In the private space of the bedroom, the world takes center stage. Politics, international trade, social events, religion, and cultural affairs come alive in the elaborate designs and patterns displayed on American quilts, coverlets, and bed hangings.
The Albany Institute of History & Art has opened Undercover: Revealing Design in Quilts, Coverlets, and Bed Hangings, an exhibition that investigates the designs and patterns that decorate American bedcovers of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. In addition to the textiles, early illustrated books, paintings, ceramics, and more are included to show sources of inspiration for textile designs.
The earliest bed cover in the exhibition, a set of crewel (wool-embroidered) bed hangings and matching coverlet, was started by Mary Stanton of Stonington, Connecticut, during the 1740s. Although Mary began this ambitious embroidery project, she left the bed hangings unfinished at the time of her death in 1748. Her daughter Mary (Stanton) Mason ultimately picked up where her mother left off and finished the project in the following years. The hangings were cherished heirlooms that descended through family members and eventually arrived in Albany through marriage. Spread over the creamy linen fabric are dozens of fantastic flowers, clusters of fruit, and birds worked in bright, richly colored wool yarns, all dyed from natural materials. Mary and her daughter most likely based their designs on imported East Indian textiles or on European textiles inspired by Indian fabrics. The bed hangings introduced the exotic world of East Indian trade into the family’s bedroom.
Woven cotton and wool coverlets made during the nineteenth century frequently feature a wealth of designs that reference contemporary politics, popular entertainment, architecture, and interior decorating tastes. Several coverlet weavers working in the area of Dutchess County, New York, have left more than 125 surviving coverlets similarly decorated with patriotic American eagles and symbols associated with Free Masonry including the square and compass and the pillars of Boaz and Jachin. “AGRICULTURE & MANUFACTURES ARE THE FOUNDATION OF OUR INDEPENDENCE. JULY 4, 1829,” reads an inscription woven into the corners of the Institute’s Dutchess County coverlet along with the name of the woman for whom it was made, Anna Wheeler. Was Wheeler’s husband a member of the Masons? Or did she order the coverlet to demonstrate her patriotism? Other coverlets in the exhibition show connections to contemporary trends in architecture and interior design, particularly the influence of neoclassicism as revealed by the use of urns, lyres, and scrolling acanthus leaves.
The diverse range of printed textiles and patterns used in American quilts reveal connections to international design trends, community events, and national happenings. The log cabin quilt pattern, so named for the long, thin pieces of fabric that make up the design, resemble logs stacked one on top of another. Quilt historians have documented the pattern to the early 1860s during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Lincoln was known as the “rail splitter” during the 1860 campaign and he was often associated with his humble birthplace in a log cabin in Kentucky. Quilters from the 1860s to the 1890s configured the fabrics in log cabin quilts to show a variety of patterns. A colorful example attributed to a quilter named Ida Barnard, possibly of Albany, features wool chalice fabrics arranged in the courthouse steps variation, a pattern that indeed resembles a flight of steps. Barnard’s quilt is just one of several in the exhibition that connect to broader historical topics.
Undercover: Revealing Design in Quilts, Coverlets, and Bed Hangings is on view in the Albany Institute’s newly renovated Lansing Gallery through March 8, 2015. Exhibition related tours, activities, and special events may be found on the museum’s website, www.albanyinstitute.org.
The Albany Institute of History & Art is located at 125 Washington Avenue in Albany, New York. The museum is open Wednesday-Saturday 10 am to 5 pm, Thursdays until 8 pm*, and Sunday Noon until 5 pm. On Tuesdays, the museum is open to registered groups only. The museum is closed on Mondays and some holidays. Admission is free for Institute members; $10/adults; $8/seniors; $8/students with ID; $6/children 6-12; FREE/children under 6. The Institute is now offering free admission on Thursdays from 5 pm to to 8 pm. For more information, visit www.albanyinstitute.org or call (518) 463-4478.
Photos of pieces in the exhibition (from above): Crewel Embroidered Bed Hanging Valance (detail) by Mary Stanton and Mary (Stanton) Mason, Stonington, Connecticut, c. 1740-1760, gift of Mary Eleanor Crounse; Anna Wheeler Coverlet (detail, unidentified weaver, probably Dutchess County, New York, 1829 an Albany Institute purchase; Log Cabin Quilt (detail), probably Ida Barnard, c. 1870-1880, gift of Susan Van Rensselaer Dayton; and Compass Rose Quilt (detail), unidentified maker, American Mid-nineteenth century.