Historic Deerfield’s Textiles Collection
A conversation with David E. (Ned) Lazaro, Curator of Textiles
Please give us an overall sense of Historic Deerfield’s Textiles, Clothing, and Embroidery Collection.
Historic Deerfield’s fashion and textile collection is a significant part of the museum. Numbering about 8,000 items, it is nearly 1/3 of the entire artifact collection. Items in the collection range in date from 17th century English embroideries through mid-20th century women’s ready to wear. Both the founders of the museum, Henry (1893-1970) and Helen (1895-1986) Flynt collected in all areas, but it was Mrs. Flynt in particular who especially loved and developed the collection to help make it as strong as it is today.
Considered one of the country’s best textile collections, what do you feel are the reasons why this is true?
While the collection is broad in some respects, the strength is in a few key areas: 18th-century men’s and women’s fashion and accessories; 18th and early 19th century New England needlework; and 18th and early 19th century domestic textiles, including quilts, coverlets, and bed “furniture” (hangings and other textiles for the bed). These strengths are based on the core of the collection begun by Helen Flynt, and strategically grown by Curatorial staff through the years following the Flynts. I think these strengths resonate with the public. The collection helps give insight into sartorial and social aspects of daily life that can be similar and different to what we know and experience today.
By the late 1940s, the Flynts had begun to renovate historic houses along Deerfield’s Old Main Street (what we now often call “The Street”) and open them for vistors to tour. Naturally, domestic textiles and other decorative arts were central to interpret these houses to 20th century visitors, and in fact the first 24 textile items Mrs. Flynt recorded were mainly quilts and coverlets. These items were collected slowly over the years; some came from local families, others with histories of being made or used in New England. Still others were collected as examples of what 18th-century New Englanders would have owned. And some were just plain beautiful examples that Mrs. Flynt had to have! Today, those more high-style textiles in that latter category help to serve as benchmarks of fashion and taste during the period, that help put more locally documented examples in context.
What are the parameters for adding to the collection? Provenance of a particular kind? Connecticut River Valley (belonging to a resident even if the piece is from Europe) origins? Massachusetts origins? New England origins?
Today, items in the textile and fashion collection, like other areas of the broader collection, are acquired according to a three-tiered approach. The first tier, or area, includes those items made or used in Deerfield regardless of time period. The second encompasses those items with a history to the Connecticut River Valley before about 1860. The third tier are select New England, American, English, or European examples before 1860 that are used to help contextualize items fitting into the other two tiers.
How do you go about adding to the collection?
Items are added to the collection in many ways. Donations are of course a great way. We are sometimes able to purchase items at auctions or offered for sale by dealers. We are always on the lookout for objects that will add to the collection’s existing strengths, or fill gaps in our holdings. The internet is a good tool to use to see what is out there. Plus, we have a great relationship with our members who notify us from time to time when they hear of an object that may be a good fit for the museum. Dealers, too, know us and have a sense of what we might be interested in. Historic Deerfield carefully weighs each potential acquisition against what we already have and can responsibly take care of. Sometimes items for sale are duplications from existing holdings. Sometimes, an object’s fragility and the cost to treat or conserve damaged items have to be weighed against the choice to accept an object, too.
What are your favorite items in the collection?
One of my favorite items in the collection is a wedding gown worn by Springfield, Massachusetts, resident Hannah Hopkins (1731-1766) on her wedding to Colonel John Worthington in 1759. The gown is made from an opulent, brocaded silk fabric woven in London, It would have been stunning on her wedding day. What is just as interesting to me is that the gown dated to before her wedding! She may have inherited the costly fabric and updated it for her day. What’s more, both Hannah’s daughter and granddaughter wore the gown for their own weddings in 1791 and 1824, respectively. So you have this gown that would have been a terrific showstopper when new, but then was subsequently tempered for each new wedding.
Another fabulous acquisition is our new bed rug. Historic Deerfield has an already-marvelous collection of these pile fabric bed coverings. But this one, made by Esther Packard and dated 1801, is our first we can trace to a specific Connecticut River Valley inhabitant.
Textiles were central to life in early America. There was some local production, including weaving and dyeing of cloth. There was an incredible amount of manufactured goods, too, that made their way from across the Atlantic, especially England. During the colonial period, many different kinds and qualities of textiles were imported, from the expensive English brocaded silk seen in the Hopkins wedding gown, to practical and serviceable woolen goods for workwear.
Then, as now, people bought what they could afford, and sometimes a good quality, plain fabric might be a better choice for someone needing to get the most value for their money than another, more fashionable textile. Whether your fabric was imported or domestically woven, artisans here helped people make the finished product.
Trades or services that enhanced one’s appearance, including tailors, gown makers, wig makers, and stay (or corset) makers, were important professions in many cities and towns. Upholsterers made furniture more comfortable.
Textiles for the home and the body were continually mended and altered as styles and waistlines changed, or as repairs were needed. There was no fast fashion in the 18th and early 19th centuries; textiles were expensive investments that were expected to last years. A significant part of many young girls’ educations also involved making embroidered samplers and pictorial needlework with imported textiles to decorate their families’ homes and teach them valuable skills they were expected to use as adult married women. In this way, textiles took on roles that stood for more than just aesthetics or comfort; they became tools through which one succeeded in society.
I understand some of the wallpaper in one of the homes was re-created based upon evidence. Are there any “reproductions” of textiles to show particular styles of types of textiles such as domestics or rugs?
Historic Deerfield will on occasion reproduce a textile for display in a historic house. One project we are working on now involves digitally printing a c.1820 roller printed English cotton furnishing fabric to make bed and window curtains for a chamber in our Wells-Thorn House. The fabric is based on a fragment, or “document,” in the collection that had a history of ownership to the Stebbins family here in Deerfield. Then, as now, coordinated textiles communicated status, foresight, and a unified cohesive decorating scheme. Some things never change! The project is complex, and requires a perfect color match between the design, background, and needs to match the crispness of the original design. When finished, the effect will be quite stunning, and help visitors to see that by the early 19th century, England’s advances in textile production and printing made it easier and more affordable to match textiles for an “en suite” effect for a room.
Historic Deerfield does not have a conservator on staff, so we take items to be treated when they need repair or stabilization. A conservator is a carefully trained professional who understands that artifacts are irreplaceable. Their methods do not so much hide defects or try to erase age, but to stabilize weak areas and minimize a compromised appearance while being sensitive to the object’s long-term preservation for future generations.
I also understand items are stored by fabric: Silk, wool, cotton, and linen. Is this due to the particular storage needs for different types of fabric?
Clothing and textiles in the Helen Geier Flynt Textile Gallery are currently displayed according to four of the main fibers woven into clothing and domestic textiles in the 18th century; silk, wool, cotton, and linen. The gallery has additional sections where we can display themed vignettes or explore a topic that maybe wouldn’t work as well in a historic house setting. Periods of exhibition need to be balanced with even longer periods of “rest,” when the object is not at risk for exposure to damaging light, dust, and the effects of gravity. The museum carefully monitors those environmental issues, including temperature and relative humidity, so that the objects are not subject to any extreme conditions that would accelerate deterioration. We take our role as stewards of the collection for future generations very seriously.
Historic Deerfield, Inc., is dedicated to the heritage and preservation of Deerfield, Massachusetts and the Connecticut River Valley. Its museums and programs provide today’s audiences with experiences that create an understanding and appreciation of New England’s historic villages and countryside.