19th century, Ackermann's Repository, fashion, Federal style, furniture, historic interiors, style
Every now and then, someone argues with me that the historic house where I work would not have had window curtains or drapes. Sometimes they like to expand that argument to “there were no curtains at all” in early Federal America. The reasoning is usually that textiles were too expensive to “waste” on window dressing. If you know me, you know this kind of argument is a Bad Idea. The public fight (I was angrily accosted by a now-former docent during a public presentation) is known as The Great Curtain Kerfuffle, and resulted in my reply that the owner of the house could very well afford anything he pleased. Fabric is Money.*
There’s another iteration of my argument: Color is Money.
Those of us who shop at IKEA are not going to have “the most fashionable style of decoration” in our 1817 homes. The Willings and Binghams of Philadelphia were models for the most fashionable families of Providence, and while well before this 1817 plate, the Binghams were recorded draping their chairs with orange and red silks. In early 19th century Providence, the John Innis Clark family had silk covers on their sofas and chairs in 1808, and plenty of carpets and curtains in their Benefit Street home from the 1790s on.
“Crimson is very rich, but blue is handsomer,” wrote Eliza Ward to her sister, Mrs John Innis Clark, in the 1790s. Curtains and covers were fringed (Mrs Hazard Gibbes was blue and yellow). Windows were dressed, and younger, less affluent relatives received hand-me-down curtains. In 1803, Elizabeth Watters in Wilmington, North Carolina was having a carpet “wove in true Scotch taste in imitation of Highland plaid.”
Some carpets, no? Maybe the new mantra is Carpets are Money.
But quite aside from an obvious display of wealth, what we have to realize about these images and letters is that they are depicting a world that looks very different from our own. Color sensibilities, tolerance for pattern mixing, non-matchy-matchy sewing and dressing. We have to abandon our 21st century aesthetic sensibilities when we dress ourselves or our spaces for the past, and really embrace the vivacity of that world. Sensory overload, perhaps, but getting closer to what the world of the past looked like will help us see– in every sense– the way the people of the past did.
*I may or may not have made additional statements afterwards to the effect that of course wealthy Americans squatted naked in the corners of their well-appointed mansions gnawing raw meat until Benjamin Franklin invented fire and fabric. I should be sorry about that, but I don’t seem to be.
Perhaps the “no curtains, no carpets” thing is a backlash against earlier interpretive schemes in which early American domestic spaces were over-upholstered? (i.e. sofas included in museum furnishing plans for pre-Revolutionary dwellings?)
And I would guess that in Providence houses of the “middling sort,” carpets, curtains, and upholstered furniture were probably prized luxuries in the late 18th c….
Probate war! Because that’s the place to look, right? In the probate inventories.
You’re right of course: middling and lower folks in 18th and early 19th century Providence would not have had silk curtains, if any curtains. But they would have had bed furniture (i.e. hangings) which serve to keep them warm and private. Upholstered furniture is quite the thing– and would it have been leather or fabric? Wool or silk? So many questions.
But as you know, that curtain kerfuffle was about the Browns, and they could have pretty much whatever they wanted while JB was still alive.
Backlash? Maybe. I think we do swing along an interpretive arc generally, from over- to under-furnished as we try to figure out what’s most correct for a given moment. Because I think it’s about which moment, isn’t it? Any house in 1788 will be furnished differently than in 1800, according to the vagaries of fashion and fortune.