Jonathan Sheldon's Freedom Suit


This cotton nankeen suit was given to Jonathan Sheldon in 1775 upon the completion of his apprenticeship to a member of the Townsend family of cabinet makers in Newport, Rhode Island. The promise of a “Freedom Suit” at the end of an apprenticeship was part of a standard contract between pupil and master in the 18th century, and would have been the young man or woman’s best clothing as he or she set out into the world. While a simple suit like this would have been very common at the time, this is the only one of its kind that is known to have survived.

Family tradition states that the cabinet maker’s wife made Sheldon’s suit using apple wood button forms that were made in the shop. However, the garment construction is consistent with contemporary tailoring techniques, so it is possible that the outfit was professionally cut and sewn, using buttons that were supplied by the customer.

The suit consists of a sleeved waistcoat or jacket and a pair of breeches made of yellow-tan cotton nankeen, a naturally yellow cotton fabric that was imported from China but, by this date, was also being imitated in Manchester, England. Nankeen was a modestly fashionable fabric. While no one would have considered Sheldon’s Freedom Suit fashionable, it does feature a faux frock collar—a flat, applied strip sewn on around the neck to masquerade as a stylish soft, turned collar. Unlike a more stylish coat with a longer skirt, Sheldon’s jacket doubled as coat and waistcoat and would have been worn closed. But like a coat, the tails of the jacket are pleated around a center back vent, with one button at each side back, above the pleats.

The jacket also has curved center front edges, narrow cuffs, and one double-scalloped pocket flap at each front, over curved pocket slits. Nine 1" buttons at right front correspond to buttonholes on the left front, with the lowest buttonhole uncut. The fronts are lined with linen to the edge. The back is unlined. The breeches have a short, medium-width 2-button fall shaped in a shallow V along upper edge. The wide waistband fastens at the front with three 1" buttons, and has two pairs of eyelets flanking a vent at center back. One pocket at each side front is covered by a flap that fastens at side seam with one button. There is a five-button closing at each knee. The breeches are fully lined with linen. All buttons other than those at center front waist are 5/8" diameter.

Date Made: 1775

Associated Person: Townsend, JohnSheldon, JonathanMaker: unknown

Location: Currently not on view

Place Made: United States: Rhode Island

Related Event: World's Columbian Exposition


See more items in: Home and Community Life: Costume, Clothing & Accessories, Work


Exhibition Location:

Credit Line: Gift of Daughters of the American Revolution. Mahwenawasigh Chapter

Data Source: National Museum of American History

Id Number: 2012.0194.001Catalog Number: 236205.001Accession Number: 2012.0194

Object Name: Suit, 2 PieceObject Type: Main DressManSuitEntire BodyOther Terms: Suit, 2 Piece; Entire Body; Main Dress; Male

Physical Description: cotton nankeen (overall material)Measurements: overall: 44 in x 13 1/2 in; 111.76 cm x 34.29 cmcoat back: 31 1/2 in; 80.01 cmcoat arm sleeve inseam: 22 1/2 in; 57.15 cmcoat arm outer sleeve seam: 23 in; 58.42 cmbreeches: 24 in; 60.96 cmbreeches inseam: 16 1/4 in; 41.275 cm


Record Id: nmah_368659

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