This week, we have begun researching a detail of the eventual Drawing Room furnishings that will have a big impact on the final look of the room – chair slipcovers. Last week we had a sneak peak at how important these textiles are to the appareance of an 18th century room, when the slipcovers for several of our Dining Room chairs were delivered and put in place. That vibrant red color in the checked fabric is intended to compliment the Dining Room carpet when it is finally installed later this summer. As we are learning, slipcovers were often made to match, or at least go with, other textiles in a room. We have tried to capture this idea in both the Dining Room and the Chamber, but how do we do that in the Drawing Room, where we have almost no information about its original textiles?
The only clue we have to what the Drawing Room chairs may have been covered with is a quick reference in Betty Lewis’s 1797 probate inventory from her home at Millbrook. As we have discussed, when Betty left Kenmore near the end of her life, she was in a fairly desperate financial situation. We have surmised that she would not have been making any large purchases to furnish her new, much smaller house, and probably took most of her belongings from Kenmore to Millbrook. Anything of significant value in the 1797 inventory almost certainly was a hold-over from a more prosperous time in her life at Kenmore. That is why the reference to “10 Chair bottom works with fringe for edging” in the 1797 inventory is so tantalizing – it gives us some idea of what these slipcovers might have looked like.
The number 10 is significant, because the only set of 10 chairs mentioned at Kenmore in Fielding Lewis’s probate inventory is the set in the Drawing Room. “Chair bottom works” refers to covers for the chair seats (bottoms) only, rather than full slipcovers that encase the entire chair. Lastly, “fringe for edging” indicates that these slipcovers were rather fancy, and probably intended for one of the best rooms in the house. Fringe trim on slipcovers was an extravagance, and it elevates these slipcovers from merely utilitarian protective coverings for expensive upholstery material to something that was supposed to be impressive in its own right.
The Drawing Room slipcovers were probably not made from the standard check fabric that we show in the Dining Room or Chamber. Paintings and descriptions from the time period indicate that slipcovers in parlors or formal entertaining spaces were usually made of printed fabrics like chintz or copperplate so that they matched the window curtains or carpet in the rooms. Unfortunately, Kenmore never had window curtains, and we do not know what the carpet in the Drawing Room looked like. So, our best path is to look at extant examples of seat covers with fringe from the period. One such piece is in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg, while others survive in New England. Still more to come on this project!