Today most of us don't choose to make political statements with our home decor. Perhaps on our chests by way of a t-shirt, yes, but generally our curtains, slipcovers, and pillow cases are safe from endorsing one party or cause over another.
Not so in the past. Printed textiles were the height of fashion 250 years ago.The large scale of the designs made them especially popular for upholstery, curtains, bed hangings and coverlets, but they were also used for fashionable ladies' day gowns.
Costly cotton fabrics printed with wooden blocks had long been imported from India, but by the end of the 18th c. textile merchants in England and France had begun producing them as well, with thousands of craftsmen employed in the trade to meet the demand. Few of these designs were original artwork. Most were adapted from existing prints and paintings. Especially popular were landscapes, vignettes of country frolics, Oriental fantasies, and scenes from classical mythology. The designs were printed in a single color, usually on white or off-white cotton, with repeating motifs.
Soon political prints began to be incorporated into the English designs as well. Not only did the royal family appear, but also commemorations of famous historical events and battles. The textile merchants were quick to answer whatever demand the market might make – even if that market lay on the other side of the Atlantic.
In 1785, when this particular length of fabric, above, was printed, the American Revolution was still a very recent memory, and quite a sore one at that in England. But the victorious Americans were eager to display their newly minted patriotism, and venerating their first president and general George Washington was one of the most popular ways to do it. Thus the English textile merchants put aside their own politics and produced printed cottons like this one, with George as the victor crowned with laurels by a trumpeting angel, and well-attended by Liberty, cherubs, clouds of incense, eagles, and....flying ducks? Well, no matter. The Americans had their patriotic bed hangings (available in blue, black, and purple, as well as this red), and the English had their profit.
(A word about toile: this style of pattern is now often called toile, and turns up on everything from dinner plates to rain boots to lunch boxes. In the 18th c., however, toile referred to fabric that came from a specific French factory, the Manufacture Royale de Jouy, in the small town of Jouy-en-Josas near Versailles. With the sponsorship of the king, the factory was intended to replace the imported Indian cotton with cloth produced by French workers. The printed fabric produced there was called toile de Jouy: cloth of Jouy. Click here for some beautiful examples.) Above: America Presenting at the Altar of Liberty Medallions of Her Illustrious Sons Textile panel: plate print, printed in England; about 1785 Winterthur Museum
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.