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Rare textiles complete groundbreaking exhibition at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg
Fan and Case. England , 1780-1820. Bone, paper and metal. Colonial Williamsburg Museum Purchase, 1978-90, A-B. Photo: courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

WILLIAMSBURG, VA.- An extension of the highly acclaimed and groundbreaking exhibition, A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South , which opened in February at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum (one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg), opened there on July 4, 2014. A Rich and Varied Culture: Textiles of the Early South adds a selection of important textiles, primarily from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation collection; additional pieces are on loan from The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) at Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and private collectors. Featuring more than 60 works, including rare examples of southern schoolgirl samplers and embroidered pictures; quilts; imports; homespun linens, cottons and wool blankets and textiles; Martha Washington mementoes and Masonic symbolism, these historic textiles add another dimension to the furniture, paintings, prints, metals (silver and pewter), ceramics, mechanical arts and arms, architectural elements, archaeological objects, rare books, maps, costumes and accessories and musical instruments that show the diversity of early southern culture in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The exhibition will remain on view through May 2016.

“Textiles reveal a great deal about historic cultural patterns and are particularly illustrative of women’s lives and education for young girls,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the foundation’s Carlisle H. Humelsine Chief Curator and Vice President for Collections, Conservation, and Museums. “Yet they are also among the most fragile of artifacts, particularly in humid climates like that of the South. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has assembled a large and diverse collection of early southern textiles over the past eighty years and we are pleased to be able to share so much of it at one time in this exhibition setting,”

Among the myriad textiles on view in A Rich and Varied Culture: Textiles of the Early South are extraordinary examples of southern schoolgirl samplers and embroideries. As diverse as the southern geography itself, these works reflect the different cultures, religions and education of the people—both free and enslaved—who lived in the South during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Most of the schoolgirl needlework shown in this exhibition was stitched by girls between the ages of six and sixteen who worked under the careful guidance of a teacher. Two examples in the exhibition are particularly unique: the Choctaw Mission School Sampler by Christeen Baker (b. 1817), age 13, in Mayhew, Mississippi, 1830, and The William Levington Sampler from Baltimore, Maryland, 1832. The first is a rare and important work wrought by a Native American girl on the American frontier in what is now Mayhew, Mississippi. Christeen Baker was the white name given to a young native Choctaw who worked her sampler while attending the Female Mission School there in 1829 and 1830. Just three months after she completed her sampler, the Choctaws surrendered their claims to the Mayhew area in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek; in exchange, they were given lands in present-day Oklahoma to which most of them moved. It is not known what became of Miss Baker, but her surviving sampler provides a glimpse into her life and powerfully illustrates the story of cultural assimilation, women’s education and the forced removal of an indigenous people.

The second extremely rare sampler is The William Levington Sampler, made in Baltimore, Maryland, which carries the inscription, “Worked by William Levington, Rector of St. James First African P.E. Church in Baltimore and Respectfully presented to James Bosley, Esq. July 4, 1832.” (Bosley had donated land for the church—the first African-American Episcopal Church south of the Mason-Dixon line—seven years earlier.) The Reverend Levington, a free black deacon in the Episcopal Church, directed day and Sunday schools at Saint James School for the neighborhood black children. This sampler is unique among typical schoolgirl needlework by its large-scale flowers, bold border, patterning on the basket and unusual ornamental peacock-head handles. It is rare for an adult to be associated with a piece of needlework, and samplers attributed to males are so rare that their numbers are undocumented. Almost as rare are surviving samplers worked by African-Americans of either gender.

“The Choctaw Mission School sampler and the Reverend Levington presentation embroidery are remarkably rare because the majority of American schoolgirl embroideries were created by middle and upper class white girls who lived on the Eastern seaboard in the New England and the Mid-Atlantic states,” said Kimberly Ivey, Colonial Williamsburg’s curator of textiles and historic interiors.

“Like the other schoolgirl embroideries and southern quilts in the exhibition, they are rich in stories of human experiences and provide an important perspective on the southern past.”

Among the quilts on display, two by Amelia Heiskell Lauck (1760-1842) are notable. Amelia, who married Peter Lauck at the age of 19 in 1779, settled with her husband in Winchester, Virginia. Together they had eleven children, six of whom survived into adulthood. At least four quilts made by Amelia have survived, two of which are the Framed Center-Medallion and Pieced Delectable Mountains Quilts, the first created as a wedding gift for her eighth child in 1822 and another by the same name, made ca.1825, are in the Colonial Williamsburg collection (the other two are owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution). The 1822 quilt is exceptional due to its workmanship, beauty and condition. At some time in the quilt’s history, the outer border was removed and presumably used in the creation of at least one pillow cover, which survives with the quilt. Although the ca. 1825 quilt is not signed by Amelia Lauck, it can be attributed to her. Both are configured in a famed center-medallion format with concentric borders of alternation stuffed-work quilting and pieced sawtooth and zigzag patterns with eight-pointed stars in the corners and use many of the same printed cottons.

Along with these pieces in the exhibition are other items that reflect the tastes and lives of Southern Americans. A sewing case with a thimble holder, made in America between 1805-1820 of fabrics from England and Europe made between 1760-8100, was made as a memento following Martha Washington’s death in 1802. People sought ways to remember the famous first lady, and several articles of her clothing were cut into pieces and used in making items that her grandchildren were known to hand out as souvenirs to visiting friends and relatives. This sewing case, a popular and useful souvenir, was made from pieces of gowns she wore during her husband’s presidency (1789-1797).

Another item displayed in Textiles of the Early South , featured Masonic symbolism, a familiar element in southern decorative arts in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. (Freemasonry, which emphasized belief in a higher power without specifying which god, and its democratic ideals appealed to many of the South’s prominent figures, including George Washington, Peyton Randolph, Chief Justice John Marshall, James Madison and James Monroe.) A Masonic Apron worn by Andrew Estave, made in Georgetown, District of Columbia, 1789-1793, is one such example. Andrew Estave (ca. 1740-1808) was an active member of early Masonic lodges in Georgetown and the District of Columbia, and was a significant participant in the Masonic ceremonies surrounding the laying of cornerstones of the President’s House (now know as the White House) and of the nation’s Capitol. In accordance with Masonic ritual, Estave would have worn this apron at those and other historic events in the capital city.

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