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Family Connections

By Joel Lefever, Executive Director of Old York

The extraordinary set of crewel-embroidered bed hangings in Old York’s collection, have been in the public realm since being donated to the Old Gaol Museum in 1908. They have been on display in York since at least 1910; photographed for publication since the 1920s; and exhibited in Boston, Masachusetts, and London, England in the 1970s. Yet until recently, little was written about the families connected to the hangings, or how they descended from Mary Swett and Alexander Bulman of York, Maine to Anna Sophia Tielston Everett of Roxbury, Massachusetts.

In 1730 Mary Swett (1715-1791) married Dr. Alexander Bulman, Jr. (1701–1745), and the couple settled in York where Alexander served as the town’s physician. Their house, now numbered 192 York Street, still stands and is located directly across the street from the main campus of Old York.

 

Bulman House York

Bulman House, York, about 1860

 

Recent research into the genealogies of the Swett and Bulman families has revealed much about their connections to Boston, Massachusetts, and York, Maine. Alexander Bulman, Sr., arrived in Boston by 1684, and established a bakery. His wife Margaret Taylor was a young English Nonconformist refugee whose family followed their minister, Rev. John Bailey, from Limerick, Ireland, to Watertown, Massachusetts, around 1684. The couple married in 1690 and settled in Boston where their son Alexander was born and educated to be a physician.

Mary Swett’s paternal family helped to found Hampton Falls, New Hampshire. She was born there, but moved to York when she was young. Her maternal relatives, the Sayward family, had lived in York in 1692 during the infamous Candlemas Raid by members of the Abenaki tribe. Her grandmother and two of her aunts were taken as captives to Montreal. Her grandmother was ransomed in 1695, but her aunts lived the remainder of their lives in French Canada—one of them, Mary Sayward, became a Roman Catholic nun named Sister Marie-des-Anges. Mary Swett’s mother, Hannah Sayward, was born in York in 1688 and died there in 1761.

Mary’s father, Joseph Swett was born in Hampton, New Hampshire in 1689, served as a Lieutenant in the Indian Wars, and operated a leather tannery. He moved his family to York, Maine in 1718 after purchasing 150 acres at Western Point, also known as Swett’s Point, a property with beautiful vistas at the mouth of the York River.

Joseph Swett and Hannah Sayward had at least seven children, with Mary being the oldest. Following marriage to Dr. Bullman in 1730, Mary’s unmarried sisters Susanna, Elizabeth, and Esther (who wed in 1735, 1736, and 1755) lived nearby and perhaps assisted with the embroidery of the hangings. A past evaluation of the hangings’ stitching suggested that perhaps three different embroiderers, with varying skills, worked on them.

An often-repeated story claims that Mary Bulman created the hangings in 1745 to “occupy her mind” after her husband died while serving as regimental physician during William Pepperrell’s (1696–1759) Siege of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. However, there is no contemporary evidence to support the story. Pepperrell’s forces left Maine in April of 1745 and defeated French forces in June. Alexander Bulman died of disease at Louisbourg on 11 September 1745. The hangings, apparently complete, appear in his York probate inventory of 7 April 1746 as “1 sute wrought brown Holland Curtains” assessed at £20, the same value as a ten-acre plot of land also listed in the inventory. (In the description, wrought means “embroidered” and brown Holland means “fine unbleached linen.”) It is unlikely that Mary acquired the linen and embroidered the hangings in the seven months between September 1745 and April 1746 as a bereaved widow busy with a young son, and faced with the uncertainty of settling her husband’s estate.

Mary and Alexander had two children, neither of whom survived past young adulthood. Following a second marriage to Reverend Thomas Prentice (1702-1782), of Cambridge Massachusetts, Mary died in York in 1791 and is buried in the Old Burying Ground of First Parish Church, across the street from where she had lived. Her niece, Abiel Hovey Sargent (1751–after 1840) inherited the hangings, along with the rest of Mary’s household furnishings and York property, and continued to live in the Bulman house. Upon Abiel Sargent’s death in the 1840s, the bed hangings passed to her daughter, Mary Sargent Lyman (d. 1858), and thence in the 1850s to Abiel’s granddaughter, Frances Joann Ruggles Sargent Bullard (1818–1887).

Reminiscing later in life, at nearly age 60, Frances Bullard wrote of experiencing the hangings in the 1820s while visiting her “Grandmother Sargent’s house,” the former Bulman house in York: “They used to hang upon an old-fashioned, high-posted bed. When I was a little girl of eight years of age I remember sleeping on such a bedstead, and then curtains hung over the top and around the sides, and I could read the legends on the lambrequins and look at the strange birds and flowers.” Having descended through three generations, the Bulman household furnishings probably remained intact, including the bed hangings, until the York house was sold out of family ownership in 1853.

 

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Bulman Bed Hangings in Old York’s  Emerson-Wilcox House Museum, about 2005

 

Frances Bullard, who inherited the hangings in the 1850s, stored them in an attic for twenty-five years until the 1870s, when she gave them to Anna Sophia Tielston Everett (1825–1909), a cousin from her father’s family, who had “an interest in all ancient things.” In 1908, just months before she died, Anna Everett, who lived in Roxbury, Massachusetts, donated the hangings to the Old Gaol Museum in York, where her friend, Sophia Steed Turner (1856–1936) was the museum custodian. Anna Everett included letters of provenance with the bed hangings hoping “that the data given therein may be of some use in locating the birth of the curtains, and that some of the oldest inhabitants may know something of the Bulman and Sargent families.” The original letters are lost, but were quoted in 1908 in the Old York Transcript newspaper.

Few sets of early 18th century American bed hangings survive, and those that do often are fragmentary, having been cut up and distributed to family members as mementos. The hangings created by and for Mary Swett Bulman, kept together by family circumstance, truly are extraordinary.

 

 

Referenced consulted:

An Historical Catalogue of the Old South Church (Third Church) Boston (Boston: David Clapp and Son, 1883).

First Church Record Book, Watertown, 1668–1818, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Coleman, Emma Lewis. New England Captives Carried to Canada (Portland, Maine, Southworth Press, 1925), vol. 1.

“Museum Receives Valuable Gift, Historical Society Enriched By Generosity of Miss Anna Everett of Roxbury,” Old York Transcript [York, Maine], February 14, 1908.

Probate inventory of the Estate of Dr. Alexander Bulman, York, County of York, Maine, April 7, 1746.

York Historic Landmarks Architectural Survey, undated, Old York Historical Society.

Old Gaol Museum Book of Gifts, undated, Old York Historical Society.

 

In early 1908 an unassuming suitcase was delivered to the Old Gaol Museum (now part of Old York). When Museum custodian Sophia Turner (1856–1936) opened the case, however, she realized immediately that the contents were far from ordinary—an almost-complete set of colonial American crewelwork bed hangings. The whimsical embroidered flowering vines, fruit trees, and animals as fresh in color as the day they were made. A lyrical poem by Isaac Watts, “Meditation in a Grove” (published in Horae Lyricae, 1706), adorns the inner valances, and is the only known use of verse on a set of American bed hangings.

Bed Hanging Suitcase.jpg

The set was created by Mary Swett Bulman (1715–1791) of York, Maine, in the 1730s, and consists of four curtains, a head cloth, tester cloth, three outer valances, and three inner valances. The embroideries came to the Old Gaol Museum as an entirely unexpected gift from Anna Everett (1825–1909) of Roxbury, Massachusetts. A relative of the Swett family by marriage, Everett sent the embroideries to the Old Gaol just a few months before her death.

1961.2-entire bed by MFA

Today, the bed hangings are the crown jewel of Old York’s collection, and are widely considered a national treasure. They have been on almost continuous display since they arrived in 1908, and although they are in exceptional condition for their age, they have suffered somewhat from more than 100 years of exposure.

The Museum is pleased to announce that this past summer it became the recipient of a $35,000 grant from The Coby Foundation of New York City to conserve the Bulman bed hangings. The grant will allow Old York to have the textiles cleaned and stabilized, as part of a larger project to create a new, more comprehensive, and preservation-minded installation for them in the museum’s gallery.

The conservation of the textiles will be carried out over the next year, and the bed hangings will be placed back on public view by the end of 2016. With the guidance of an advisory panel of renowned curators and textile experts, Old York intends to take this opportunity to comprehensively document and study the embroideries, hoping to reveal more about the history of the textiles, the people who made and cared for them, as well as their construction and curious design.

We will be telling the fascinating history of these bed hangings through a series of posts on this blog, introducing readers to the talented team of experts involved in the project, as well as documenting the conservation and reinstallation process, and sharing new findings. Please join us on this incredible journey!


The Coby Foundation was established in 1994 by Irene Zambelli Silverman in honor of her mother, Irene Meladakis Zambelli. Mrs. Silverman described her mother as “the finest needlewoman in New York.” The Foundation funds projects in the textile and needle arts field. Its funding is limited to non-profit organizations in the Mid-Atlantic and New England. Old York is extremely grateful to the Foundation for its support of this important project.

1978.309 (2)

This week’s mystery object is a seam rubber. Like its name implies, it was used to smooth and flatten the heavy canvas, making creases in sails before the seams were stitched.

The fact that it is carved from whalebone adds another interesting component. Originally, the term “scrimshaw” referred to objects made by sailors from the byproducts of whaling, such as bone, teeth and baleen. A seam rubber would have been an important tool in a sailor’s kit. Over time, the term scrimshaw has come to include the more whimsical pieces made by sailors in their spare time.

This week’s mystery object was a little tricky. The bottle which depicts the image of General Taylor on one side and George Washington on the other, was produced by Dyottville Glass Works between 1847-1849.

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In the early 1800s Englishman Thomas W. Dyott purchased an earlier glass works near Philadelphia and built an establishment called “Dyottville” which operated into the 1930’s. Dyottville was more than a glass factory; it was a home for 300 boys and  young men. It operated as a small community complete with a school, church, hospital, library and a farm. These workers were obliged to follow a strict code of ethics:

1.  No swearing, improper or abusive language.
2. $5 fine or dismissal for breaking the rule prohibiting liquor on the premises.
3. $5 fine for disobeying the orders of a superior.
4. Personal cleanliness and “necessary ablution” before meals, school and church.
5. Use of all fines to purchases books for the Dyottville Apprentices Library.
6. Strict prohibition of every species of gambling.
7. Immediate notification of the one’s superior in case of illness, so another could take his station in the factory.

The irony was code #2; workers who produced liquor bottles were prohibited from inbibing alcohol!

h.1982.882.4x

This is one of four porcelain plates brought back to York, Maine by Miss Elizabeth Perkins and her mother, Mary (Sowles) Perkins, from their travels to Russia (1896 & 1909). It can be identified as being from Imperial Russia not only by the double-headed eagle in the center, but also by the cyrillics (“lettering”) that are used. The Russian orthography was changed shortly after the 1917 revolution; the plates retain the older cyrillics from the late 19th-early 20th centuries.

The set was made by the Korniloff Brothers, who had a factory in St. Petersburg, Russia. The factory closed in 1918 when all businesses were privatized by the government.

All four of the plates in the collection feature cyrillics around the rim which give different Russian proverbs relating to food. This plate roughly translates as “If the bread is not yours, don’t open your mouth.”

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This week’s mystery object is a sausage press. Ground up meat was placed inside the hollow tin cylinder and a natural casing was placed over the spout.  As the wooden plunger was depressed the base of the plunger would push the meat down, forcing the meat out of the spout and into the casing.

Sausage making was a fall activity, making efficient use of leftover bits of meat from slaughtered animals as well as their intestines for casings. The sausages were eaten fresh or preserved by cooking or smoking. Cooked sausages were placed in a crock and covered with melted lard. Once the lard hardened, the contents of the crock would become air-tight, keeping the sausages preserved until the weather grew warm.

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2005.3C

This week’s mystery object was found by donor Elizabeth Boardman at a local yard sale. They belonged to Herman A. Starkey (1897-1983) who worked as groundskeeper at the York Golf and Tennis Club. The horseshoe shape is no accident; the four steel plates were used to protect the grass at the golf course from a horse’s hooves.

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