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On the Shoulders of Nathaniel Rochester

On the Shoulders of Nathaniel Rochester

Whether or not you’ve seen this engraving of Nathaniel Rochester, you’ve seen many portraits like it. White-haired men, solemn faces, stiff postures – very founding-father-esque. But what about when Nathaniel Rochester was in his 30s, a young professional about to be married?

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A peek into the RMSC collections pulls us back to a spring day in Maryland when the man who gave our city its name stood on the altar – wearing this vest.


On April 20, 1788 when a younger Nathaniel married Sophia Beatty in this double-breasted waistcoat, it was an exciting time in the young United States. Maryland would ratify the U.S. Constitution just eight days after their marriage, and New York would as well during the following summer. Nathaniel was then a 36-year-old manufacturer and had not yet traveled to New York’s Genesee Valley area or likely even thought about it. And he certainly was not thinking about it that day as he prepared to marry 20-year-old Sophia.


Judging from this vest, Nathaniel was looking very dapper for the occasion. By the 1780s, a fashionable man’s formal vest came down no longer than the waist, was made of light-colored silk and featured brightly colored embroidery with natural themes. His wedding vest was no different. Pairs of flowers of varying colors adorn the light blue silk of the front of the vest. The back, of plain cloth, features a brown ink mark that may have been initials and the armpits are slightly stained – even founding fathers sweat.


A vest without the man that used to fill it leaves quite a bit of the story untold, but it is a special glimpse into Nathaniel Rochester’s life before he reached his final resting place in Mt. Hope Cemetery. The artifact came to the Rochester Museum & Science Center in 1970 with several other gifts from a donor in Webster and is one of 1.2 million other pieces that the museum stores in its temperature-controlled vaults and cycles into exhibits as needed. From a mastodon skeleton found in Ontario County to quilts by Susan B. Anthony, it’s in good company.



Haulman, K. (2011). The politics of fashion in eighteenth-century America. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

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Monday, 19 November 2018

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