St. Augustine Peña-Peck House Women’s Exchange housing rare clothing

Last month, members of the St. Augustine Women’s Exchange gathered in a room at the Peña-Peck House to view some very special items the organization has in its collection; objects so fragile that they rarely see the harmful light of day.

In their first round of lunchtime speakers after the pandemic, several members of the group sat together in a room in the historic house on St. George Street in the city to learn about the hidden treasures that the group has in its collection, mainly clothes, which are too delicate to be displayed.

“After a long period of absence due to the pandemic, we are so happy to be back to share our story with our members and the community,” said Margo Pope, History Chair and Past Chair of the ‘exchange. Pope is also a former editor of the St. Augustine Record

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The Woman’s Exchange of St. Augustine, founded in 1892, is a women-run nonprofit that began helping struggling women through its consignment program. Women brought their handicrafts, jewellery, embroidery, silverware or pastries to sell at the stock exchange to quietly earn an income. The organization continues this mission today with proceeds from its gift shop helping to fund scholarships for women in the community.

Dresses from the 1800s that are part of the Woman's Exchange of St. Augustine collection were on display at a presentation at the organization's Peña-Peck House on St. George Street in St. Augustine last month.

In addition to the charitable work of Woman’s Exchange, the organization also assumed guardianship of the Peña-Peck house.

The Peña-Peck House

Construction on the Peña-Peck property began in 1750 as the residence of Spanish colonial treasurer Juan Estevan de Peña. It was continuously occupied by families until 1931, when the last owner of the house, Anna Gardner Burt, died.

In his will, Burt left the property and contents to the city of St. Augustine with the stipulation that the house was “kept as an example of the older antebellum homes of the South.”

Burt was the granddaughter of Dr. Seth Peck, who came to the town of Whitesborough, New York, to take over a medical practice in town. He bought the property for $918 in 1837.

After Burt’s death, the exchange took over stewardship of the building and its contents by leasing it to the city. The organization moved its gift shop to the property and opened the house for tours on May 1, 1932.

The collection the exchange has cared for for 90 years includes antique furniture, books, personal items and a large collection of clothing from the 1800s, some originals from the house and some donated.

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“What makes our clothing collection so special is that it survives. Before mass production, people reused clothes, wore them and wore them and wore them until they used them up; it so there’s not a lot of 1800s clothing,” said Cheryle Kavanaugh, a women’s club member and textile expert who spoke at the presentation. “These dresses ended up in crazy quilts or in rags or they were so worn that they threw them away.

“We are fortunate to have an evening dress in the style of Charles Frederick Worth from the late 1800s in the collection,” Kavanaugh said. “It has beautiful lace embroidery. The details are amazing.

“We had original Peck/Burt family items in the collection, we also have items donated by members of the exchange that may have belonged to their mothers, grandmothers or great-grandmothers,” said Kavanaugh.

The material used to make the clothes in the collection is very difficult to preserve.

“Early clothes, of course, were made with natural fabrics, so they’re difficult to preserve,” said Marsha Chance, the exchange’s curatorial chair. “They were affected by heat, weather, humidity and light.

“These tissues are so fragile, so delicate, we have to keep them away from light. Light is the most damaging,” she continued.

“The items we showed at the conference were some of our most fragile items,” said Chance, who has a background in archeology and historic preservation. “Very, very few of our current members would have ever seen the clothes I brought, they were in such poor condition. I had never even seen any myself until this day.

“A very special dress we showed was an empire style wedding dress from 1815. It’s not super impressive to look at, but knowing its history makes it one of my favorites, and it’s definitely the garment the oldest we have that dates back to the time of Napoleon 1st and his wife Josephine makes it extra special,” Chance said.

Dresses from the 1800s that are part of the Woman's Exchange of St. Augustine collection were on display at a presentation at the organization's Peña-Peck House on St. George Street in St. Augustine last month.

Although the items from last month’s presentation are not on public display, the Peña-Peck House offers a unique look into the life of a wealthy family in the 1800s, including period clothing on display in several rooms .

From a prominent historic family here in the city

“The important thing about the collection is that in St. Augustine, it’s one of the few collections that comes from a significant historical family here in the city. It shows us how they lived,” Pope said. “The things we now call antiques were everyday objects for them and that’s the most important thing. When we tell this story of the Pina Peck house, we can tell our visitors that this chair was used daily by the Peck family. This table was part of the Peck family and later his granddaughter Anna Bert also used it every day.

“The Peck/Burk family came to the house in the 1830s and left the house to the city in 1931. So they stayed here almost 100 years, three generations, and most of their belongings are still there. C is really special,” Chance said.

“When you visit this house, you get a real sense of what it was like to live in this town centuries ago,” Pope said.

The Maison Peña-Peck boutique is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from noon to 4:30 p.m.

The museum is located at 143 St. George Street. Tours are from noon to 4 p.m. For more information, visit penapeckhouse.com or call 904-829-5064.

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