at the inside of the gown bodice reveals some other information. One linen lining fabric, a coarser one, reveals which elements survive from the c. 1775 gown--the bodice back, bodice fronts, and the upper sleeves. A different, finer, linen fabric was used to line the pieces added in 1785, the bodice side additions and the sleeve extensions, those pieces added to make the sleeves longer and curved.

Two different lining fabrics in bodice and sleeves

In the spirit of thriftiness, all the fabric which was pieced in at the top of the skirt to make it longer was left there, the unneeded parts left hanging inside, just in case the skirts ever had to be recycled again.

Extra sleeve flounce fabric left inside skirt

And, despite the exquisite care with which the joinings were worked, the sleeve seam and the waistline seam are sewn very sturdily, backstitched at 11 stitches per inch in heavy thread, but with no effort made at neatness, the uneven raw seam allowances left raw and ragged, no effort being expended on neatness where it wouldn't be seen.

Raw edges on interior seam allowances

Over the next two centuries, the gown saw some modifications. It became very soiled and worn. The hem was taken up and let down several times. The top of the apron front was reworked so thoroughly that it is now impossible to say how it was sewn in 1785. A mixed assortment of hooks and eyes, mostly 19th century and early 20th century, were added at the center front of the bodice, which was probably originally just pinned to fasten it.

Hooks and eyes, added in 19c

The gown survived in a very soiled and worn-out state, and it is impossible to say how much of that wear came from Deborah's wearing of it, and how much came from its subsequent use by her descendants, as this "family heirloom" became more and more old and brittle.

As worn by DAR descendant

Although the circumstantial evidence seems overwhelmingly convincing, we cannot really assert with absolute certainty that Deborah Sampson owned this dress. So we certainly cannot say who altered it for her use in 1785. It is tempting to consider what the methods of those alterations can tell us about the priorities and temperament of the seamstress who did the remodeling. Was it Deborah herself? One hesitates to speculate that far. But one can certainly say about this unknown dressmaker that this garment which she remodeled, with its challenge of adapting a gown with not-quite-enough fabric to fit a larger-than average woman, reveals her as a woman with ingenuity, resourcefulness, a high degree of intelligence and creativity, excellent skills in working with fabric, and an admirable level of patience, diligence, and/or tenacity. All of these are character traits for which the meager historical record does give evidence that Deborah Sampson possessed.

So what has this artifact told us about Deborah Sampson? Clothing is the most intimate aspect of material culture; it is that part of material culture which is the interface between our skin and our society. This piece of Deborah's clothing tells us she was short-waisted but remarkably long-legged, and much more within the range of normal height for a man than for a woman of her time. We learn that she had unusual upper arm development, and, possibly, fairly broad shoulders for a woman.


Sarah modeling repro

Combining this with the text descriptions of her as "features regular, but not the most beautiful..." and the visual representation from that rather crude portrait which supports those observations, and we can begin to pull together in our minds at least a visual image of what kind of a woman Deborah Sampson might have been. As to her temperament, her values and aspirations, that of course is probably better inferred by what we know of her life history, but this, her gown, suggests at the very least that she knew how to, and was willing to, make the best of whatever opportunities, however meager, which presented themselves.

***For the purpose of this project in experimental replication, I enlisted the assistance of a friend, Sarah Melcher. Of all the women re-enactors I've known who have done male impressions, Sarah's was one of the best I've ever seen. What's more, she was just about the right height and size to fit into Deborah's dress as reconstructed inch for inch and stitch for stitch. Sarah agreed to model the replica for me so we might be able to see how all the details of it "come together" meaningfully on an appropriate female physique. Sarah modeled Deborah's dress for me in my home for a photo shoot, and then again at a New England regional meeting of the Costume Society of America. My profound thanks, again, to Sarah for contributing her time and trouble to this experiment.

Sarah in the ranks


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