Our final Research Highlights post is brought to you today by Whitney Robertson. Whitney is the Museum Collections Manager at The Society of the Cincinnati in Washington, DC, located at Anderson House, a 1905 mansion that was originally the home of diplomat Larz Anderson and his wife Isabel, and has been the headquarters and museum of The Society of the Cincinnati (a Revolutionary War hereditary society) since 1938. She received her M.A. in Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice from the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC and wrote her thesis on George Washington’s attire. We hope you enjoy today’s post that combines science, history, and fashion all in one!
What do your bed linens look like, and what does that say about you? Most of us wouldn’t give a second thought to the stories our duvets might tell, but as a textile specialist working in museums with early American collections, I can’t help but think about it as I keep encountering a particular type of bed furnishing textile in dozens of collections, from the Met to Winterthur to my current institution, The Society of the Cincinnati. It’s a copperplate-printed cotton or cotton/linen blend in a pattern called “Washington and American Independance (sic); The Apotheosis of Franklin,” or sometimes just “The Apotheosis of Franklin and Washington.” Taking a look at textiles in this design is a great opportunity to explore the complexity of material culture related to textiles, as their story combines technology, trade, iconography, and fashions in interior décor.
I first ran across an example of the “Apotheosis” fabric as an intern at the Society of the Cincinnati, and took a few samples from it to the conservation lab at the Textile Museum, where I was able to identify its fiber content using their polarizing light microscope. I found that the fabric was a combination of cotton and linen fibers, which is consistent with examples at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Many other examples are listed by their institutions as cotton.
This offered the possibility of a much larger pattern repeat and higher level of detail, but it limited designs to one color as it was next to impossible to accurately line up a second colored plate on top of the first without producing a muddy appearance. This type of textile is frequently referred to as “toile,” a shortening of “Toile de Jouy,” or fabric from Jouy-en Josas, a French town that was home to the most famous producer of copperplate-printed textiles, the Oberkampf manufactory. We now use “toile” as a generic term to mean any copperplate-printed textile.
Historical events and mythological or allegorical scenes were frequent subjects of these pieces. Produced by an unknown English firm around 1785, the “Apotheosis” pattern is just one of many toile designs intended particularly for the American export market. In fact, many more eighteenth-century English printed cottons survive in America than in England. Our founding fathers were quick to pick up on the trend for toile bed furnishings; Ben Franklin and George Washington both placed orders for yardage in the late 1750s.
These two men happen to be the central figures in the “Apotheosis” design, surrounded by an environment rich with symbols of America and liberty. Washington drives a chariot drawn by leopards, accompanied by the figure of America in a plumed headdress (a classicized and Anglicized version of earlier depictions of America as an Indian Princess). She carries a caduceus, in this case a symbol of commerce. Ahead of them, an American Indian blows a trumpet decorated with Franklin’s famous “Join or Die” flag. The Battle of Bunker Hill is depicted in the background, and to the side is the “Liberty Tree,” with a tattered, upside-down “Stamp Act” tacked to it. Below, the goddess Minerva, bearing a shield with thirteen stars, leads Franklin and his companion Liberty to the temple of Fame, where two winged cherubs hold a globe aloft. Symbols of war and American flora and fauna fill in the scene.
While obviously meant to appeal to Americans, this pattern seems to have been well-known on both sides of the Atlantic. English poet Robert Southey’s 1807 book Letters from England, a series of fictional letters written by a Portuguese visitor to England, features a passage describing this pattern in detail, appearing his protagonist’s bed curtains at an inn in Carlisle. The visitor then comments, “I have often remarked the taste of the people for these coarse allegories.” It is true that there is little subtlety to this design, but its iconography is quite similar to that which appears in many other contemporary paper and textile prints.
To me, the most interesting and least understood question about these textiles is, “who owned them?” While countless curtains, fragments, and even entire bed furniture sets exist in museums, the majority of them have no provenance leading to the pieces’ original owners. So far, I have found three examples that do have provenance, in varying levels of strength. The first is a bed valance in the collection of Washington, D.C.’s Dumbarton House, which descended in the family of its one-time resident Joseph Nourse, register of the Treasury under the nation’s first six presidents. Nourse’s manuscripts account for the purchase of “cotton furniture” for bed hangings, most likely the set from which this piece came. The second is a bed curtain sold at Whitaker Auctions in 2010, linked to Revolutionary War Surgeon Albigence Waldo, and the third is a bed curtain in the collection of The Society of the Cincinnati, donated by a descendant of another Revoutionary War officer, Colonel Henry Sherburne. Since these three men make up a tiny subset of all the original owners of the textile, we can’t draw substantive conclusions from their similarities, but we do know that they were all connected to the creation of the new American republic by military or civil service and were men of some means who would have decorated their homes according to current fashion.
There is obviously much more to say—and even more to find out—about the “Apotheosis” toile, and I’m continuing to delve deeper in to the material. I’ll be presenting a paper on the pattern at the Textile Society of America’s “Textiles and Politics” conference in DC this September. If you’re interested, check it out!