Enlivening our Exhibits

Note: This article appeared in Volume 43, No. 1 of the Mid-Continent Railway Gazette, published in march 2010, is not available from the museum on-line. Therefore the entire text is accessible here. But a fully illustrated copy of the article can be purchased directly from the museum by calling their office at 608-522-4261.

Outside the Mt. Clemens railroad depot is a marker designating it as one of Michigan’s historic sites. The wording on the plaque commemorates the depot’s association with a young newsboy on the Grand Trunk Railroad by the name of Thomas Alva Edison, who honed his skills as a telegrapher under the tutelage of James Mackenzie, the depot’s operator. On display inside is a mannequin meant to depict the youthful Edison as he might have appeared to the GTR’s passengers during his brief apprenticeship in 1862.

Like the mannequins that inhabit the coaches in Mid-Continent’s Coach Shed No. 1, the Edison figure is the product of the creative skills of Life member Sandra Hamlet. As a former resident of Detroit and professor at Wayne State University, she was also an Associate member of the Michigan Transit Museum. Her work for them followed her success in populating a few of our own coaches with life-like figures dressed in fashions appropriate to the era in which the cars operated.

Credit for initially creating this type of exhibit at North Freedom goes to Life member Jeff Haertlein. His placement of three such figures as Great Northern crew members have helped museum guests understand the purpose of a caboose as a mobile office for the freight crew. Hamlet’s work utilized the Oak Park and two other Mid-Continent coaches for a similar purpose. Her work focused on the passengers who would have occupied these cars when they were new.

Hamlet started her mannequin project in 1996. She stated, “The antique wax heads and some of the seated figures were purchased by me especially for these displays, and then donated to the museum when completed.” Financial assistance for these acquisitions came from Hamlet’s family and friends, with belated credit going to Elise Cohen, Susan Fleming, Brian Blakeley and Edith Heinemann for their support of her work.

The truly antique mannequins Hamlet purchased were a major discovery. She found them in a Detroit warehouse that was going out of business and needed to liquidate its entire stock. What she could afford to buy were just a few samples from a variety of exquisite figures. And what she saw in them was that “Antique wax heads have greater and more varied facial expressions than modern mannequins.” It appealed to her that “The ‘look’ represents the ideals of another era,” the era Mid-Continent seeks to portray as part of its mission.

A major resource for the patterns used to reproduce the period clothing in which Hamlet dressed the mannequins was the Amazon Drygoods catalogue. Beyond simply providing the patterns, the catalogue’s linear notes added keen insights into the type of fabric used with each style of shirt, dress, pant and vest needed to dress the various figures Hamlet assembled for her collection. To these she added little touches like antique buttons and other accessories already accumulated from her many years of interest in sewing as a hobby.

When you enter the Coach Shed, walk down the right-hand aisle and up the first set of steps to the elevated platform. On the right is the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic coach No. 213, owned and restored by the Buhrmaster family. Inside you will see an affluent family of four prepared to ride in the comfort of this first class coach. And when you look into the mother’s beautifully smiling face or the little boy’s bewildered stare, you will see for yourself the individual appeal each figure holds within its finely crafted features.

The little girl’s head is a fine example of the care Hamlet took in preparing these delicate figures for display. “On advice from the Milwaukee Public Museum the head was cleaned with soap and water (no solvents), primed with tinted gesso for skin tone, with finer details like the lips and eyebrows painted with water-based acrylics.” What she learned firsthand is that, “An unpainted wax head is easily damaged by scratches.”

The size 4 pattern for the girl’s dress is an authentic Butterick pattern published in 1898 and included a guimpe, the sheer underblouse you see with the high neckline. Hamlet tailored the dress with a loose fit since children’s clothing from that period fitted more loosely in order to allow for growth. “The antique collar was originally meant for a woman’s dress, but turned backwards it exactly fit the neckline for this child’s dress.”

Making the high-button shoes further demonstrated Hamlet’s ingenuity for adapting materials at hand to craft the accurate look for a little girl’s pair of shoes circa 1890. She attached antique buttons to a pair of custom sewn leather spats, which were then glued to a pair of shoes she bought at a local thrift store.

The father figure posed a different challenge, but what else would you expect from dad? Unlike the rest of the members of the family grouping Hamlet fashioned him from a modern mannequin with a much paler complexion than his wax-headed family. He required extensive painting to give him the proper skin tone. And his 1990’s expression was aged one hundred years with the addition of a thick, dark mustache in keeping with the style of the late nineteenth century.

Hamlet dressed him in a gentleman’s “sack suit” with small lapels and lightly padded shoulders characteristic of that period. Catalogue notes explain that the sack suit and derby replaced the frock coat and top hat previously worn by professional gentlemen. And it was the precursor of the modern business suit. The shirt Hamlet made for our well-dressed gentleman has removable snap-on collar and cuffs, which she stiffly starched. That the men of that era favored red ties was another tip from the Amazon Drygoods catalogue that she followed in order to keep dad fashionably up-to-date, so to speak.

Next to the DSS&A No. 213 is another first class coach built in 1888, the Milwaukee, Lake Shore & Western No. 63. Inside you will find a group definitely riding above its class as this ensemble of prairie folk was originally displayed in the Copper Range combine No. 60. But when the restoration of the Lake Shore coach was complete, it was moved into the combine’s place in the Coach Shed with the combine going to the Car Shop for refurbishment.

In contrast to the more fashionable clothing of our city family, clothes worn by farmers and pioneers were simpler and much more versatile. But simple would not be an accurate way to describe the painstaking detail Hamlet put into these outfits. “The woman’s dress is made of cotton calico, the apron and sunbonnet from gingham.” This different choice of fabric was intentional since it was typical that the material in women’s clothing did not match. Accessories like the sunbonnet and apron were often made from the least worn parts of an older dress. “Special touches are hand crocheted lace on the collar, antique buttons, hand-worked buttonholes and feather stitching around the openings of the keyhole pockets.”

Notes from the pattern Hamlet used to make the woman’s dress tells us that these dresses “…had deep front openings, since pioneer women did not have chambermaids to fasten up the back – also a convenience for nursing mothers.” This last statement might be the inspiration behind an amusing touch she added to her pioneer woman. Take a closer look and you will see that under her apron our prairie wife has a little tummy. Hamlet believes her to be about five months pregnant.

To clothe her Tom Sawyer look alike, Hamlet started with a basic boy’s shirt pattern and modified it to make it more typical of the 1890’s. “The collar was made deeper and rounder and the gathered fullness of the sleeves was eliminated. The shirt is made of homespun looking cotton, pre-washed many times, and has antique buttons and hand-worked buttonholes.”

“The pants and suspenders are modern thrift store purchases, extensively modified. Leather tabs created button suspenders. The pants were well-worn Levis, which had all the seams taken apart and resewn, and the waistline altered to make them look old.” The boy’s stocking tops are literally that, just the tops. Hamlet hand knitted them from raw wool, saving time and expense in their production by leaving off the part that would not be seen by the casual observer.

Last in line is the Oak Park, our 1884 business car. Seated at the table in the dining room is a railroad official, looking through his papers as he travels along one of the routes built by the Minneapolis, St. Paul & Saulte St. Marie Railroad. The before and after photographs of the wax head used to make our railroad executive provide a good example of the transformation that took place as Hamlet gently cleaned the years of accumulated grime from the visage of each wax face.

The owners of the warehouse where Hamlet bought her antique mannequins used this figure of a middle-aged man to portray a gangster. Cleaned up the natural skin tone cast into the wax became more apparent, while the look of the glass eyes gave our gangster turned railway executive a much more compelling, perhaps sinister, look. To add to her interpretation of what a grizzled executive would look like, Hamlet compelled Life member Jeff Bloohm to donate one of his partially smoked cigars, with a prescribed length of ash still intact, for display in the exec’s ash tray. Museum guests walking by the Oak Park today will see that the ash tray is empty, thankfully.

A similar type of stunning transformation was also evident in the features of a mannequin that is no longer part of this series of displayed figures. The Pullman Porter that once stood on the rear vestibule of the Oak Park was donated to the Wright Museum in Detroit not long after taking up his duties at North Freedom. This museum is dedicated to the subject of African-American history and found in Hamlet’s creation a desirable figure for prominent display at their facility.

“The natural African features of this mannequin head made it a true rarity,” and encouraged Hamlet to take a different approach in creating this particular figure. The coat, with its original Pullman buttons still attached, is authentic. So is the badge that adorns a more modern cap that Hamlet purchased to complete the outfit.

One other feature differentiates this mannequin from the rest that are on display. Since his hands would be visible, Hamlet had to carefully paint a pair of light-skinned wax hands to compliment the natural look of the porter’s African-American features. This included taking great care to give the finger nails and palms a lighter skin tone than the rest of the hand.

The techniques Hamlet developed in transforming the mannequins at North Freedom into life-like representations of passengers and crew were applied to her creation of the Edison figure for the Michigan Transit Museum.

“The mannequin was probably vintage 1950s and a little damaged. Some fingers were broken although still attached. There was a hole in the forehead. His right arm was cracked and held together with masking tape. And in general the surface was marred and scuffed.”  The mannequin’s pose gave Hamlet the initial impression that he was supposed to be of a cute summertime beach boy. “Basic repairs were made with epoxy, and the head and hands repainted with acrylics.”

Hamlet worked from a limited number of black and white photographs in order to be as faithful as possible to the physical image of a youthful Edison. “It is known that he had vivid blue eyes and blond hair as a child. He had high cheekbones and smiled with his mouth closed.” To replicate the facial expression Hamlet made altercations to the face, with special care to make the nose larger and less snubbed. She also fashioned the boy’s hair to droop over the forehead, but this charming detail became less evident with the addition of a cap.

To make young Edison’s clothing, Hamlet used the knowledge gained from dressing the mannequins at Mid-Continent. “The shirt is made from a coarse weave cotton fabric, which looks homespun but isn’t. For authenticity, hand sewing was done on any seam that showed on the outside, and all the buttonholes were worked by hand. Of interest is that all of the pattern pieces are square or oblong – no curved pieces as in modern patterns, which leave a lot of scrap from the fabric. Thus the older patterns are extremely economical with fabric, and use every bit. Considering the labor to spin and weave fabric this makes perfect sense.”

The pants pattern was taken from the trousers of the sack suit used to dress our upscale father in the DSS&A No. 213. To get an appropriate look and texture for the less affluent Edison, Hamlet reversed the material from a pair of black denim pants and used the “inside” of the material as the front of the fabric. “The pants have a button fly and are meant to be worn with suspenders. A lot of sewing by hand was done on the pants whenever it would show on the outside.” Once complete the pants were laundered several times to get a worn and faded look.

Even in creating this image of a poor, obscure newsboy, Hamlet did not skimp on the finer details. “All of the buttons on the shirt and pants are antique. The white shirt buttons are from shell. The pants buttons are of vegetable ivory, a paste composition that predated plastics. The boots are modifications of shoes bought at a thrift store. A local shoe repairman removed the modern trim and then the boots were dyed and scuffed up. Leather shoe laces were cut from a piece of scrap leather. The old style suspenders were purchased from the Amazon Drygoods catalogue.”

Railroad museums, particularly those that have a prominent operating component, have a reputation for providing volunteer opportunities which are almost exclusively suited for guys with mechanical skills. But Hamlet’s work serves to show that there are other tasks, equally beneficial to a museum and its guests, which serve to interpret one’s mission statement.

These days you will find a woman’s touch on various museum programs. Restorations, landscaping, archiving, research, writing, marketing and the Gandy Dancer Festival all feature prominent roles female staff, members and non-member volunteers have taken to advance our organization. And in appreciation of their collective efforts I will give the female perspective the final word.

The pattern notes Hamlet followed contained a reprint from a Ladies Journal article published in the early 1900s. It explains that there are three types of men when it comes to fashion. The first is above criticism when he takes the time to be “particular” about his clothes. The second is the direct opposite for being indifferent as to his appearance. “A third element habitually violates the basic principles of good taste, either through a dwarfed aesthetic sense of a distorted conception of what is fashionable.” Ouch!


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