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.