A Family Textile Collection at the Smithsonian
Look at these two very similar samplers —
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thank you so much – always enjoy receiving your emails. Recently I came across something about a Textile Conference in Texas but now I cannot find it – the thing is to be held before Dec 31st. Do you know what it is called? Or anything about it for that matter.
Incidentally, I have a Ph.D. in Historic Textiles and live in Austin – so if you can use my services, or whatever, give me a hollar.
No, I’m sorry, I don’t know. I’m not on any listservs for textile events. Do you have a blog or website? I bet your experiences are really interesting!
Fascinating! I found it interesting that the top one did not include the letter J and it seemed to be just fitted in on the bottom one.
Yes, I read something about that at the sampler exhibit I saw in Philedelphia, but I can’t remember what it was. Also, I love the “f”s where we would put lower case “s.”
Unable to view pics.
Hmm, I just checked and I can see them. They are embedded from the Smithsonian’s site — I didn’t copy and paste them, I just copied their location on the web and put that into the post. Can you see the links? In case you can’t, here is the link to the whole collection: To the far right on that page is a little box where you can filter by “textiles” to see just the quilts, coverlets, and sampler.
Thank you, great items.
Also, did you go to the website itself? Maybe the pictures don’t show up if you read the email version. I don’t know, I am not very technically up-to-speed.
I used the recent link and the items are great.
The whole cloth indigo wool quilt is amazing. I love, love, love that style.
And I forgot to say this in the post, but there is also a detail picture of that one on the website. And on all of those pictures, when you access them on the website, you can zoom in and pan.
I can’t see the embedded photos either, working from my laptop. But I went and looked at the site–wonderful stuff!
You have had that problem seeing images if I put in a slide show too. I wonder if it is a setting on your computer? And when I embed images, they always come out too large for my taste and you can’t edit that aspect. Maybe it just makes the file too large or something.
What a wonderful time capsule the family has provided! And I’m feeling a tiny bit smug for dating the quilts correctly before seeing their captions. 😉
You have earned your smugness! One thing you might find interesting, is that in the 1971 book, they called that quilt a “Framed Medallion,” but in the description now, they called it a “Framed Center Pieced” quilt.
It’s rather a hybrid, appropriate for the era. That is just the period when pieced block quilts were coming on. Creating a block quilt in a framed format makes perfect sense.
How fortunate to have the whole family history of those textiles. All too often old textiles are orphans with no provenance. Now if we could just persuade the Smithsonian to offer rotating exhibits of all that stuff in their attics…
I know, it’s so sad that in the introduction to the book, they say that all these items will eventually be shown in the Hall of Textiles. I got to go to DC in 2009 (I think it was) and the Textile Museum was still open, but we didn’t get to it. And now it is closed forever. 😦
[D] Ever so interesting! I wonder where imported fabrics came from. I’d be interested also to know how weaving fitted into the household. Sheets are wide, and require big looms. Where was this done? Every answer begets another question!
The online book about the collection had a quote from a letter from a London gentleman to a New York newspaper in 1767: “The people of New York, seem to me,to be too infatuated with a foreign Trade, ever to make any great Progress in Manufactures; and unless you sell your Linnen, at least as cheap as they can have it from Silesia, Austria, Bohemia, and Russia, thro’ England, Holland, or Hamburg, I fear you will not establish an extensive Manufactury.” Hmmm, we are now getting cotton instead of linen, and from different countries, but the principle is still the same.
Back then, sheets and blankets were woven a yard wide and then seamed together into wider pieces. I have 4 handwoven blankets and a linen sheet that are all made from panels only a yard wide.
There are some more good quotes in that Copp Family Textiles book so you may have sparked another post! Thank you!
OK, “glazed with a hot press”? Wool wouldn’t melt, so what is the glaze made of??? Yes, I know, a picky detail–but inquiring minds want to know 🙂
I will get back to you on that one!🐏
Those first two are amazingly beautiful–warm and folksy. Peace, John
Especially when you consider how long ago they were made and how much time they would have taken! Those people got more done than I do and I have the modern devices. I’m so glad they survived.
Pingback: Checkmarks on the List | Deep in the Heart of Textiles
Pingback: TextileTopia | Deep in the Heart of Textiles