Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Fashionable Bedding

Object: Bedspread, c. 1780
Accession #:  1966.0002
White work flourished during the middle ages when the use of color was prohibited by church edicts as “excessive luxury in dress”. It is white stitching on white background and gained popularity in America until the 1790s when it was considered the symbol of the height of fashion. It was considered so fashionable to the point where some rooms were done all in white work. An example of white work is this English or American White Marseilles Coverlet with a Medallion surrounded By 16 Points and the Royal British Coat of Arms (Lion and Unicorn flanking the closed crown topped by St. George's Cross; “GR” under crown) in Wilton’s collection.
The designs on this particular Marseilles coverlet are significant. St. George was the patron saint of England. According to the apocryphal Acts of St. George, he held rank of tribune in the Roman Army and was beheaded by Diocletian c. 303 for protesting against the Emperor’s persecution of Christians. He was universally recognized as a saint sometime after 900. He had a widespread following and many miracles were attributed to him as well as a legend told of his slaying of a dragon. The banner of St. George, the red cross of the martyr on a white background was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers possible during the reign of Richard I, later became the flag of England and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy. It also has the Royal British Coat of Arms which was used as a national symbol for Great Britain and its reigning monarch.

White bedcovers were in fashion until the 1830s and were still being made in some rural areas as late as the 1850’s and 1860’s. This particular coverlet is a Marseilles coverlet. Marseilles quilts were made in the place of the same name in the South of France and imported to England and from there to the colonies throughout the eighteenth century. According to one historian, these carefully made Marseilles coverlets were “elaborately stuffed and corded, were usually all white and made of silk and linen although colors, and cotton and wool were sometimes used”. Their demand lessened with the 1763 English patent obtained for a loom-weaving process that produced woven cloth resembling the hand-stitched Marseilles quilting.
To hand-stitch white on white took a skilled needle worker and could take several years to complete. Most of this work would have been done during the day when the white on white stitches could be seen best. However, this coverlet in Wilton’s collection is thought to be made on a double loom to give it a quilted effect. The Randolphs would have desired to furnish their homes with the latest fashions and may have sought to adorn their bedrooms with white on white coverlets like this one with similar motifs.

Collins, Michael. “St. George”. Britannia. 4 May 2013.
Weissman, Judith and Wendy Lavitt. Labors of Love: America’s Textiles and Needlework,

1650-1930.  Random House. New York: 1994.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Something to Spice It Up

Object: Spice Grater, 1790-1850

Accession #: 2005.0016

Spices were available to a certain extent in 18th century coastal cities and were sold whole to be cracked or ground at home. Ground spices would lose their aroma before being received by the consumer which is why they were sold whole. A spice grater, like this one found at Wilton, would have been used to grate the whole spices and could have been kept in one of the Randolph’s pockets for use. This one is free formed and punched from iron alloy sheet metal. According to one historian, “Spices were highly valued commodities in 18th century America—vital to food preparation, essential as preservatives of food and prized as medicines.” The search for better routes to the “spice rich lands of the East” is what motivated many of the explorations including Christopher Columbus’ voyage. The particular spice this grater is made for is nutmeg.

Described by one historian as the “quintessential spice”, nutmeg is the kernel of the apricot-like fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans and the soft membranous coat that covers its hard seed case is the spice, mace. These two spices were imported from the Spice Islands with clove. The desire of clove, mace, and nutmeg drove exploration to the original source of these spices which were islands on the Moluccan Sea. In a book written in 1880 called Medicinal Plants; being descriptions with original figures of the principal plants employed in medicine and an account of the characters, properties, and uses of their parts and products of medicinal value by Robert Bentley and Henry Trimen, nutmeg is mentioned as being “used with advantage in mild cases of diarrhea, flatulent colic, and certain forms of dyspepsia…” Spices such as nutmeg were used in food and nutmeg graters were produced beginning in the late 17th century with the growing popularity of serving punch: a brew of rum or brandy, fruit juice, sugar, and water laced with nutmeg and sugar.

Nutmeg Grater, Case and Cover
Acc#: 1968-72, A-B
1708-1708; Maker: Alexander Hudson
DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum
Graters were made of all shapes and sizes, some made suitable for carrying in the pocket and also fitted in a box to hold the nutmeg once grated. The availability of small graters, like this one, “eased [the] preparation” of punch. By the end of the seventeenth century one historian points out that “for fashionable Britons on both sides of the Atlantic, the drinking of warm beverages (coffee, tea, and chocolate), the adopting of polite dining practices in the French mode, and the serving of punch became highly organized social rituals”. The Randolphs would have kept up with these latest fashions and were served beverage cold this time of the year to combat the summer heat. 
Punch, as one historian asserts, “became the most popular mixed alcoholic drink of the 18th century.” This same historian discovered that William Byrd II of Westover Plantation wrote in his Natural History of Virginia, published in 1737, about the process of making punch. Byrd attests that “after which one has a very pleasant drink” and also recorded in his diary, November 16, 1737, while in London about being given a nutmeg grater as a gift. A member of the Randolph family would have been able to afford a fancier nutmeg grater than this one, possible made of silver (see above image) that fitted in a cylindrical box but that served the same purpose.


Davis, John D. The Robert and Meredith Green Collection of Silver Nutmeg Graters. 23 May 2013. <

Earle, Alice Morse. Home Life in Colonial Days. 23 May 2013.

“Nutmeg and Mace”. UCLA: History and Special Collections, Louise M. Darling Biomedical
Library. 18 May 2013. <>

“Spices in Early America: A Bicentennial Report”. Times Daily. 10 December 1974. Google
news. 18 May 2013.

“Nutmeg Graters”. ASCAS. 18 May 2013. <>.

Image Credit

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Poetical Works of...

Object: Travelling Library
Accession #: 1969.4.1-59

The guest room currently displays a partial collection of John Bell's landmark publishing project, The Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill. Out of 109 volumes serially published between 1777 and 1782, Wilton has fifty-eight, assembled in a handmade, period display case labeled "Bell's British Poets 1780." Each of the featured authors works are spread over one to eight of the slim volumes. A life of the author, engraving of his likeness, and original, thematically-relevant vignette precedes an unabridged version of his works.

Bell was a pioneering publisher, both in his ambition to make all the works by the most esteemed British authors available under one collection, and in his attempt to make this collection affordable to the less well-to-do. To that end, he had it printed in a range of qualities marketed to customers with a much wider variety of disposable income than the typical audience of the time. Additionally, he allowed the volumes to be sold separately, rather than only in complete sets. Although Wilton's collection likely resulted from this policy, its features illustrate that it is among the higher end of Bell's tier of quality. Both the books and the display case feature gilded leather and marbleized paper, somewhat faded and embrittled with age. There is even a secret compartment behind the title-bearing top edge of the case!
From The Poetical Works of
John Dryden, v.II
, 1778

To Bell, the collection represented an opportunity to capitalize on national pride. Building on the existing market for Greek and Latin classics, he wanted to compile all the English classics into one monumental collection. One of the earliest attempts to publish a comprehensive literary canon, it is likely to have appealed to a wealthy American family with proud British roots like the Randolphs.

Some of the problems attending Bell's enterprise include the challenge of compiling the works, biographies, and likenesses of fifty poets from various sources, the publisher's premises burning down in 1778, the untimely death of his illustrator, and a vigorous trade war from the powerful London booksellers lobby, not to mention the disruptive influence of the war with the American colonies. Of his extremely ambitious project, Bell is quoted as saying: "To describe the particular circumstances attending the progress of the publication of the Poets, would be painting a picture of misfortunes, which, if related, would cause mankind to doubt the practicability of surmounting them." Despite the difficulty it entailed, here at Wilton we are very glad Mr. Bell did complete his project. Even with only a partial collection, Bell's British Poets is a cherished member of the collection. 

Title page from The Poetical Works of
Abraham Cowley, v.I, 1777


Bonnell, Thomas F. "John Bell's 'Poets of Great Britain:' The 'Little Trifling Edition' Revisited." Modern Philology 85 (1987), 128-152.