Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Enbroidered bed curtain

Sarah Noyes Chester (1722–1797)
ca. 1745
Made in Wethersfield, Connecticut, United States
Linen embroidered with wool
87 3/4 x 70 5/8 in. (222.9 x 179.4 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Coit Johnson, through their son and daughter, 1944
Accession Number:
Not on view
This piece is made of three panels of linen stitched together and embroidered with wool in satin, split, stem, star, and French-knot stitches. It is embroidered through two layers of linen, the top layer of which is extremely fine. It has been rebacked since it came to the Museum. The central area is embroidered with fruit trees and flowering plants, including pear, yellow apple, cherry, thistle, carnation, and rose. The piece is bordered on three sides with fantastic flowering vines in shades of blue, green, yellow, salmon, pink, and red.
More information exists about the life of Sarah Noyes Chester--the maker of this embroidered bed curtain--than about those of most eighteenth-century American women. Sarah was born in 1722, the daughter of the Reverend James Noyes, pastor of the First Church of New Haven, Connecticut. On November 19, 1747, at the age of twenty-five, she married Colonel John Chester (1703-1771) of Wethersfield, who was nineteen years her senior. Sarah's husband died in 1772, while he was inspecting a hayfield. From contemporary accounts of his death, it seems that he suffered a sudden heart attack. According to his obituary, Colonel John Chester was one of the wealthiest men in Wethersfield and held many important posts in the community, including Judge of the County Court. After twenty-six years of widowhood, Sarah died at the age of seventy-five on January 25, 1797. Both she and her husband rest in Wethersfield's Ancient Burying Ground. The couple had six children: four sons and two daughters. Our needlework descended through the family of her third child, a daughter named Sarah (1756-1834), who married Thomas Coit (1752-1832) of Norwich, Connecticut.

Although for many years this piece was thought to be a coverlet, recent research has proved that it is actually a curtain from a set of bed hangings. The set was embroidered in about 1745, perhaps in preparation for Sarah Noyes Chester's marriage. Until the nineteenth century, bed hangings were an essential part of the furnishings of any home. A complete set of bed hangings included four curtains suspended from a frame that were drawn around the bed, a stationary curtain hung at the head of the bed called a head cloth, valances that covered the top rail of the frame and hid the top edges of the four curtains, a tester cloth that was stretched over the top of the frame, and often, a matching coverlet. The two movable curtains that hung close to the head of the bed were usually one-half the width of the curtains that hung at the foot. The two narrow head curtains (90 x 37.5 in.; 228.6 x 95.3 cm) and a valance from the set of bed hangings made by Sarah Noyes Chester are in the collection of the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield. They are there because Sarah's daughter Abigail married Joseph Webb, Jr., whose father built the house that is now this museum. The composition of the embroidery on the Museum’s panel matches these pieces, and the size of the panel (87.75 x 70.63 in.; 222.9 x 179.4 cm) further indicates that it is one of the wide foot curtains from the same set.

Only one of the eighteenth-century wool-embroidered linen "bed coverings" in the Museum’s collection (61.48.1) was actually a coverlet when it was first created. Most of our other pieces of this type are either bed curtains that have been mistaken for bed coverings in the past or coverlets that were made at a later date by piecing together bed curtains and valances (see 22.55; 61.48.2). When completely draped beds went out of style soon after the turn of the nineteenth century, many families still appreciated the work of their mothers or grandmothers, and sets of these beautifully wrought embroidered bed hangings were often transformed into coverlets.

[Peck 2015; adapted from Amelia Peck, "American Quilts & Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," 2007]
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