The Linen Closet

I have spent some time in the last week investigating one of my favorite spaces in Kenmore – the closets.  Specifically, I’ve been looking into the contents of the “black walnut press” listed among the furnishings of the Small Room in the 1781 probate inventory (a “press” was what we might call an armoire or a wardrobe today).
It’s a curious item, as it is the only storage case piece listed in the entire inventory.  The lack of case pieces for storage at Kenmore is easily explained by the fact that there were two built-in closets in almost every room of the house – the Lewis family just didn’t need presses when they had all that closet space. Despite their wealth of closets, however, the decision was made to store all of the household linen – bed sheets, towels, tablecloths, etc. – separately, in a press in Fielding’s office.  We may never know the reasoning behind this decision, but I can’t help but imagine that there was a good story behind it.

So what exactly did Betty Lewis store in her husband’s office? According to the inventory, the press contained a total of 20 pairs of bed sheets, 21 pillowcases, 9 tablecloths, 14 napkins, and 24 towels.  Luckily, the inventory also provides a little descriptive information for several of these items, in addition to a value for
each.

Bed sheets in colonial America were produced at home.  The mistress of a household could purchase sheeting fabric at a store, but she sewed the fabric into sheets herself.  The basic format was two widths of the sheeting fabric sewn together so that there was one seam down the middle of the sheet, and the selvedge edges of
the width of fabric were two of the outside edges.  The remaining two edges of the sheet were hand-hemmed.  The lady of the house often marked the sheets she made with her initials in one corner.  The walnut press in Fielding’s office actually contained two types of bed sheets.  16 pairs were simply listed as “sheets”, without
any other descriptors.  The remaining 4 pairs were described as “Cotton & Thread” sheets.  “Thread” was often used as a term for linen, so “cotton & thread” probably meant that these 4 pairs of sheets were of mixed fibers – both cotton and linen. A look at accounts with Fielding Lewis’s store that have survived in the Kenmore manuscript collection show that a variety of sheeting fabric was available to his customers, including linen, cotton, mixed and “Russia” (which was an all-linen fabric imported from Russia).  Pillowcases, which were square not rectangular as our standard cases are today, were usually made from the same type of fabric.  In a household with 16 beds or bedsteads, we can be sure that these 20 pairs of sheets and pillowcases saw a fair amount of
use.

A set of late 18th century Irish linen damask napkins sold at Christie's London in 2011

Although the inventory does not provide any additional description of the 9 tablecloths, it does tell us something about the 14 napkins that went with them.  The napkins are described as “damask”, which was a type of fabric made from silk, linen, worsted wool or a combination.  The fabric was woven so that the pattern, usually  of flowers, appeared in relief to the background.  Damask was a good choice for table linens because it was
reversible.  Although the type of damask isn’t detailed in the inventory, the relatively low value of the napkins (2 shillings each) indicates that it probably wasn’t silk.  The Lewis store accounts show that Irish linen damask was occasionally available for purchase there.

The 24 towels were also of two types – “diaper” and “coarse”.  The coarse towels are no great mystery.  They were probably of cheap fabric and used for cleaning or other utilitarian purposes.  The diaper towels were a bit nicer, however.  Diaper was a linen fabric woven in a diamond pattern.  It was extremely soft, and highly
absorbent, so these towels were probably used for bathing, although diaper was often used to cover tables, as well.  Smaller tables, like the corner table in Kenmore’s Drawing Room, which could be used for breakfast or informal meals might be set with a diaper tablecloth.

Now that we have identified the linens originally stored in Fielding’s office, they will be placed in a walnut press in that room as part of the furnishing arrangement…for whatever reason they were originally placed there!

For more information and an excellent analysis of household textiles in colonial Virginia, see:

http://www.gunstonhall.org/mansion/room_use_study/textiles.html

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