Olde Salem on Silk

I never tire of expressions of “olde Salem”: books about colonial furniture, furnishings and architecture, old-fashioned gardens, and photographs and drawings of Salem buildings and scenes, real or imagined, from the first few decades of the twentieth century. There appears to have been an entire generation of authors, photographers, architects, and preservationists who either emerged from or descended upon Salem to capture its fiber before it was lost to modernity:  Frank Cousins, Mary Northend, Arthur Little, William Rantoul. I’m sure the Great Fire of 1914 intensified their pursuit, and they are also representatives of a national Colonial Revival, of which Salem was a singular inspiration. I’ve covered a lot of Salem stuff in this blog, but I don’t think I’ve focused on fabric before, so I thought I’d take a first stab.

I’m inspired by some drawings I found in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by Walter Mitschke, a German-born textile designer for H.R. Mallinson & Company, which specialized in the production of silk fabrics in the early twentieth century. Their most productive and profitable period was in the 1920s, when they offered a series of American prints, many designed by Mitschke:  American National Parks, Wonder Caves of America, American Indians, and Early America.  His preparatory drawings for the latter series include several “Olde Salem” vignettes.

Early American Salem

Early American

Mallinson MFA

Walter Mitschke, Drawings for the”Early American” Series of Designs by H. R. Mallinson & Co., 1927, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Robert and Joan Brancale.

As you can see, the House of the Seven Gables, perhaps Salem’s most iconic “olde” building and image, is front and center in Mitschke’s emerging design. And Olde Salem is most definitely maritime Salem, not industrial Salem or witchy Salem. A large collection of his drawings and fabric samples was donated to the MFA, and you can see several portfolios of his work via the museum’s Interactive Tours. The Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design has some of Mitschke’s finished fabrics, including the very patriotic (and dynamic) Betsy Ross-Liberty Bell print.

Mallinson MFA Betsy Ross

Mallinson fabric

Mallinson Print 2

Walter Mitschke, Drawing for the “Early American” Mallinson Series, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Fabric Samples, 1927-28, Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design.

I wish I could find the finished product for the Salem drawings; I’m struck by Mitschke’s modernization of “ye olde” images and would love to see the old Gables in such a striking setting. In any case, comparing drawings to finished fabrics is a lesson in how textile designers plotted out the repeat–no small consideration for them. I tried my hand at an old Salem silk print on Spoonflower, and as you can see, I’m no Walter Mitschke!

Salem Spoonflower Fabric

Two more sources for information on Mitschke and Mallinson:  this post on the blog On Pins and Needles, and the current exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center: An American Style: Global Sources for New York Textile and Fashion Design, 1915–1928.


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