There is no more prominent motif of late eighteenth- and early twentieth-century design than the swag; it’s almost universal. At least that’s my perspective from here in Salem, where I am literally surrounded by swag-embellished buildings. It certainly was a favorite feature of Samuel McIntire and his imitators, and on a nice Spring walk I suddenly took notice of all the swags around me and captured some of them on film. Actually before I left for my walk I crawled out onto the flat roof of the apartment on the side of my house for a unique perspective of McIntire’s exterior drapery swags inserted into the brick north wall of Hamilton Hall, along with his famous eagle.
And then I was off, in swag heaven. Right around the corner, across from where McIntire’s house once stood and now sadly no longer does, there is a lovely entrance with swag detail on the Georgian Eden-Browne-Sanders house. The house predates McIntire, but the entrance has been attributed to him or his son. Two streets over, on Federal Street, is a McIntire masterpiece, the Cook-Oliver House, with swags galore, embellishing both exterior and interior doors. More McIntire swags grace the Peirce-Nichols fence urns (and a mantle inside) further down Federal Street, and the Derby summer house on the grounds of the Gardner-Pingree House downtown.
Frank Cousins photographs of a Cook-Oliver doorway and a Peirce-Nichols mantle, 1910-13, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
Of course McIntire was a genius but he had a lot of inspiration: swags had been around for a while before he started carving them in Salem. Thomas Sheraton’s Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book (1791–93) is full of them, and he is hardly the only source. I’ve just been discovering the incredibly prolific British architect Sir William Chambers (1723-96) who also drew his share of swags. They even turn up on petticoats in the 1790s.
Pencil sketch for a panel by Sir William Chambers, pen and ink sketch for a candle urn by Chambers’ studio, c. 1770, and petticoat design by a Miss Vernon, c. 1792, all courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
Back in Salem, there was a swag revival a century later when the Colonial Revival influence swept through the city. On Essex Street, which is really Salem’s Main Street, there are several Colonial Revival houses which are almost festooned with swags. For me, these 1890s swags seem to lack the delicacy, depth and detail of those of a century earlier, but I still think they work. The last house is actually a colonial house, built in 1762, transformed into Colonial Revival house, swags and all, in 1893.