Tonawanda News

May 15, 2013

'Downawanda' Abbey

Historical society exhibit focuses on time period of popular show

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Lady Grantham might not have worn these dresses. 

But when the fictional events of “Downton Abbey” would have played out at the popular TV series’ Yorkshire country house, across the water in America, a resident of Western New York had herself laced into clothing that will finally see the light of day again as part of a new exhibition at the City of Tonawanda Library.

“Downawanda Abbey,” an exhibition of historical clothing and postcard images of the Tonawandas, will open with a presentation and reception at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the library and run through mid-August. The exhibit, presented by the Historical Society of the Tonawandas, includes three dresses of the time period just before the opening of the popular British period drama “Downton Abbey,” a collection of colored postcards with images of the Tonawandas from the same period and other items.

Buffalo State College student Ben Streeter, who is working on sorting and cataloging the the historical society’s huge historic clothing collection, said the new exhibit includes a mourning gown and a day outfit from just before the time period of the show and a wedding gown from right about the time of the sinking of the Titanic, which figures into one plot line from the PBS television show.

“It’s a really good series,” Streeter said of “Downton Abbey.” “Apart from the costuming, the storyline is pretty good. You get to see the whole spectrum of people, from the servants to the aristocracy.

“What our collection is is more in the mid-range. That’s something nice; that’s something not a lot of museums have. They have a lot of aristocratic clothing, but not so much the middle class.”

In addition to the dresses, the exhibit will include more than 30 enlarged images of colored postcards from the same timeframe as the new (old) apparel, said Ned Schimminger of the Historical Society of the Tonawandas. The era, he said, was the heyday of postcards.

“You’d get colored postcards of everything: businesses, factories,” he said. “They were a major form of communication at the time. If you wanted to go see Aunt Jane the next day, you’d send her a postcard. It’s not, ‘Here we are on vacation.’ This is how you talked to the person, because you can’t just call them. Back then it was the lifeline of how you communicated.”

As part of the postcard portion of the exhibit, the library and the historical society will be presenting a contest in which visitors are challenged to view isolated details taken from the images, then inspect each enlarged postcard to find where each item originated. Prizes will be awarded to the winners.

Library Director Glenn Luba said winners will be drawn June 30. 

IF YOU GO • WHAT: "Downawanda Abbey" exhibit • WHEN: Wednesday to mi-August. There will be an opening presentation and reception at 7 p.m. tonight. • WHEN: City of Tonawanda Library, 333 Main St., Tonawanda