Sewing up History with a Box

Upon learning of that Frances Levine, director of the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors will soon take over leadership of the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, many of our supporters asked what she might want for a going-away present. The answer? Nothing.

At least nothing for herself. In a selfless display of generosity, Fran is asking folks who want to honor her years of accomplishment to instead consider donating money to the Museum of New Mexico Foundation’s Acquisitions Fund.

SC_Sewing_Box-72The item we’re dying to buy is this sewing box, a rare example of an 18th-century delicacy from Michoacán, Mexico, still bearing its original, hand-lacquered finish in the Chinoiserie style. As for what else makes it so special, read Fran’s description of it, along with details about how you can help her leave an even longer-lasting legacy.

A guest post by Frances Levine, director of the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors:

Maybe it’s because I grew up playing in my Grandmother Zelda’s dressmaking studio. She and her team of women from Germany, Japan, Italy and Russia taught me and my sister the basics of sewing while they created gorgeous couture for my grandmother’s famous clients in Greenwich, Conn. But this sewing box is different than the pincushion-topped and tufted-satin boxes that I saw in Grandma Zelda’s studio.

For the last several years, Colonial Art and History Curator Josef Díaz and I have been looking for a sewing box to add to our collection. In fact, it was beginning to become something of an obsession for me. Why? Two reasons. First, it helps tell one of the stories we’ll include in a 2015 exhibit about Sephardic Jews, Conversos and Crypto-Jews. Second, when you look at this one, you begin to understand something about the way great collections come from the seasoned eyes of our curators.

From documents found in the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City, we know that Doña Teresa Aguilera y Roche, the wife of 17th-century Governor Bernardo López de Mendizábal, was a seamstress and embroiderer. When she and the Governor were arrested in the Palace of the Governors by Inquisition officials in August of 1662, the arresting officials inventoried their household goods, perhaps hoping to find evidence of allegations that the governor and his wife secretly practiced Jewish rituals. Nothing incriminating was found, but the inventory tells us a great deal about Doña Teresa’s past times, personal possessions and taste.

(The History Museum produced this video with New Mexico PBS about Doña Teresa.)

Inquisition officials found many tools associated with sewing, knitting and embroidery, some of the hobbies of high-born colonial women. Doña Teresa had knitting needles and lengths of linen and lace, two silver thimbles, scissors and a paper with rows of pins, small boxes containing ribbons and thread, and several unfinished bodices and chemises. Many of her garments were embroidered. Based on the sewing supplies in her possession, it seems likely that these were made by her.  She also had a chambered chest from Michoacán in which she kept many of her sewing supplies and fabrics.

While she waited in her cell during nearly two years in prison in Mexico City, she was accused of using chocolate to bribe the guards to bring her more thread for an embroidery project. In May 1663, the jailers tallied her “extraordinary” expenses for the month, listing the items she had purchased for herself and her maid: yards of linen for chemises, blue thread, silk ribbons, imitation gold trim and two dozen bobbins, as well as more than 12 pounds of chocolate and six pounds of sugar. Even in her prison cell she seems to have kept up her appearance and lifestyle.

This sewing box, though dating a little later than the one that Doña Teresa owned, is an exquisite example of a colonial woman’s life. The silver drawer pulls, lock and key area are marked with the initials of the silversmith. (A little more research is needed to find his name or that of his workshop.) What makes this piece especially unusual is the wooden spool or bobbin on which a woman like Doña Teresa might have wound her embroidery thread.  And those little hidden compartments were ideal for hiding private notes like the ones on which she listed her ailments, her accounts and her secrets.

Want to help us purchase it? Send donations, however large or small, to the Museum of New Mexico Foundation, 116 Lincoln Ave, Santa Fe, NM 87501. Questions? Call the Foundation at 505-982-6366. Dr. Levine will be notified of your generous gift in her honor.


One thought on “Sewing up History with a Box

  1. With all good wishes to you, Fran, and with gratitude for your generous and helpful spirit. Godspeed.

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