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Vintage Nurse’s Cape

Mr. Noile and I found this cape in an antique shop this summer. It fit perfectly, so how could we resist it?  It needs a bit of pressing, but here it is on my dummy:

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Based on its construction, and the other coats available in the shop from the same source, I’m tentatively dating it from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. It might be earlier, and I suppose there’s a slim chance it’s a bit later, but this feels right. It was made by the Hospital Clothing Co. of Philadelphia (though we found it in Northern Michigan). Here’s the label (woven!):

nc-lbl-400The design is absolutely classic. It’s all wool, as the label says, black on the outside, and fully lined in blue wool flannel. The blue lining is a little unusual; nurse’s capes were more commonly lined in red. There’s a beautifully made watch pocket inside the left opening:

nc-wtchpkt-300A nurse, of course, always carried a watch to use when checking a pulse.  A small brass button is missing just under the pocket; it secures an internal tab to help keep the cape closed.  You can see the thread that was left behind when the button was lost.

A large, sturdy hook-and-eye closes the neck at the collar. These bits weren’t applied after the garment was made, but are sewn into the collar seams.  Here’s the “eye” — it’s really a loop — part::

nc-lp-300Isn’t the collar piping beautiful?

All but one of the buttons is original. The buttons are metal and a very bright brass color.  The design has a shield with a crown in the middle, with two horses rampant on either side, and an eagle above::

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Four large buttons close the front, two smaller ones hold the tab at the neck, and there is another tab inside the cape, toward the hem, that is also closed with another set of the smaller buttons. If you look closely at the first picture, you’ll see that someone has replaced one missing button, but it’s a very poor match.  I couldn’t find any in stores that came any closer myself.

Incredibly, I was able to locate the exact button used for my cape. It’s Waterbury 28393, called “Horses & Eagle”. Of course, it’s also completely obsolete.  Waterbury, in business since 1812, apparently keeps all its old button styles on its website (hurray!), but, unfortunately, couldn’t tell me when this button was discontinued.  In any case, I had to find something suitable to replace the ones on my cape.  It wasn’t easy, especially since I really didn’t know what the significance of the original buttons was.

It’s possible that the cape and the button combination was customized for a particular school of nursing, or for a particular hospital, but I wasn’t able to turn up any definitive information that was specific to this cape.  In the end I chose this button:

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It’s Waterbury 29016 (Crest & Shield w/Angel & Eagle).  I chose it because it most closely resembles the original button, and also because the symbolism made sense, too.  In previous wars, nurses were often called “angels of the battlefield”, yet nurses also had to be fierce and tough like eagles, fighting their own battles in the wards and in the operating rooms.

Waterbury buttons are sold either in gross lots, or in specific sets, but not by the individual button.  It’s possible to buy just a single set; in my case, it was a “blazer set” of five large buttons and five smaller.  That gave me one extra of each size, which is always a good idea.  This is an expensive way to buy buttons — or perhaps these are just expensive buttons! — and they arrived in a velvet box, just the way they would have if someone had bought them for a blazer or a fine coat a bunch of decades ago:

nc-vlvt-bx-400Behind each button on the cape (even the one that was replaced) is a tiny, flat, black anchor button, used to secure the heavy shank buttons in place, and to stabilize them.  When I replace the gold buttons, I’ll  carefully sew these right back where they belong, too.

nc-sm-btn-300I was amazed that the closure tabs were all there; the buttons were the only thing that held them in place. The first thing I did, in fact, was to take a few stitches on the right side of each of the tabs, narrowing the buttonholes so that the tabs couldn’t fall off. This in no way changes the look of the tabs; it just keeps that one side from ever coming off the buttons.

I’ll post a picture of the cape with new buttons installed in a couple of days.

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  1. Mike
    March 12th, 2010 at 08:58 | #1

    Do you know where I can find replacement buttons for a WWI Nurses Cape?

    Thanks

    • March 12th, 2010 at 13:12 | #2

      Everything I know about replacing buttons on these capes is in this post. Hope it helps.

  2. December 21st, 2009 at 21:55 | #3

    A helpful viewer left a relevant comment about these buttons on a different post. View it on Good-Bye, JoAnn.

  3. Julie
    October 9th, 2009 at 12:23 | #4

    What a gorgeous cape! It will look wonderful with the new buttons.

    • October 11th, 2009 at 19:43 | #5

      Julie, thanks for your comment! I wish I’d been able to spend part of the weekend sewing them on. (And if I had, you probably would have gotten a faster response to your comment!) Sometime next week I’ll get to the buttons. Got to have it ready when crisp fall weather arrives!

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