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.
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.
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.