Mottled and Spotted: The Saga of Silk Bed Ruggs

As our bedhangings project in the Chamber progresses, we have been spending quite a bit of time researching bed rugs (or ruggs, in the 18th century spelling).  As I mentioned in a previous post, bed ruggs were much like area rugs for the floor, but were intended to cover the layers of linens on a well-made bed.  They could be shaggy, flat woven, or embroidered.  They could be a solid color, or have wild floral or geometric patterns.  The majority of bed ruggs were wool, or a mix of cotton and wool, but several probate inventories from the 18th century mention a mysterious “silk bed rugg”.  Betty Lewis’s 1797 probate inventory is one.

Why do I say mysterious? Well, quite simply, no one alive today knows what a silk bed rug looked like.  Not a single one has survived in the United States, and there are almost no contemporary descriptions of them.  Occasionally, a probate inventory will mention a silk bed rugg as being “mottled” or “spotted”, but no color is ever mentioned, and no other information is provided.  We are not even sure what “mottled” and “spotted” mean – polka dots? water spots?  Does the lack of color description mean that these ruggs were simply natural silk without any dye? Were they quilted or simply a sheet of silk laid over a bed? When a value is given to a silk bed rugg in a probate inventory, or when they are advertised for sale in 18th century newspapers, they are usually valued higher than their wool counterparts, so we do know that they were a bit more luxurious. 

Because we know that Betty Lewis owned a silk bed rugg, we would like to have one made and place it in the Chamber along with the carefully researched bedhangings.  We had hoped that a bed rugg would also give us the opportunity to show some 18th century needlework techniques, since we know that Betty was schooled in the art of tambour needlework.  However, our hopes might be fading.  If we cannot show a reasonable approximation of a silk bed rugg, we may fall back on a traditional wool version.  We know that when Mary Washington’s estate was sold off at public sale in 1789, Betty ended up with three of her mother’s bed ruggs – one was described as red, another was green, and the last was brown and white.  While Betty acquired all three of these ruggs after our target year of 1780, it does show us that she and her mother were familiar with, and using, bed ruggs in their homes.

Our last hope for finding a surviving example of a silk bed rugg is in England.  Those who were selling silk ruggs in the American colonies in the 18th century were almost certainly importing them from England.  Most household fashions in colonial America had their start in England – whatever was popular there, was popular a few years later in the colonies.  It is possible that silk bed ruggs may have survived in British collections.  Our intrepid chamber textiles expert, Natalie Larson, is already on the hunt. 

Thus the silk bed rugg saga continues!

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