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“Ruffing” it up at Jamestown

neck ruff

Stealing a neck ruff. A scene from PBS Passport’s “Jamestown television series.

Episode 6 of “Jamestown,” the PBS Passport television series, continues to focus on the interactions of individuals (particularly women) from differing socio-economic levels that are thrown together in the new colony. The confined and densely populated community of Jamestown meant that people were rubbing elbows on a daily basis with types of individuals they would not normally encounter. The stratified English society that was familiar to the colonists had transferred to the fledgling settlement in Virginia, but in a condensed form. At Jamestown, there were fewer types of individuals that normally provided oversight and correction (and thereby some protection) in an English community, thereby resulting in far-reaching control held by those in command. The men in authority at Jamestown gained that right by their inherited status or military prowess on the battlefields of Europe. Through strictly enforced expectations and corporal punishments, they managed and directed the male craftsmen, laborers and servants who, in turn, understood their positions in the society. Striking the governor or one of the colony’s leaders was a capital offence, as the blacksmith James Read discovered in Episode 5. Married women were supposed to be primarily under the dominion of their husbands. So when Verity steals some of Secretary Farlow’s possessions in Episode 6, her husband realizes that not only is his wife in trouble but that he will be also held accountable for her crime.

Verity stole two objects that were representative of the Secretary’s elevated position in the society – a neck ruff and an implement to maintain it known as a goffering iron or poking stick.  Neck ruffs, fashionable from the sixteenth century, were worn by both men and women. They were indicators of status, especially in Virginia, because ruff-wearers would need servants who could devote the hours required to prepare and maintain the article of clothing. A neck ruff and goffering iron will be part of the special exhibition “TENACITY: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia” opening at Jamestown Settlement November 10, 2018. The objects will be used to represent the very first English women in the colony, Mistress Forrest and her maid servant Anne Burras who arrived in 1608. Mistress Forrest immediately disappears from the records, but visitors to the exhibition will be able to follow Anne’s remarkable story of survival into the second quarter of the seventeenth century.

Made of linen cloth such as cambric lawn or fine Holland, a ruff would be first prepared by stiffening with starch, a substance introduced to England in the 1560s by the Dutch. Derived from boiled wheat, starch is known from the documentary records to have been used at Jamestown, although not always in the way that it was originally intended. George Percy, the settlement’s highest ranking gentleman in 1608, asked his brother in London to send him ₤4/6/0 worth of “Starche.” This is presumably for the treatment of the “apparrell of diuerse sewts” worth over ₤32 that also was part of Percy’s request. Perhaps this same starch helped Percy to survive the colony’s “starving time” winter of 1609-1610. Captain John Smith tells us that during this period food supplies were so low that “those that had starch for their ruffs made a gluey porridge of it.”

a goffering iron

Verity with the stolen goffering iron. Scene from PBS Passport’s “Jamestown.”

After starching, the ruff would be formed by pressing the cloth over a heated iron tube to form the series of folds. Each bend in the ruff is called a goffer, thus the name “goffering iron” for the forming device. As mentioned earlier, this is the second object that Verity stole from Secretary Farlow’s house in the “Jamestown” television series. Both purloined ruff and iron were discretely dropped by Verity’s husband Meredith into the settlement’s water well to hide the theft from the authorities. Perhaps this provides another explanation for some of the many objects found during archaeological excavations of colonial wells! Several goffering irons have been found archaeologically at the 1607 site of James Fort at Historic Jamestowne and on other early 17th-century Virginia settlements, reinforcing the importance of dress in the colony. Distinctions of class, rank and profession were maintained by the clothes that one wore and by the objects one possessed.  When some colonists began to push the accepted strictures on appropriate attire in 1619—such as the cow-keeper’s silk suit or the beaver hat with pearl headband worn by the wife of an ex-coal miner—a law was enacted that every man should be taxed according to his clothing and, if married, his wife’s apparel should be assessed as well. It is not known whether this legislation was successful in keeping colonists from dressing beyond their means in attempts to change their social rankings.

Even in the wilds of Virginia, it was important to exhibit symbols of one’s standing in English society by personal adornment and other material goods with the hopes that it would transfer without question to the new colonial community.

Bly Straube
Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation


One thought on ““Ruffing” it up at Jamestown

  1. Sam McDonald says:

    Thanks for the insights, Bly!

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