Category Archives: History

Busy Bees

I know that bees are experiencing some serious challenges at the moment, but it seems to me that there are much more of them out there than in previous summers—at least in our region. I’ve encountered mini-swarms on rural walks in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts over the past month, it seems like individual bees have been buzzing around my garden constantly since July, and just the other day I saw hundreds of bees affixed to the sunflowers in the large patch at Colby Farm up in Newbury: neither bees nor people can resist this flagrant perennial display!

Bee Sunflowers Best

Bee Sunflowers Closeup

I went into my clip file—comprised of very random digital images which I find interesting or attractive and store away for whenever or whatever (other people seem to use Pinterest this way but I just don’t)–and found several bee images there that I had clipped or snipped over the last few months: books, ephemera, creations. So clearly I’ve had bees on the brain: maybe because I decided to forego sugar over the summer and thus became more intensely focused on honey. In any case, this seems like a good time to get these images out there–Thomas Tusser suggests that the ongoing process of “preserving” bees demands a bit more human attention in September in his classic agricultural manual Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1573):  Place hive in good air, set southly and warm, and take in due season wax, honey, and swarm. Set hive on a plank (not too low by the ground) where herbs and flowers may compass it round: and boards to defend it from north and northeast, from showers and rubbish, from vermin and beast. Tusser is one of many British and continental authors writing about bees and beekeeping in the sixteenth century, and over the succeeding centuries this sub-genre continued to flourish, right up to the wildly-popular Beekeeper’s Bible. I’ve written about bee books before, but my favorite recent discovery is Samuel Bagster’s Management of Bees, with a description of the Ladies’ Safety Hive (1834). Bagster has a very entrepreneurial attitude towards bees, and is striving to transform their keeping into a feminine avocation with his promotion of the “Ladies Safety Hive”: they can be built at home or delivered by Bagster, fully-equipped.

bee collage

Bees Bagster

My apian ephemera is focused less on the bees than their hives: which of course serve as an accessible symbol of industry and by extension, achievement. The most prominent uses of beehive symbolism on Salem ephemera that I have found were issued by the Salem Charitable Mechanic Association (which it clearly borrowed from the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, or vice-versa) and Frank Cousins’ many trade cards advertising his Bee-Hive store but there is also an early trade card for the Salem goldsmith and jeweler Robert Brookhouse which features the very Salemesque combination of hive and ship. I discovered a completely new type of ephemera this summer–watch papers–of which there is an interesting collection at the American Antiquarian Society, including several embellished with beehives.

Bee Certificate

Bee Hive MA Charitable HNE

Trade Card beehive

Bee Brookhouse

Bee Hive Watch Paper AAS

Ephemeral beehives: Phillips Library (printed in EIHC Volume 113); Historic New England; and courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Another discovery of this fading summer are the amazing textile creations of Mister Finch, which you must see for yourself. His bee is among the more realistic of his species–check out his website for more surrealistic creatures. And then there is Tamworth Distilling, to which I returned several times, which manufactures several varieties of botanical gins, including the Apiary Gin pictured below. To be honest, this was a bit too honey-based for me: gin is my favorite spirit and I tend to be a London Dry traditionalist. But I love the bottle, of course (and their cordials).

bee

Bee Gin

Mister Finch Bee and Tamworth Distilling Apiary Gin.


Au Courant Classrooms

For my annual back-to-school post, I want to focus on two very distinct phases of school reform, both of which focused on the aesthetics of the classroom. This will not be the case everywhere, obviously, but when I look around Salem and its environs, I see a lot of school buildings built in the later 19th century–World War I era, and an equal number built after World War II. Rather than thinking about demographics, my mind immediately wanders to the design elements of these structures. The exteriors are pretty obvious (solid civic Classical Revival for the former era, International-style boxes for the latter), but what about the interiors? It happens that the celebrated Salem artist Ross Turner was very active and influential in a movement dedicated to embellishing classrooms in the 1890s and after, a movement dedicated to “vitalizing the dormant sense of the artistic” among Americans, “which by false and ugly environment, has been so repressed as to be of little actual value to the community”.  Arts education and the decoration of the classroom went hand in hand for Turner, and he believed that students should be exposed to both as early as possible, in the (relatively-new)) kindergartens and primary schools. He had an effective partner in the Prang Educational Company, which published his works and produced artistic products for the classroom.

Stylish Schools Art for the Eye

Prang Educational Company AAS Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Here are Turner’s design recommendations for classrooms: they should be quiet, harmonious in color and arrangement [with] the color of the walls selected according to the light…the use of dull colors–brown or slate colors–should be usually avoided. The color effect should be responsive and light, never dull, heavy or cold. Remember we have under present conditions to struggle against a hideous dulled surface known as the blackboard, too large and ugly…A comprehensive group or series of art subjects…beginning with primitive work, Egyptian and Assyrian, early Greek and Etruscan, and proceeding up through the Renaissance [not after] is essential, in plaster or pictorial forms. He recommends that statues and “solar prints’ be spread liberally around the classroom, as well as architectural fragments, and decorative designs in plaster. And one last thing: every schoolroom should have a bust or portrait of some eminent American citizen or patriot placed immediately above the desk of the teacher; above and around this the colors of our common country. Here should be the shrine of American patriotism. We should display the flag above patriotic busts, or portraits, inside as well as outside the schoolroom. Art for the Eye was first published in 1895: let’s look at some Salem classrooms from about a decade later to see if it had any impact. These photographs are all from the very accessible digital collections of Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

Stylish Schools SSU Horace Man

Stylish Classroom SSU Horace Mann3

Stylish Schools SSU HOrace Man 2

The photographs are from a series taken by Salem photographer E.G. Merrill of the Salem Normal School’s Training School, later known as Horace Mann, for the School’s 50th anniversary in 1904. It looks like the hideous chalkboard is still in the classroom (though utilized for artistic purposes via the elaborate blackboard sketching that was a speciality at Salem Normal School), but there are certainly a lot of other Turner-approved embellishments! It’s so perfect, I envision this wallpaper frieze from 1910, named after the inventor of kindergarten, in all Turner-approved classrooms!

Stylish Schools WallpaperWallpaper “Froebel” frieze, 1905, E.J. Walenta for Wm. Campbell Wall Paper Company, Machine-printed on paper, Hackensack, New Jersey, USA, Cooper-Hewitt Museum, gift of Paul F. Franco, 1938-50-15.

The second wave of educational aesthetic reform followed World War II, and seems largely focused on clearing out all of the elements that Turner advocated for, as well as letting in, or creating, even more light vis-à-vis the new fluorescent lighting. A model classroom was installed at Salem’s Bowditch School (then on Flint Street) by the Salem-based Sylvania factory, and promoted nationally by a serialized newspaper article in alliance with the National Education Association. I can’t get the photographs any clearer, but the description is helpful: blackboards replaced by tackboards (that won’t last), wooden floors replaced by tile, and “posture-improving desks” installed. In the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art there is a prototype desk designed for the Bowditch School by the architectural/engineering firm Markus & Nocka in 1946–ostensibly for this remodeling–but I can’t tell if these are the desks in the photograph (if they are, I wonder where they all went when the Bowditch was converted into condominiums!)  More likely something more conventional was chosen, like the colorful Brunswick desks in the advertisement below. These are what I grew up with, and I think there’s still more than a few in the old SSU Sullivan Building where I teach today.

Stylish Schools 1946

Stylish Schools MOMA

Stylish schoolchairs BrunswickBrunswick chairs c. 1958 from the VS Schulmuseum site. 

♣ Heads up: exhibition of Ross Turner’s works at the Kensington-Stobart Gallery at the Hawthorne Hotel opens this Friday September 8!


Losing our History

The national discussion over Confederate war memorials is centered on the implicit question: who owns history? Often that is a question that is difficult to answer because in fact everyone owns history. Interpreted in a material way, however, it’s possible to be more literal: in terms of sources, for example, it is quite apparent that the Peabody Essex Museum owns Salem’s history.  The PEM’s Phillips Library, the third largest museum library in the United States, is the largest repository of historical records of Salem and Essex County by far: its holdings encompass the papers and records of innumerable Salem families and organizations, the definitive collection of Hawthorniana, all sorts of records relating to Salem’s China Trade, including logbooks, customs records, merchant account books, hand-colored plates of ships, maps, and the Frederick Townsend Ward collection, one of the world’s largest collections of Western-language materials on Imperial China. The Library holds a million historic photographs, including rare nineteenth-century views of Asia, the archives of Edwin Hale Lincoln, Frank Cousins and Samuel Chamberlain, and the complete North American Indian portfolio of Edward S. Curtis. The Edward Sylvester Morse collection of Japanese language books is just one small part of a 400,000-volume collection which began in 1799. The physical size of the entire collection is best expressed by numbers: 5000 linear feet of manuscripts, over 1000 linear feet of archives, 3,000 linear feet of newspapers, 135 linear feet of ephemera and nearly 5000 reels of microforms. The bulk of this collection was compiled when the Phillips Library was part of the Essex Institute (established in 1848), which merged with the Peabody Museum to form the new Peabody Essex Museum in 1992. As part of a new, ever-expanding museum which privileges the global and the sensational over the local and the historical, the Phillips Library’s mission has clearly changed: to what I do not know. But more importantly, it has become increasingly restrictive and inaccessible, and absent: it was closed for renovations in 2011 and its collections were moved to a facility in Peabody and now it is moving on to another (temporary?) facility even further away, in Rowley. According to one succinct statement regarding this move, and supposedly to facilitate it, all access to collections will be suspended from September 1, 2017 through March 31, 2018.

Phillips Library 1885

Phillips Ladies

Phillips Logbook Horace

Gentlemen in the Phillips c. 1885, and ladies outside Plummer Hall on Essex Street, which housed the Library for over a century; Logbook from the ship Horace, first decade of the 19th century.  All images in this post (except those from the Essex Institute Historical Collections Volume 113, no. 3 below) are from the Library’s social media accounts: Twitter and Instagram. The Library’s wonderful blog, Conversant, has been shut down, but you can still see some of the images it featured on Pinterest.

The lingering detachment of the Phillips Library has been nothing short of tragic for Salem, as it long served, in purpose and in effect, as the city’s historical society. While other towns in Essex County developed historical societies and museums over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Salem did not, because it already had one: a vast repository of private (and public) records right in its midst. You can see–and read—Salem citizens engaging with the Essex Institute and the Phillips Library (with their history) in the pages of the long-running (and thankfully digitizedEssex Institute Historical Collections, which is full of recollections and memorials as well as historical analyses of materials in the Library’s collection. Given Salem’s dynamic past, the lack of an accessible and engaging repository of its heritage has resulted in historical interpretations that are entrepreneurial at best, and crassly commercial for the most part: is it any wonder that we have a statue to a television character in our central public square?

Phillips EIHC

Phillips Map 1806

Phillips Certificate

Phillips Cushing

One of my very favorite volumes of the EIHC from July 1977: focused on a coincidental exhibition at the Essex Institute on the life and times of the Salem’s famous diarist, the Reverend William Bentley. It’s full of insights and images, including: a plan of South Salem Bridge and Lafayette Street, c. 1806, a certificate for the Salem Iron Factory, c. 1800, and a print and portrait of Salem printer Thomas C. Cushing, c. 1806 and 1816. Along with social media, these volumes might be our only avenue of access into the Phillips Library for a while…..

There are many curious, engaged and energetic people in Salem who clearly crave a closer, more introspective connection to the city’s complex past but I wonder how this can be achieved when we have so little access to our material heritage? That’s the big question, but I have so many more. Why haven’t more of the Library’s collections been digitized? That seemed to be the intent several years ago, but I only see a few digitized collections on the Museum’s website (volumes of The American Neptune, images of the Great Salem Fire, ocean liner ephemera, vintage valentines, the Winthrop family papers): this is a scant amount of material in relation to the Library’s entire collection and in comparison with the efforts of other comparable libraries. What about public records? The Phillips holds the major legal records of the Salem Witch Trials, the Essex County Court Archives, which were deposited at the Essex Institute by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1980, as well as the records of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County. These records have been transcribed, printed, and digitized (at the University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project) but don’t we still have a legal right to access the actual documents? I would imagine that the representatives of all those Salem families and institutions (the Appletons, the Crowninshields, the Derbys, the Peabodys, the Active Fire Club, the Salem Society for the Moral and Religious Instruction of the Poor, the Salem Female Charitable Society, the Salem Charitable Mechanic Association, the Salem Marine Society……I could go on and on and on…..) assumed that when they placed their records in the safe-keeping and under the stewardship of the Phillips Library that they would form part of a public archive for posterity: otherwise what is the point? And finally, I am thinking–and wondering–about my Americanist colleagues and how they’re going to conduct their research come tomorrow, when I will have more tools and materials at my disposal as an English historian here in Salem than they will.

Phillips 1687 deed

Phillips Reward of Merit

Phillips Chairs

Phillips collage

Phillips Peabody

Phillips Cousins

More random treasures from the Phillips Library: a 1687 deed conveying Rumney Marsh to Colonel and Mrs. Paige; a reward of merit bestowed upon Elizabeth S. McKinstry; a plate from Robert Manwaring’s Cabinet and Chair-Maker’s Real Friend and Companions (1765); just two broadsides; George Peabody’s letterbooks; a Frank Cousins photograph of the entrance to the Andrew Safford House. These tweets and posts from @pemlibrary are lifelines!


The Great New England Eclipse of 1932

In my ongoing preoccupation with turning the universal into the parochial, it wasn’t difficult to determine which historical eclipse had the biggest impact on Salem, which was just on the southwest border of the total blackout zone of the eclipse of August 31, 1932. This eclipse cut a diagonal swath through New England from Montreal to Provincetown, and people converged in the White Mountains, Cape Ann and Cape Cod for viewing: there were special eclipse “packages” and special eclipse trains, and more than one observer pointed out that the frenzy was serving as a distraction from the Depression. In Salem, the shops closed at 1:00 in the afternoon on the 31st (which was a Wednesday), as everyone departed for Gloucester–apparently not content to be in the 99% zone! The headlines leading up to the 1932 eclipse were not too different than those today: watch out for your eyes, watch out for your chickens (perhaps there was more emphasis on chickens then), the best viewing places, why the scientists are so excited. I do think there was more “eclipse ephemera” produced then, but it was a period of paper.

Eclipse 1932 NE Map

eclipse collage

Eclipse 1932 Williams

Eclipse 1932 Williams 2

Eclipse glasses 1932

August 1932 headlines from the Boston Daily Globe: eclipse ephemera from the Cole Collection at the Hopkins Observatory at Williams College.

The viewing experience seems to have been uneven across New England on August 31, 1932: clouds and rain prevailed in some places, inspiring my favorite September 1 headlines: Long Awaited Eclipse is Partially Eclipsed (or some variation thereof). I have no doubt that people had fun on the New Haven Railroad’s special Eclipse Train, however, on which they could see night-time when it’s day in New England as you play. Strange things were reported for days afterwards: chickens (very sensitive to eclipses, apparently) laid eggs that bore an imprint of the corona, which appeared on several glass windows around the region as well. In my hometown of York Harbor, Maine, the artist Henry Russell Butler, who had traveled across the country in order to capture the previous three eclipses on canvas, was thrilled to see one appear in his backyard. Photography had long been able to capture eclipses, but paint still worked too.

Eclipse 1932 eclipsed

Eclipse NYT

M25823-28 001

Eclipse 1932 Henry Russell Butler

North Adams Transcript and New York Times headlines, September 1, 1932; New Haven Railroad Eclipse Train poster by John Held Jr., Swann’s Auctions; Henry Russell Butler, Solar Eclipse, 1932Princeton University Art Museum, gift of David H. McAlpin, Class of 1920.


Destination Tamworth

Even though I previously, and unjustly, relegated New Hampshire to the status of “drive-through” state, it doesn’t mean that I never stopped in its midst. I brake for historical markers, and I’m pretty certain that New Hampshire has more markers than all of the other New England states combined—and not just to dead white men like Mr. Webster below. All sorts of events, institutions and individuals are memorialized by green road-side Bicentennial markers: combined with the historical societies which seem to be located in nearly every New Hampshire town, they are a testament to a state that takes its history seriously. This earnest presentation is refreshing, frankly, especially when contrasted with Salem’s more cynical commercialization of just one aspect of its more varied past: history for history’s sake rather than for profit. Driving northwesterly across the state to the Lakes Region, I wanted to stop at each and every historical society, but I was pressed for time: I did stop at many markers.

NH Marker Webster

Many people are drawn to New Hampshire for its mountains and lakes, but these attractions are secondary to me: if you’ve spent any time at all on this blog you will have noticed my preference for the built landscape! So even though I had a prominent lakes/mountain destination last weekend, I became much more fixated on a town nestled between the two: Tamworth, established in 1766. Tamworth has everything: a picture-perfect town center, a pedigreed summer theater (the Barnstormers), a museum dedicated to life and work of  two country doctors (The Remick Country Doctor Museum & Farm) a presidential (Grover Cleveland) summer house, a babbling brook (the Swift River), a farm-to-table restaurant and grocer (The Lyceum), a general store (the Other Store), an amazing foundational edifice named Ordination Rock, a shiny-new distillery (Tamworth Distilling), and an inn (Highland House) built by a Salem sea captain! I’d love to have a summer house here (if I can convince my husband that it is possible to live more than a half-mile from the ocean and still be happy, a big if).

Tamworth Library

Tamworth House

Tamworth House 3

Tamworth Sign

Tamworth Barnstormers

Tamworth Poster Barnstormers

Tamworth Remick Museum

Tamworth Remick Barns

Tamworth Remick House

Tamworth Livestock

Tamworth Cow

Tamworth Brook

Tamworth Lyceum

Tamworth Poster

Tamworth Concert

Tamworth Distilling

Tamworth Brandy Sights & happenings of Tamworth: the Library, Barnstormers Theater, Remick Museum +Buildings+”Inhabitants”, Tamworth Lyceum, Sunday concert, Tamworth Distilling & Mercantile.

Given its heritage, of course Tamworth also has a historical society, recently re-christened (as you can see below) the Tamworth History Center. We found it open and bustling, with volunteers within eager to tell us about the town and the Center, which features revolving exhibits in its two ground-floor rooms: currently the early history of the Barnstormers is on, along with a very comprehensive genealogical exhibition on one of Tamworth’s prominent families. There is a dual preservation/presentation mission at present: focused continually on the town’s heritage as well as on the ongoing restoration of the Center’s c. 1830 headquarters. I enjoyed the exhibits immensely, but became a bit distracted by the untouched-for-decades attractions of the house’s central hallway! When restoration is complete, the house will not feature the traditional period rooms; instead it will serve as a forum, or center, for “the many stories that have made Tamworth unique, from 1766 onwards”. I want to hear more.

Tamworth History Center

Tamworth collage

Tamworth Exhibit

Tamworth HC

Tamworth HC2 Inside the evolving Tamworth History Center above; another visual presentation of Tamworth’s past—and present.

Tamworth PC


The Beautiful Barrett House

I’ve just returned from a brief getaway to the Granite State during which I drove all over much of its lower half (two-thirds?) but became focused on just two towns: New Ipswich and Tamworth. I don’t think I’ve ever developed a proper appreciation for this neighboring state and so I’m trying to work on that: I’ve lived in Vermont, Maine, and Massachusetts, and so New Hampshire was always just a place “in between”, to drive through rather than a destination. Growing up, my father worked at two universities on either side of the state, Dartmouth and UNH, but we lived in Vermont during the earlier period and Maine during the later–and not just over the line of either adjoining state. So I think I always wondered secretly: did my parents DISLIKE New Hampshire? During my teenaged years in southern Maine, Portsmouth, New Hampshire was our go-to town, but somehow I always disassociated it with the rest of the state, as if it was an island. It is not. This particular weekend I was headed up to see a friend in the Lakes Region but decided to take a detour to the southwestern part of the state so I could see a Historic New England house that I’d never visited before: the Barrett House in New Ipswich. Amazing: a high Federal house in a very unlikely place—or is it? New Hampshire is full of perfect white two-story federals, but the Barrett House is something more grand: Portsmouth-like, or even (dare I say it) Salem-like. What’s it doing in sleepy New Ipswich?

Barrett House

Barrett House exterior

Barrett House placque

Well of course New Ipswich was not sleepy when pioneering textile manufacturer Charles Barrett built this grand house as a wedding gift for his son Charles Jr. and daughter-in-law Martha Minot, whose father promised to furnish the house in a manner complementing its (then) cutting-edge style. Across the field in front was the textile mill, down the road was the (Third) New Hampshire Turnpike, connecting Vermont and Massachusetts. After New Ipswich chose not to accept a railroad stop several decades later, its manufacturing era came to an end but an impressive architectural legacy remained, including the 1817 “Appleton Manor” which is now for sale. Successive generations of the Barretts owned and occupied the house into the twentieth century, also their Boston businesses determined that it became more of a country retreat than a primary residence. This evolution echoes that of several houses in central New Ipswich, contributing to the preservation of its architectural landscape. Historic New England’s predecessor, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), acquired both the Barrett House and its neighboring George Barrett Sr. house in 1948.

Barrett House 1904

BarrettsThe house in 1904, Cambridge Historical Society; Barretts remain on the walls.

Like all of Historic New England’s properties, the house is interpreted in a very personal way, utilizing extensive family furnishings: Barrett Mill-made linens, Barrett-bound books, portraits, furniture, all manner of accessories. All of this creates a feeling of intimacy, as does the smallish scale of the rooms–I found the rather imposing exterior of this house to be somewhat deceptive. It’s perfectly open and light (look at all of those 12 over 12 windows!) and square and Federal: no Victorian additions or “improvements”, and only a bit of stuffy Victorian decor in a back parlor. Even the third-floor ballroom, which extends over the width of the house, retains an aura of intimacy: sparsely furnished with family chairs of different eras, gathered in a circle for conversation and company.

First Floor: front parlor and dining room (with Zuber et Cie wallpaper!). I particularly loved the Chinese Export dishes, which did not belong to the Barretts. The back parlor is a bit more of a mix, befitting a family room.

Barrett Parlor

Barrett downstairs

Barrett DR

Barrett Mantle

Barrett China

Barrett downstairs 2

Barrett books

 

Second Floor Bedrooms: back and front.

Barrett Bedroom 3

Barrett dining room

Barrett Linens

Barrett Bedroom

Barrett bedroom2

Barrett Chair

LOVE these “peacock” chairs, and below: “furnishing” for an early twentieth-century bathroom, one of the few additions to the house.

Barrett Bathroom

 

Third-floor ballroom.

Barrett ballroom

Barrett Ballroom 2

 

Outbuildings: Like Salem’s Ropes Garden, the Barrett House was the setting for the 1979 Merchant-Ivory film The Europeans. Actually it was used far more extensively than the Ropes, for both interior and exterior scenes, and the Barrett’s Gothic Revival gazebo was a particularly effective backdrop. The Carriage House is full of carriages (of course), including a carriage-hearse!

Barrett House collage

Barrett Carriage House 2

Barrett Carriage House 3

Barrett Carriage House

 

Just a few more New Ipswich houses, for context, beginning with Charles Barrett Sr.’s house next door. There seems to be a fondness for those center projected gable entrances, perhaps inspired by the Barrett House?

Barrett House Senior

Barrett House NI

Barrett House NI2

Barrett House NI4

Barrett House brick


Flame-Stitch

For antiques aficionados, August is all about Americana auctions (couldn’t resist all the alliteration!) and there are always Salem pieces to discover. Among the lots of Skinner’s upcoming Americana auction, a late eighteenth-century pole fire screen captured my attention immediately, not just because it was made in Salem, but also because of its flame-stitch embroidery. Flame-stitch is one of my favorite perennial patterns, characterized by its durability and adaptability: it spans the ages (from at least the Renaissance) and can be easily adapted by time and place. It’s somewhat obscure origins–according to the curators at the Victoria & Albert Museum, it is a technique also sometimes known as Irish stitch, Hungarian stitch, Florentine stitch and bargello stitch, the variety of names indicating the uncertainty of its origins–perhaps explains its mutability. It is one of those patterns that can appear both “antique” and “modern”: flame-stitch cushions, in particular, seem timeless.

Flame-stitch Pole Screen Skinner

flamestitch collage

Flamestitch garden pillow

Mahogany pole screen, late 18th century, Skinner Auctions/ Flame-stitch pincushion, late 17th century, Victoria and Albert Museum/ Flame-stitch “Jasper” pillow, Jayson Home/ 18th century flame-stitched pillow, 1stdibs/ a faux flame-stitch pillow in my backyard.

In its modern incarnations, flame-stitch doesn’t necessarily need to be a stitch: the zig-zag, chevron pattern seems to be sufficient for the more general identification. No needle required, pattern without technique. The vibrant contrasting colors of flame-stitch fabrics past have also given way to more tone-on-tone variations of the present. I’ve always wanted to upholstery one of my couches in a flame-stitch fabric, and I must admit that both the Federal-era embroidered version (on the left) and the more contemporary variation (on the right) both appeal to me (although I really love the 18th-century embroidery fabric from a Newport-made slip seat–which might have originated as a pocketbook–AND the early 19th-century French and Lee Jofa chartreuse fabrics below).

flamestitch collage2

Flame-stitch Winterthur

a-woven-flamestitch-panel

Flamestitch Lee Jofa

American Country Federal Sofa, Northeast Auctions/ Southwood Mahogany Flame-Stitch Sofa, Chairish/ 18th-century slip seat upholstery, Winterthur Museum Collections/ Woven early 19th century French flame-stitch panel, 1stdibs/ Lee Jofa watersedge fabric.

Two historic flame-stitch items that often pop up at auctions are men’s pocketbooks or “wallets” and stools. An extraordinary example of the former is included in the upcoming Skinner auction: a later eighteenth-century Massachusetts wallet featuring African-American servants, or slaves, well-dressed but definitely in service. This was featured on Antiques Roadshow a while ago, and so I was not surprised to see it come up for auction (with an estimate of $10,000-$15,000). There are so many (somewhat less singular) examples in museum collections and auction archives that I imagine every late eighteenth-century man walking around with a flame-stitch wallet! For women, there were flame-stitch embroidered shoes, from earlier in the century. Obviously there are endless variations of both the historic technique and the modern pattern, but I think the form that captures the cherished quality of flame-stitch best are bible and book covers, which were also produced in great quantity in the eighteenth century.

Flamestitch wallet collage

Flame-stitch pocketbook bonhams

Flame-stitch purse CH

28.102.17a-b 0002

FS stool collage

Flamestitch Book Cover PMA

Rare flame-stitch Massachusetts wallet featuring African-American figures, Skinner Auctions/ American silver-mounted pocketbook inscribed “Thomas Stubbs”, 1798, Bonhams Auctions/ Flame-stitch pocketbook, late 18th century, Cooper Hewitt Museum, Gift of Mrs. Rollin Stickle/ Flame-stitch Latchet Shoes, c. 1700-1729, Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Early 18th century French fruitwood stool, Bonhams Auctions/ Folk art painted stool with flame-stitch seat, Northeast Auctions/ Pair of mid-century modern flame-stitch benches, 1stdibs/ Bible cover, 18th century, Philadelphia Museum of Art.


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