Good thing comes in small package for Middleboro

Restoring dress of Mrs. Tom Thumb was huge undertaking

Marc Vasconcellos/The Enterprise

A dress once worn by Lavinia Warren (Mrs. Tom Thumb) is on display at the Middleboro Historical Museum.

By Jennifer Bray
Posted Jul 06, 2013 @ 06:00 AM

In 1892, Ellis Island in New York Harbor opened as the main immigration center on the East Coast.

In 1893, the New York Stock Exchange collapsed, touching off a financial tsunami.

And in 1896, the United States took part in the first modern Olympic games, which were held in Athens, Greece.

Today, a rare piece of history from that period is on display at the Middleboro Historical Museum.

A dress with rumors of royalty, worn by Lavinia Warren, wife of Tom Thumb, is making its debut after being kept under wraps for more than 120 years.

At one time it was thought that Lavinia wore the inky black creation when she was received overseas by Queen Victoria.

Thumb and Warren were world-famous petite performers during that time.

At one point, they worked for P.T. Barnum and his famous circus.

But in their down time, they lived quietly in Middleboro.

The Middleboro Historical Museum is home to the largest collection of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren memorabilia. The museum recently commissioned a painstaking conservation project of the dress.

The black silk and net frock with velvet and sequin trim may only measure 26 inches long and span three yards of fabric in width, but it took Marie Schlag, a textile conservator, a year to bring it back to life.

“Over the course of a year, I probably spent 200 hours on the dress,” Schlag said.

She explained that her job began with a fiber analysis of the gown.

“There is a lot of science in this. I measured it and did an analysis of all the things wrong with it.”

The silk was so degraded, according to Schlag, that an intense bout of cleaning was done by hand.

The soils that were removed or reduced from the dress were vacuumed with specialized HEPA filters.

The sparkling sequins that made Lavinia’s dress glimmer and shimmer were an entire project in themselves.

“There are probably between 2,000 and 3,000 sequins on that dress, and because they are made from gelatin they cannot be wet or they dissolve,” Schlag explained.

Her painstaking methods included special dry cleaning techniques to bring the luster back to the sequins.

The skirt on the dress also posed a major textile conservation challenge.

“The skirt itself had a lot of slits, tears and breaks. The silk it was made from ages and it gets dessicated,” Schlag said.

To close those gaps, the conservator had to dye silk to match the dress. The next step was using adhesives to stick it to the back side of the silk by using adhesives and heat. The silk was too fragile for a needle.

That’s the biggest difference between conservation and restoration, said Schlag.

“Restoration changes the cultural history of the object, and conservation slows down the degradation and is always reversible,” she said.

Schlag said it is not known who made Lavinia’s dress. She completed a lot of historical research before embarking on the conservation project.

“To be able to keep that piece of history in our culture is why I do what I do,” Schlag said. “When I look at something in deplorable condition, open that box and that’s when my heart skips a beat. I say wow! I first appreciate where it’s been and who saw it.”

Jennifer Bray may be reached at


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Delightful tour guide made museum visit memorable

August 30, 2012 11:47 AM

To the Editor:

Our seven-member Lakeville book discussion group read “The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, a Novel” this past year and as a follow-up visited The Middleborough Historical Museum on Jackson Street yesterday. This museum houses the world’s largest collection of Tom Thumb memorabilia.

The purpose of this letter is to lavish praise on our tour guide, Gladys Beals. Because she was good friends with the mother of one of our members, we calculated her age to be around 90 years young. What an incredible oral history she gave us, all the while pointing out maps or pictures or chairs or interesting artifacts, and never faltering, never losing her place. She was articulate and interesting, dressed impeccably and seemed to thoroughly enjoy her subject … and the sharing of her knowledge with us. She made our tour of the museum a memorable one.

Thank you, Gladys.

Carol Kalchthaler


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Open for Business Once Again: The Peirce Company Store

June 21, 2012 11:26 AM

This Saturday, the Middleborough Historical Museum reopens its iconic Peter H. Peirce Company exhibit, with an open house from 10 to 3, including a ribbon-cutting at 10 and tours at 11. The exhibit documents the history of the Peirce Company store that occupied what is now the Middleborough police station on North Main Street from the early 1800s through 1935. Closed for the past few years in order to permit repairs to the building which houses it, as well as a re-cataloging and re-interpretation of the exhibit artifacts, the Peter H. Peirce Company exhibit has long been a popular attraction at the museum, and the public is invited to come celebrate its re-opening.

The Peirce family, their store, and the fund which they left behind, all hold an important place in Middleborough history. In 1934, a year before the store officially closed, the Middleboro Gazette published an overview of the store’s history, which follows.

“Our feature this week relates the story of a store – the P. H. Peirce Company – from whose extensive trade of years ago, a trust fund was able to be established for the use of the Town of Middleboro, and which has been of great value and assistance since its origination.

“The old firm name of P. H. Peirce and Company stood for Peter Hoar Peirce and his sons. Job, Thomas and James were the sons interested in the general store, which was however a department store as we speak of them today.

“Peter Hoar Peirce, who was born March 25, 1788, and who was named after Peter Hoar, with whom he lived after the death of his parents, began as a storekeeper in the two story house now standing at the Upper Four Corners, on the southeast corner of the intersection of “¦ Main and Vaughan streets in Lakeville.

“He had few advantages, but developed an unusual business ability in his early youth, and by his energy and persistent endeavor, he became the leading business man of the town. Forseeing business life at the Four Corners, he moved from Lakeville into Middleboro and set up headquarters in the store on North Main Street.

“The old store, which was started in 1808, satisfied the needs of the townspeople and residents of the neighboring towns withi a radius of twenty miles. They drove here to purchase the necessities of life.

“In the back room, there were bolts of cloth for dresses, shirts and aprons and an assortment of ribbons, buttons, thread and all sewing materials. This room also contained earthenware, farming implements and carpets, wallpapers and oilcloth.

“In the cellar was a room set apart for the sale of ‘West Indies goods’, which included rum, gin, brandy and all spirituous liquors.

“The order wagons were driven about town to solicit orders and deliver goods. This type of store was conducted for about 75 years. As other stores opened in the district the sale of merchandise other than groceries was gradually dropped.

“‘Mr. Thomas’ and ‘Mr. James’ were the only surviving Peirces at the time Elton L. Pratt came to work as clerk in the store. This was in 1885, and Herbert A. Pratt started with the firm in 1893.

“Mr. James Peirce died in 1901, and his brother Thomas also passed away that same year. ‘Mr. Thomas’ was the last of the Peirce brothers and consequently inherited much of their wealth. At his death he gave over a half a million dollars to the Town of Middleboro and a hundred thousand to the Public Library.

“After his death, however, the business was purchased by the Pratt brothers who conducted a grocery store until 1929, when Elton L. Pratt bought out his brother’s share.

“Mr. Pratt, who is the present owner, has seen many changes take place both inside and out. Electricity has replaced the old fashioned oil lamps which were used. The cash registers and adding machines and modern forms of bookkeeping are a great improvement over the old money drawer and ledgers so crudely kept. The end of the store used as sheds was remodeled for storage purposes. As the horse and carriage was replaced by the automobile, the sheds used by the customers, who drove into town, were no longer necessary.

“On the second floor of the building was a hall large enough to seat two hundred people. Years ago, town meetings and entertainments were conducted there at at one time, the Catholic church services were held in this hall.

“From all the facts at hand, it is interesting to learn that such an establishment existed in those early days, and that there are very few changes if any in the building, where the store of Peter Hoar Peirce was the center of trade in this portion of the state.”

The following year, in 1935, the Peter H. Peirce Company store closed forever, concluding a history of over 125 years.

For more local history, visit

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