A Family Textile Collection at the Smithsonian

Look at these two very similar samplers —

Esther Copp's sampler, 1765

Esther Copp’s sampler, 1765.  Source: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. Gift of John Brenton Copp.

Phebe Esther Copp's sampler

Phebe Esther Copp’s sampler, 1822.  Source: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. Gift of John Brenton Copp.

They were made 57 years apart, the second one by the great-niece of the first, and based on her design.

Many of us make quilts and embroideries for our children, grandchildren, and the younger generation — wouldn’t you be awestruck if your young relative made something based on your needlework?

Both of these are at the Smithsonian, part of a collection of the textiles created and used by one extended family from 1750-1850.  This collection is extremely rare, because it includes not just fine quilts and coverlets, but towels, sheets, napkins, bed ticking, and even unused yardage.

The Copp family household items were donated to the museum in the 1890s.  These two pictures are thought to be from the 1880s — I’m not sure if the items were on loan to the Smithsonian before actually being donated.

"Record Unit 285, Box 16, Folder 7"

Exhibit case of clothing artifacts from colonial life in America, c. 1880s? Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives.

 

Exhibit case of linen artifacts from colonial life in America, c. 1881-1887. Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Exhibit case of linen artifacts from colonial life in America, c. 1881-1887. Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Starting in 1961, they were cleaned and studied extensively.  A 70-page book by Grace Rogers Cooper documented all of them down to thread count, and photos of most of them are in the book.  It was published in 1971, and it is available as a free download.

None of the textiles are currently on view at the Smithsonian, but seven of them are available online.  (Of the two samplers above, Esther’s is located in the Copp Family Collection, and Phebe’s has a separate page.)

There are three quilts, all of them thought to be made by Copp family members.  This whole cloth quilt is made of wool dyed with indigo, and glazed with a hot press to give a shiny surface.

Copp Family's Indigo Wool Quilt, 1750 - 1800.

Copp Family’s Indigo Wool Quilt, 1750 – 1800. Source: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. Gift of John Brenton Copp.

Copp Family Framed Center Quilt. Source:

Copp Family’s Framed Center Pieced Quilt. 1790 – 1810.  Source: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. Gift of John Brenton Copp.

From the Smithsonian item description:

The clothing and furnishing fabrics used in the quilt top span a period of about forty years. This, and the fact that the Copp family was in the dry goods business, may explain why the quilt includes more than one hundred and fifty different printed, woven-patterned, and plain fabrics of cotton, linen and silk.

There are five woven coverlets in this collection, but only two of them are online.  It is not known who made these coverlets.  It is possible the women of the household spun the yarn that was used, but that is not known for sure.

Overshot Copp Coverlet, 1800 - 1825.

Overshot Copp Coverlet, 1800 – 1825. Source: National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. Gift of John Brenton Copp.

Although the book talks about the women “making” the sheets, it is not really clear if it that means they did their own spinning and weaving, or whether they were hemming and seaming purchased lengths of fabric, especially because there were storekeepers in the family. The curator writes:

Both before and after the American Revolution imported fabrics including cottons were in common use in this country.  Certain classes of goods, such as fine worsteds, silk fabrics, and almost all cottons, can be identified as imported wares, as little or no manufacture of these textiles was being carried on here in the eighteenth century.  Items such as ‘yard wide Linnens, bed Ticks,’ ‘Stockings,’ ‘Linen and Cotton Checks,’ although imported, could have been produced in eighteenth-century America; therefore it is exceedingly difficult to know which articles of this description were, in fact, of domestic and which of foreign manufacture. p. 47.

The book’s introduction says:

In spite of the fact that at least two Copps — Oliver and Daniel — were storekeepers who could have supplied most of the family’s textile needs, it is quite possible that some of the simple cloths, such as sheeting and table linens, were handwoven at home with yarn spun by the women… the presence of many willing hands made it quite unlikely that the great quantity of yardage used — nearly fifty yards in the set of checked bed furniture alone — would have been purchased.

I was glad to discover this glimpse into an early American household.  And with our dreaded election coming up, I want to end with the verse from the samplers:

Better it is to be of an humble Spirit with the lowly

than to divide the Spoil with the proud.