Thursday, February 11, 2016

Gems from the Age of Homespun: Woven Coverlets and Their Makers

“Wheel of Fortune” coverlet from the
collection of the Metropolitan Museum
The term “homespun” encompasses many different kinds of fabric. When Martha Ballard wrote about of the cloth produced in her household, she sometimes recorded the kind of fiber used (cotton, linen, tow, wool, or a combination) and sometimes the pattern produced, like “check” or “diaper” (a fabric with a small, all-over pattern). Sometimes she noted what the fabric would be used for—handkerchiefs, shirts, towels—and sometimes who it was for (“Cyrus’s web”). It was rare for Martha to include all this information in a single entry. One occasion on which she did was November 21, 1792, when she noted, “Hannah wove a Bed Blankitt for her Self, Tow & wool.”

Hannah had been married on October 28 to Moses Pollard (brother of Dorcas, who had helped her learn to weave) but she was still living with her parents and continuing to produce the goods she would need in her new home. Between the end of October and December 12, when she and Moses officially “went into housekeeping,” Hannah made a quilt, the aforementioned blanket, and at least two “coverleds.” These bed coverings served a practical purpose, of course, but they also would provide an extra degree of comfort and beauty in the Pollard home, while demonstrating Hannah’s skill at the loom.

Detail of a woven coverlet
It was these woven bed coverings—variously called coverlets, coverlids, and “kivers”—that captured the imagination of collectors in the early 20th century. Unlike humble towels, sheets, and handkerchiefs, coverlets were likely to be treasured, preserved, and passed down through the generations. They used simple color combinations (usually white and indigo blue) and geometric patterns to produce striking effects that appealed to Americans who were tired of the ornate furnishings of the Victorian era. To many collectors, the coverlets were true works of art that demonstrated the innate aesthetic sense of early American women. They also served as tangible symbols of the industry and thrift associated with the “age of homespun.”

Overshot weave structure
Coverlets were made on the same four-harness loom that was used to produce other kinds of cloth. As I noted in the last blog post, in its most basic form weaving involves only two sets of elements—the warp and the weft. In plain weaving, the weft yarn goes over one warp yarn, then under the next, and so on. In float weaves, there are also two set of elements, but the weft goes over or under more than one warp. (Twill and satin are examples of float weaves.) Coverlets use a type of weave called overshot, which also uses floats but adds a third set of yarns to create a compound weave. There is a warp and weft of white cotton or linen and then a supplementary weft of colored wool, which “floats” over and under the warp to create the pattern. Since the width of a loom was limited to the span of the weaver’s arms, coverlets were woven in two halves and then sewn together down the middle.

Example of a weaving draft
Weavers shared overshot coverlet patterns with friends and family as drafts, a form of notation that recorded the way that threads were to be put through the heddles of the harnesses and the sequence of the treadles that controlled the harnesses. Drafts bear a certain resemblance to musical notation, with four horizontal lines representing the harnesses and numbers or other marks representing the threads. Each weaver had her own way of recording drafts which can seem quite mysterious to non-weavers. Like quilters, weavers also gave their coverlets fanciful names—Broken Snowballs, Lafayette’s Fancy, Wandering Vine—which varied by region. In a world of mass-produced goods, the individuality of coverlets and their makers was part of their charm to collectors.

The earliest American woven coverlet that can be definitively dated is from 1771, and women continued to make them into the 19th century, though by the 1820s professional weavers were also making more elaborate jacquard coverlets. As families moved west from New England into New York, Ohio, Indiana, and beyond, they brought the tradition of weaving coverlets with them. In certain parts of the south, particularly the mountain regions of Kentucky and Tennessee, domestic textile production remained an important part of the local economy well into the 1900s. In our next posts, we’ll look at early collectors of coverlets and their relationship with the movement to preserve hand weaving in Appalachia.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Weaving a Social Web: Textile Production in Martha Ballard’s Diary

Martha’s diary
In this post we’re going to look at some of the tools and techniques of domestic textile production through the experience of Martha Ballard, a midwife who lived on the Maine frontier during the early republic. Martha was born in Oxford, Massachusetts in 1735 and married Ephraim Ballard in 1754. They had nine children, three of whom died in a diphtheria epidemic in 1769. In 1777, the family moved to a settlement on the Kennebec River which eventually became the town of Hallowell, Maine. And that’s about all we would know about Martha Ballard, were it not for the fact that she kept a diary for almost thirty years, from 1785 until her death in 1812.

In her diary, Martha recorded of her midwifery and medical practice, kept track of the comings and goings of family and neighbors, and noted the kinds of work she and the members of her household did. Textile production was an important component of this work, from the sowing of flax seed to the bleaching of the finished linen cloth. Although much of this work was done within the Ballard household, it also brought Martha into a network of exchanges with her neighbors. As historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich put it, the production of cloth wove a “social web.”

Drop spindle and distaff
When Martha began her diary in January 1785, she was fifty years old. Her oldest daughter was married, but her five other children were still living at home. Most importantly for the purpose of textile production, two of these children were teenaged girls: Hannah, fifteen, and Dolly, thirteen. Hannah and Dolly already knew how to spin, using the two wheels the Ballards owned—the large wool wheel and the smaller flax wheel. 

Spinning was in many ways the most time-consuming and most skilled element of textile production. The basic idea behind spinning is fairly simple and requires minimal equipment, but to do it well and quickly is another matter. Spinning is the process of drawing out and simultaneously twisting a fiber. The trick is that spinning really requires four hands—one to hold the fiber, one to draw it out, one to twist it, and one of hold on to the new thread. As early as the Neolithic era, the drop spindle was developed as a solution to this problem. 

“A spindle is a weighted stick that can be spun like a top. Attaching a leader of yarn to the shaft, a spinner gave the spindle a quick turn, then dropped it, letting it twist the yarn as it fell. When the spindle stopped, she wound the newly spun yarn onto the shaft and started the process over again.” The spinning wheel was a much later development, and is really just a mechanical device that keeps a spindle in motion.

Walking wheel for spinning wool
Hannah and Dolly would have used a wheel very much like the one in the Alice’s collection to spin wool. This large wheel was also known as a “walking wheel.” The spinner used one hand to turn the wheel and drew out the fiber with the other, walking backwards until she had gone as far as her arm could reach. Then she reversed the wheel, winding the yarn on to the spindle as she walked forward. Flax and cotton, on the other hand, could be spun on a much smaller wheel with a foot treadle, allowing the spinner to sit while she worked.

Regardless of the kind of wheel, the quality of the finished thread was determined by the skill of the spinner and her ability “to draw evenly, maintain the right tension on the yarn, and control the speed of twisting.” The condition of the fibers and environmental factors also affected the finished yarn. Different fibers required different techniques, which also varied according to the intended purpose of the yarn. No wonder, then, that it required 8 to 10 spinners to keep one weaver supplied with yarn. 

Clock reel, used to wind and measure
 skeins of yarn prior to weaving
For the first two years of the diary, spinning was Hannah and Dolly’s main responsibility. Then, in the summer of 1787, Hannah learned to weave. This was an enterprise that involved the whole Ballard family and their neighbors. Her brother Cyrus brought home “the bars & other utensils for weaving” (presumably from neighbors who had borrowed them) and Mr. Ballard spent some time “fixing the loom.” Martha combed flax, measured yarn, and “quilled.” Neighbor Dorcas Pollard warped the loom and another neighbor, Hannah Cool, was also on hand to help instruct Hannah, who completed forty yards of “linning” (as Martha always called linen) six weeks later.

Like spinning, weaving is also a fairly simple process. At its most basic, a loom is simply a device that holds a vertical set of threads (the warp) taut while a horizontal set of threads (the weft) is interwoven with them. If you’ve ever made a potholder with stretchy loops, you get the general idea. By the 18th century, people were using much larger and more complex looms, but the essential idea remained the same. Martha’s loom was probably very similar to the barn-frame loom in the Alice’s collection—a four-harness, foot-powered loom. Treadles or pedals below the loom control harnesses, “each carrying hundreds of heddles with a single thread passing through the central eye of each heddle. After the weaver depresses a treadle raising one or more harnesses, she throws the shuttle through the shed, the open space created between the activated threads. The shuttle carries the weft thread, which is wound onto a quill, or bobbin. After throwing the shuttle with one hand and catching it with the other, the weaver beats the weft into position.” Another harness is activated and the process repeats.

Diagram of a four-harness loom
Before weaving can begin, the loom has to be prepared, or “warped.” This required a good deal of skill and time, which explains why Dorcas Pollard did it the first time Hannah wove. Each warp thread had to be individually threaded through a heddle and tied to the cloth beam at the front of the loom, and the foot pedals tied in the proper sequence. The whole process could take anywhere from 7 to 10 hours, depending on the pattern. 

On any given day, any female member of the Ballard household might perform one or more of the elements of textile production, interwoven with other household duties. A typical entry in Martha’s diary, from October 1789, recorded that “Hannah wove 6 yds, Dolly did house work & Spun 2 Skeins of Linning, Han[na]h 14 knotts Cotten. I quilld & knitt.” Dolly also learned to weave, and over time, the girls took over more and more of the responsibility for supplying the family with textiles, while also making the sheets, blankets, towels, and coverlets they would need for their own homes when they married. Their skills also allowed them to go out and work for other families, earning money that could be used to purchase goods they couldn’t make themselves.

In an era before mechanization, it might truly be said that textile production ran on “daughter power.” As they did in other New England towns, the women of Hallowell exchanged daughters, sending them out to work for relatives or neighbors during slack times in their own households, then calling them back when needed. Martha herself supplemented Hannah and Dolly’s labor with the work of her nieces Clarissa, Pamela, and Parthenia Barton, all of whom lived with the Ballards for a time. By 1795, the Ballard girls and Parthenia were all married, and Martha depended on the short-term assistance of other women and girls—at least, until her granddaughters were old enough to take up spinning, just as their mothers had.

If you would like to learn more about Martha Ballard, check out Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, or the PBS program based on the book. You can also follow Martha on Twitter @Martha_Ballard

Friday, January 22, 2016

An “Industrious Revolution”: Textile Production in New England

Detail of a 17th-century English
broadside depicting the many parts of
the woolen industry
When colonists first came to New England in the 1630s, they brought with them the technology that had been used for centuries to produce linen and wool textiles—not only looms and spinning wheels, but hatchels, flails, bobbins, quills, reels, and niddy-noddies. However, they left behind the large-scale textile production that had developed in England since the middle ages. 

In England, labor was divided among families and individuals and organized by middlemen who sold and shipped raw fiber, spun yarn, and undyed cloth all over the country until the finished product was complete. Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations in 1776 that even the simplest laborer’s woolen coat was the end result of a complex chain: “The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production.” 

New England colonists did not attempt to reproduce this system. For one, there simply weren’t enough people in 17th-century New England to do it. Even if there had been, English law “prohibited the export by ship of raw wool, yarn, or finished fabrics” from any English colony in order to protect the mother country’s textile industry. Nor was inter-colonial trade permitted. So whatever textiles colonists produced were for their own household use or for local exchange.

Family working together to process flax, 1780s
The other significant difference between the old world and the new was that in New England, women became weavers. In Europe, weaving was strictly a male occupation—guild regulations forbade weavers from employing their female relatives. But over time, in New England, weaving shifted from being a skill practiced by male artisans and learned through apprenticeship, to one performed by women within a network of neighbors who exchanged labor and tools. Although later writers like Horace Bushnell looked back to a golden Age of Homespun in which women produced all the textiles for their household, in reality, domestic production supplemented but did not replace imported cloth. It was one piece of the larger household economy.

Woman spinning with water mill
in background
If there ever really was a “golden age” of domestic textile production, it was probably the period from around 1790 to the 1830s, when the introduction of machines that combed wool and spun cotton allowed women to dramatically step up their production. By producing more textiles for their own use or for exchange, women were able to acquire more imported goods—calicos and chintzes, china and clocks. They were thus a key part of what historians have called the “industrious revolution”—an increase in the demand for goods which encouraged households to organize their labor in such a way that would produce disposable income.

Later writers tended to idealize the self-sufficiency of colonial and early American families, but as we’ll see, domestic textile production required cooperation not just within households but with larger networks of neighbors and communities. Household production was not separate from the broader economy but firmly embedded within it. In the next post, we will take a closer look at the process of making cloth through the experience of one woman who lived during the age of homespun.

Once again, I have relied mainly on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun for the material in this post.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Age of Homespun

New-England Kitchen at the Brooklyn Sanitary
Commission Fair, 1864
If you read a lot about the Colonial Revival, you start to notice certain recurring symbols and themes. Perhaps the most persistent, and most interesting, is the spinning wheel, which for many Americans in the 19th and early 20th century was the quintessential symbol of the bygone era that came to be known as the “age of homespun.” Beginning in the mid-19th century, spinning wheels started to appear everywhere—the New England Kitchens of the Civil War-era sanitary fairs; early historical exhibits like those at the Essex Institute in Salem and the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in Deerfield; the photographs of Wallace Nutting. The spinning wheel was both an obvious and immediately recognizable relic of the past, as well as a powerful emblem of virtues like thrift, piety, and industry.

Platt Ryder, Woman at Spinning Wheel,
ca. 1860
Minister and theologian Horace Bushnell coined the phrase “age of homespun” in 1851, in a speech he gave at the celebration of the centennial of Litchfield County, Connecticut. Bushnell encouraged his audience to look to the everyday lives of anonymous people as the source of the nation’s greatness: “It is not the starred epitaphs of the Doctors of Divinity, the Generals, the Judges, the Honourables, the Governors, or even of the village notables called Esquires, that mark the springs of our successes and the sources of our distinctions. These are rather effects than causes; the spinning-wheels have done a great deal more than these.” But by the time Bushnell gave his speech, the age of mechanized textile production was well under way. Those women who still spun or wove did so by machine in the factories of Lowell, Lawrence, and other New England mill towns. “This transition from mother-and-daughter power to water-and-steam power,” said Bushnell, “brought with it a complete revolution of domestic life.”

Demonstration of spinning flax,
Alice T. Miner Museum, 1926
The spinning wheel and all that was associated with it, then, became a way for Americans to make sense of the dramatic changes that industrialization had brought about. To understand the significance of wheels, looms, and other paraphernalia of domestic textile production to collectors like Alice Miner, we must (to use an obvious metaphor) unravel various skeins. First, what did textile production in the 17th and 18th centuries actually look like? Then, how did 19th and 20th century antiquarians and collectors interpret the tools and products (particularly woven coverlets) of colonial women, and what do their choices about collection and display tell us? And finally, why did some Americans in the early 20th century feel that it was important to preserve or revive the arts of textile production?

These are some of the questions that I will try to answer over the coming months. Along the way, we will see some familiar faces, like Frank Gunsaulus, William Morris, and Jane Addams, and we will meet some new ones, like Martha Ballard, Anna Ernberg, and Eliza Calvert Hall. Who knows, I may even try to do some spinning myself!


Christopher Monkhouse, “The Spinning Wheel as Artifact, Symbol, and Source of Design,” in Kenneth L. Ames, ed., Victorian Furniture (Victorian Society of America, 1982), 155-159.

Beverly Gordon, “Spinning Wheels, Samplers, and the Modern Priscilla: The Images and Paradoxes of Colonial Revival Needlework,” Winterthur Portfolio 33 (July 1998), 163-194.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (Knopf, 2001).

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

How to Have a Colonial Christmas, Once More

In honor of the holiday season, we’re revisiting this post from last year on Christmas in the colonial period.

Over the past few weeks, as we’ve been preparing for the holiday season here at the Alice, one of the questions that’s frequently come up is “What was a colonial Christmas like?” This is a really tricky question to answer for a number of reasons. For one, “colonial” as a term encompasses more than 150 years of history, a large geographical range, and many religious and ethnic variations. Christmas in a 17th-century New England village would have looked very different from Christmas on an 18th-century Virginia plantation. Second, there are very few contemporary historical sources that describe what Christmas was like in North America—most of what historians think about colonial Christmases is based on the assumption that they followed English customs.

Many Americans first saw a Christmas
tree in this illustration of Queen Victoria
and her family, published in Godey’s
Lady’s Book
 in 1850.
One thing we can say for certain is that many of the things we associate with Christmas today—trees, gifts, Santa Claus, cards—were not introduced in the United States until the 1830s at the earliest, and didn't become common until later. The image of an “old-fashioned” Christmas that many of us probably have is very much a product of the 19th century. That was when Christmas became the family- and child-oriented holiday it is now—and it should also be noted that it didn’t take long for people to start complaining about the commercialization of the holiday, either.

In the 17th and 18th century, Christmas was for some people a religious holiday that should be observed solemnly in church and quietly at home. In Puritan New England Christmas was not celebrated at all, and in fact was outlawed between 1659 and 1681. Puritans objected to Christmas because they felt that the commemoration of Christ’s birth on December 25 had no scriptural basis, and because of the holiday’s association with Catholic customs. The Puritan opposition to Christmas as a time of feasting, drinking, gambling, and general merriment suggests that for many people, the winter holiday served as an excuse for revelry during the darkest days of the year.

The centerpiece of “Christmas in the Country,” as depicted in this
18th-century print, was a large bowl of punch.
For those who celebrated Christmas, December 25 was just the first day of a nearly two-week festive season that extended until January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany or Twelfth Night. During this period, people might attend special dinners, parties, or balls, and pay extended visits to family and friends. Having plenty of good food and drink available for guests was important, but there do not seem to have been particular foods that were associated with Christmas. 

In some places, a “Lord of Misrule” was chosen to organize and encourage revelry and even mild disobedience. Christmas was a brief season during which normal rules and routines were overturned, when servants could demand gifts from masters and peasants demand drink from the local gentry, as in the song “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” So although Christmas wasn’t yet a truly gift-oriented holiday, there was a certain kind of non-reciprocal gift-giving that was expected during the season. On Boxing Day (December 26, St. Stephen’s Day), parents and masters gave presents (usually food, clothing, or money) to their children, servants, slaves, or apprentices. 

Another 18th-century depiction of holiday festivities.
Decorating indoors with greenery—holly, boxwood, fir, mistletoe—is a midwinter tradition that long predates Christianity. These pagan customs were later reappropriated by the Church and given Christian symbolism. An English poem of the 1770s gives us an idea of how greenery was used to decorate:

From every hedge is pluck’d by eager hands
The holy-branch with prickly leaves replete,
And fraught with berries of a crimson hue;
Which, torn asunder from its parent trunk,
Is straight way taken to the neighboring towns;
Where windows, mantels, candlesticks, 
and shelves,
Quarts, pints, decanters, pipkins, basons, jugs,
And other articles of household ware,

The verdant garb confess.

So, in decorating the Alice for the holidays, we’ve had to use our imagination a bit. We have used mostly natural elements for decoration—greenery, fruit, berries, nuts. And we do have a Christmas tree, which we’ve decorated with a combination of glass and homemade paper ornaments, like this cornucopia—perfect for holding candy or other treats!

We hope that all of our readers have a very happy holiday season. Best wishes for the new year, and we’ll be back with more tales from the collection in 2016!

Friday, December 4, 2015

William H. Miner, Amateur Photographer

Horses at Heart’s Delight Farm pose for the camera
One of the highlights of the Heart’s Delight Farm Heritage Exhibit is the display of photographs of life and work on the farm ca. 1910. These beautiful photos, which bring Heart’s Delight Farm to life, are just some of the hundreds of photographs that exist of William Miner’s various enterprises. Professional photographers produced albums and booklets that documented the farm, Chazy Central Rural School, Physicians Hospital, the Alice, and the Kent Delord House; these were supplemented by informal snapshots taken by William and his friends. Not surprisingly, given his interest in new technology, William took up photography more or less as soon as it became accessible to the amateur. And, as I’ve recently learned, he had his work shown at one of the first major exhibits of amateur photography, the Eastman Photographic Exhibition held in January 1898 at the National Academy of Design in New York.

Kodak advertisement, 1889
Eastman Kodak was the largest producer of cameras and photographic accessories in the United States, and indeed the company that had made photography a popular pastime. In 1888 George Eastman introduced the first Kodak camera, which came preloaded with a roll of film that produced 100 circular photos, 2.5 inches in diameter. Photography no longer required bulky cameras, glass plates, or darkroom apparatus. As the company’s famous slogan proclaimed, “You press the button—we do the rest.” Over the years, Eastman produced ever smaller, simpler, and less expensive cameras—the pocket Kodak in 1895; the Brownie in 1900. Naturally, the company was interested in promoting photography as a popular hobby, but the National Academy show aimed to prove that it was an art form as well.

A very bad digital version of a scan of a
microfilmed edition of Godey’s Magazine. 
William Miner’s photograph captured the Administration Building at the 1893 Chicago World‘s Fair at night, its electric lights ablaze and reflected in the lagoon below. He won a prize of $25.00 in the category of contact prints taken with a timed exposure. In an article in Godey’s Magazine on the show, author Marmaduke Humphrey said of William’s photo that “the light reflections on the water arouse suspicions that the plate has been doctored—or should we say artistically bettered—to prove the photographer’s control over his work.” As Humphrey quite bluntly stated, if you claimed that photography was not an art, “you do not know what you are talking about.” The photographer controlled composition and lighting; he “can select, omit, heighten, or diminish values, choose his own tones, give an individuality to his work, and accomplish almost any of the general effects of the arts that work in only one color.” In short, it is “a fine art.”

The extensive technical displays at the 1898 exhibition, which demonstrated the effects of various papers and developers on photographic prints, suggest that although Kodak made it easy for anyone to take snapshots, there were still plenty of people who were interested in exploring the finer points of photography. Like William Miner, they experimented with various ways of manipulating negatives and prints to get the artistic effects they sought. 

Electricity Building, showing competing
exhibits by Westinghouse and General Electric
The Columbian Exposition was the first world’s fair to make extensive use of electricity in its exhibits, and it was the place that many Americans got their first exposure to electricity in action. In addition to the thousands of electric light bulbs that illuminated the structures and grounds, there was an entire Electricity Building that exhibited motors, generators, transformers, and other equipment, along with examples of appliances that ran on electricity. 

The Chicago World’s Fair was also the first to use photography for promotional purposes. In addition to the images produced by official photographers Charles Arnold and William Henry Jackson, other entrepreneurs were licensed to publish their own photos of the fair. Add to that the many individual visitors who brought their own Kodaks, and the fair must have been one of the most thoroughly documented events in the world up to that point.

William Miner’s contribution to the Eastman exhibit, which brought together the World’s Fair, electricity, and photography, seems to perfectly embody the spirit of the 1890s. The way that it combines up-to-date technology with aesthetics is also typical of William Miner, who consistently strove to unite the useful and the beautiful.

For more on the Eastman Photographic Exhibition, see this article from The Photo-Beacon (March 1898), which includes some reproductions of photos in the show (though not William’s, unfortunately).

P.S. Did you know that if you are a resident of New York State you are eligible to obtain a New York Public Library card, and that with the card you can access many online databases? This how I found the article in Godey’s Magazine, which is in the American Periodicals (1740-1940) database.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Made in New York: Figured and Fancy Coverlets

Our final stop on our tour of items made in New York takes us to the central region of the state, where four so-called “figured and fancy” woven coverlets were made. These bed coverings, with their elaborate patterns of flowers, birds, and patriotic motifs, were the work of professional weavers active in the 1830s and 1840s. 

Weaving on a Jacquard loom
Throughout the 18th century, women had woven coverlets of cotton and wool in geometric patterns on basic four-harness looms like the one in the Alice’s collection. Fancy coverlets, however, required more sophisticated weaving technology and were almost always made by men (only two female professional weavers have been identified). Looms were equipped with Jacquard attachments or other devices that allowed the weaver to produce complex patterns using punched cards. Most of these coverlets were double-woven—that is, they were made of two layers of cloth woven simultaneously and only connected at the points where the surfaces interchange to form the pattern. This creates a textile that is both extra-warm and reversible.

Most figured and fancy coverlets were made in the mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states from the 1820s through the 1850s. By that time, mechanized textile production was in full swing in New England, so hand weavers moved westward where they could still find a market for carpets, coverlets, and other figured textiles. Many of these men were first- or second-generation immigrants from Germany, England, Ireland, Scotland, or France, and they moved frequently within the U.S. in search of new customers. Weavers advertised in their local papers, and the coverlets themselves—marked with the name of the weaver, location, and date—were their own form of advertising.

Coverlet by Jacob Impson, Cortland Village NY, 1835
The earliest dated coverlet in the collection is one made by Jacob Impson in 1835. This red and white coverlet features floral medallions and a border of grapevines. Impson marked the corners of the coverlet with his name, the date, the location—Cortland Village—and the name of the pattern, which he called “Lady’s Fancy.” Impson is also the maker of a second piece in the collection, this one a blue-and-white coverlet from 1841. It also features floral motifs and has added a patriotic border of eagles. Jacob Impson was born ca. 1802 and seems to have started his career as a weaver around 1824 in Ludlowville, which is north of Ithaca on Cayuga Lake. In that year, he advertised in the Ithaca Journal that he had opened a shop at the home of John Goodrich, “where all kinds of work in his line will be done on the shortest notice and cheap, very cheap, for cash.” He later worked in Cortland Village and West Cortlandville.

Coverlet by Archibald Davidson, Ithaca NY, 1848
Also working in Ithaca was Archibald Davidson, who was born in Scotland in 1771. Davidson advertised in the early 1830s in the Ithaca Journal and Daily Advertiser that he could weave coverlets equal to any of those produced in “Europe or America,” and furthermore informed his clients that he had “gone to great expense to procure a patent loom.” Davidson marked his coverlets as the products of the “Ithaca Carpet Factory,” but he and perhaps his sons and an apprentice were the only employees of the “factory.” Sometime in the 1850s, he left Ithaca for Warsaw, New York. Davidson’s coverlet, made in 1848, incorporates two different border patterns: a leaping stag and tree, and eagles with a building that looks like the Capitol dome but can’t be, as it predates that structure by many years.

Coverlet by Samuel Butterfield, New Hartford NY, 1837
The final coverlet is the work of Samuel Butterfield of New Hartford, near Utica. Born in England in 1792, Butterfield for a time partnered with James Cunningham. By the late 1830s he was in business for himself, and in 1837—the year that our coverlet was made—he advertised in the Utica Observer that he could make “Damask & Drapes, Table Cloths, Ingrain, Venetian and Rag Carpets, Coverlets, etc.” Butterfield seems to have been particularly fond of the figure of George Washington on horseback, because he always used it on the corners of his coverlets, along with the slogan “United We Stand Divided We Fall.” Like Impson and Davidson, he also incorporated patriotic eagles into his borders, but he added the phrase “Under This We Prosper.”

The Civil War effectively brought the hand-woven coverlet industry to an end. Many weavers joined the army or went into other occupations for the duration of the war. By the time the war was over, almost all weaving was being done in factories. In the early 20th century, these coverlets became popular again with collectors, as examples of pre-industrial craftsmanship. There was also a movement to revive the lost arts of hand-weaving—which we’ll look at in more detail in future posts.

Information on coverlets and weavers is drawn from Clarita S. Anderson, American Coverlets and Their Weavers: Coverlets from the Collection of Foster and Muriel McCarl. And if you happen to be in western Pennsylvania, you can visit the McCarls’ collection at Saint Vincent College.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Made in New York: Indian “Whimsies”

Beaded pincushion with velvet center
 In my post last year on how the Erie Canal opened up New York state for tourism, I discussed the way Niagara Falls became the destination for fashionable travelers in the 19th century. And no trip to Niagara was complete without purchasing a souvenir or two. Beaded purses, pincushions, wall pockets, picture frames, and other novelties, made by the Tuscarora and other local Iroquois tribes, were by far the most popular. The Alice’s collection contains two classic examples of this type of Indian souvenir: a small flat purse, beaded with colorful flowers, and an elaborate star-shaped pincushion with three-dimensional designs in crystal beads.

Iroquois style beaded purse
The association of Native Americans with Niagara Falls goes back to at least the 18th century. Early images of the falls almost always included an Indian or two, to emphasize the “wild” nature of the falls. By the time tourism began in the early 19th century, Indian legends like the story of the Maid of the Mist had become part of the allure of Niagara Falls. Essentially, once white Americans no longer perceived Indians as a threat, they were sentimentalized and romanticized. Like the falls themselves, Indians were both symbols of untamed nature and safely domesticated and commercialized.

Textile historian Beverly Gordon has written about this phenomenon, describing how, by purchasing an Indian-made souvenir, tourists were “taking home a ‘piece’ of the Indian—and by association a ‘piece’ of the falls themselves.” The Indian whimsy was “a symbol, an object that could capture and make tangible something ephemeral and wild: the power and majesty of Niagara.”

Ca. 1870 photo of tourists purchasing
beadwork from Tuscarora women
Tuscarora women began selling beadwork at the falls as soon as tourists started to arrive in the early 1800s. Not surprisingly, businessmen quickly capitalized on the popularity of Indian souvenirs. By 1850 visitors could purchase souvenirs at two shops, owned by brothers Walter and Theodore Hulett—The Old Curiosity Shop and Indian Store, and the Great Western Indian Store—both of which were directly on the route to the falls. Soon they were joined by Isaac Davy’s Indian Bazaar, Fox’s Curiosity Shop, and others. In fact, there were so many Indians selling so many souvenirs that in the 1870s and 1880s stories began to circulate that the beadwork was not made by Indians, and that there were even “fake” Indians (who were actually Irish) selling their wares.

In 1885, New York state purchased the land contiguous to the falls and turned it into a public park. This was supposed to combat the commercialism of the falls and put visitors in a “composed receptive frame of mind.” Numerous hotels and stores, including Hulett’s Old Curiosity Shop, were torn down at this time. However, Tuscarora women were given permission to continue selling their wares in the park. Indian souvenirs remained very popular until around 1910, then came back for a time during the Great Depression.

Ca. 1850 daguerrotype of woman with beaded purse
One of the most interesting things about Indian whimsies is the number of photographs that survive from the 1850s and 1860s in which the sitters are holding Iroquois purses. Having one’s portrait taken at this time was a rare and special occasion, and people took great pains with the ways they presented themselves. That so many girls and young women chose to incorporate Indian purses into their portraits suggests that these souvenirs, though common, were also very special to their owners. They showed that the sitters were well-traveled and fashionable.

If you would like to learn more, Gerry Biron’s site Historic Iroquois and Wabanaki Beadwork is a great place to start. You can see many more wonderful photos of women with beadwork bags here and here. You can learn more about the souvenir industry of Niagara Falls here. Thanks to Gerry for letting me use some of his photos here!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Made in New York: Redford Glass

In honor of New York State History Month, all through November we’ll be featuring items in the Alice’s collection that were made in the state. In our history month posts last year, we saw how the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 cemented New York’s position as the hub of  American commerce. Agricultural products and manufactured goods traveled through New York State to all parts of the country, and many of them got their start right here.

We’ll begin with a product familiar to many people in this region: Redford Glass. Although the Redford Crown Glass Company was in business for a relatively short period of time (between 1831 and 1851) and only about 250 pieces made there have been definitively identified, it played a very important role in the development of the American glass industry and the economy of northern New York.

Two Redford Glass jugs
Glassmaking was one of the first industries in the United States to mass-produce goods in a factory setting. Between 1810 and 1840, about 120 glasshouses were established in the U.S., with ten of those in New York State. The Redford Glass Company was founded by two businessmen from Troy, Gershon Cook and Charles W. Corning, who had the backing of the Champlain Glass Company of Burlington. They chose a site on the Saranac River for their new glassworks, which was known to be a source of high-quality sandstone (one of the ingredients used to make glass) and was connected to Plattsburgh by a new road.

Construction of the glassworks began in March 1831, and the first glass was produced in October 1831. Redford’s main product was window glass—the factory produced about 10,000 boxes of window glass annually during the 1830s, and it was used all over the country, including many of the public buildings in Washington, D.C. According to an article in the Plattsburgh Republican, Redford Glass was “capable of standing every variety of climate” and was “distinguished from the ordinary crown glass by its uncommon clearness and beauty of surface, its superior transparency and lightness of color, and by its great thickness and general excellence of the materials which compose it.”

Redford Glass pitcher with lily-pad decoration
Today, however, Redford Glass is primarily known for its table and decorative ware—bowls, pitchers, jugs, jars, candlesticks, bottles, and the like. There is still some debate over the origin of these pieces and whether they were so-called “offhand” items, made by workers from leftover window glass in their spare time, or whether they were manufactured for sale. Workers later recalled that “pitchers, lamps, and other articles” were sold at the company’s offices, so it seems likely that at least some pieces were made especially for sale to the public.

Redford Glass pieces employed two distinctive forms of ornamentation. One type was known as “threading,” and was created by winding thin strands of glass around the object, usually to decorate the neck or rim of a drinking vessel. The other was called the “lily-pad” and was made with a droplet of molten glass that was pulled across the surface of the object.

Scrip issued by Redford Glass Co. for use at company store
Even though it made a high-quality product, the Redford Glass Company struggled financially. It shut down in 1843, opened again in 1846, and finally closed permanently in 1851. Redford found itself unable to compete with glass companies in Pennsylvania, which had access to coal—a much more economical fuel than the wood found in the Redford region. Redford was also too geographically isolated and lacked access to inexpensive means of transportation. But during the short life of the company, Redford was a thriving town with three stores, two taverns, a church, a public library, and a volunteer fire department.

Today, Redford glass stands as a memento of northern New York’s early industrial history, and pieces of Redford glass are treasured items in private and public collections, including the Clinton County Historical Association and the Plattsburgh State Art Museum.

The information in this post is taken from Reflections: The Story of Redford Glass, the catalog of an exhibition held at the Clinton County Historical Association in 1979, which is available to purchase from CCHA.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Visit to Chicago: The Rookery Building

Here at the Alice T. Miner Museum, we naturally tend to focus on Alice and William’s life in Chazy. But Chicago was also their home for many years, and was always the headquarters of William’s business interests. In honor of Miner Day on October 22, let’s take a look at one of the places where William spent a lot of time: The Rookery building at 209 South LaSalle Street, Chicago, where W.H. Miner Co. had its offices.

The Rookery in 1891
(Library of Congress)
The Rookery is important not only for its role in William’s life but for its place in American architectural history. Built in 1887-88 by Daniel H. Burnham and John Root, the Rookery is an example of what came to be known as the “Chicago Style.” In the years after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, a new style of commercial architecture emerged, which combined modern building techniques (metal framing, elevators, plate glass) with more traditional ones (brick facades, elaborate ornamentation). The twelve-story Rookery was a transitional building, which had both an interior steel frame and load-bearing exterior walls made of red marble, terra cotta, and brick.

The central staircase as it appears today
(Wikimedia Commons)
Inside, Root and Burnham designed a two-story central court to serve as the building’s focal point and to provide daylight to interior offices. In the days before electricity became common, getting enough light into large office buildings was difficult. In 1905, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to renovate the court, during which time the space was opened further, and some of the dark wrought-iron decorative elements were replaced with white marble. A second renovation was carried out in 1931, but the building has since been largely restored to its ca. 1905 appearance.

William would have become familiar with the Rookery as an employee of the Hutchins Refrigerator Car Company, which had its offices in the building in the 1890s. When he decided to go into business for himself, in 1897, William rented his own space in the Rookery, Room 355. Though William himself was often on the road, selling his railroad gear, the Rookery remained the company’s headquarters for many years, with the offices under the capable management of Nettie M. Goldsmith and Maude F. Back.

Exterior detail
(Wikimedia Commons)
The Rookery was right in the heart of Chicago’s downtown business district, putting William in close proximity to other businessmen—not to mention seven different railroad stations. It was also close to a number of William and Alice’s favorite places, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, Marshall Field and Co. department store, Central Church, and the Palmer House Hotel.

So why was the building called “The Rookery”? The name actually predates the current building, and was applied to the old City Hall building that was on the site prior to the Great Fire. Crows and other birds liked nesting on its exterior walls, and observers naturally drew parallels between the rooks outside and the (c)rook(ed) politicians inside. When the new building was constructed, the old name stuck.

More information about the Rookery Building can be found at the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s website. And don’t forget to wish William Miner a happy 153rd birthday today!