Possibly made in Suffolk County, Sag Harbor, New York, United States
Linen and wool, embroidered
80 3/4 x 95 5/8 in. (205.1 x 242.9 cm)
Sansbury-Mills Fund, 1961
Not on view
This exceptional coverlet demonstrates that eighteenth-century American women decorated their homes with fashionable patterns adopted from faraway lands—even though they may not have fully understood the designs' heritages. The embroidered flora are undeniably exotic, especially the sinuous shaded blue blossoms along the border. Some motifs have several types of flowers emanating from a single stem—a common attribute of earlier Iranian and Turkish textiles. It is unlikely that the maker, Ruth Culver Coleman, who lived in a remote rural community on the eastern end of Long Island, had direct knowledge of her flowers' sources, but at the time this coverlet was embroidered, imported printed cottons featuring exotic designs from Middle Eastern lands were widely available and active shipping between Sag Harbor and New York City made them readily accessible.
This magnificent bed cover and related set of bed hangings (61.48.2; currently sewn together into a second coverlet) are undoubtedly the finest eighteenth-century American embroideries in our collection. Both a name and a probable location can be assigned to them, but, in spite of exhaustive research, a number of elements in their attribution remain unsure. As far as we know, the pieces were made by Ruth Culver Coleman of Sag Harbor, a small town at the eastern tip of Long Island, New York, even though they resemble work that is regularly attributed to Connecticut. The location does not seem completely out of line when one remembers that Sag Harbor was an active fishing community during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and that New London was not many miles away, easily accessible across Long Island Sound. It is likely that exchanges occurred between the communities at the eastern end of Long Island and those on the Connecticut coast. The pieces could have been made in Connecticut and imported with a bride to Long Island, or it is possible that only the patterns for the embroidery designs traveled across the Sound.
In 1909, one or both of these pieces was displayed at the Museum as part of the exhibition that accompanied the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, which commemorated the three hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson's discovery of the river that bears his name and the hundredth anniversary of Robert Fulton's first successful voyage up the Hudson in the steamboat "Clermont." The exhibition's catalogue records an "item 592" as "Embroidery. Homespun white linen with elaborate design of flowers and leaves embroidered in crewel work. Designs copied from a piece of French printed cotton in the possession of the owner. American, Eighteenth Century. Lent by Miss Mulford." Miss Anna Mulford (1837-1917) was the daughter of Ezekiel (1806-1850) and Julia Prentice Mulford (1804-1881) of Sag Harbor. Ezekiel was the owner and agent of whaling ships. Julia Prentice Mulford's grandfather was Benjamin Coleman, the husband of Ruth Culver Coleman, who, after moving from Nantucket, was living in Sag Harbor by 1776. Ruth Culver Coleman has never been definitively identified; although the 1790 Census shows both Coleman and Culvers living in the Sag Harbor area, the closest we have come to finding this elusive woman is the tombstone of her son in the Old Burying Ground in Sag Harbor. The stone was erected "In Memory of Shubal, son of Mr. Benj’n & Mrs. Ruth Coleman who died July 3rd 1789 aged 18 years." No other record of her has been found; official records of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century women who were not heads of households are often scarce to nonexistent.
Aspects to the objects themselves are also puzzling. Were the designs really copied from a piece of French printed cotton? The reference in the Museum's 1909 catalogue to the fabric in Miss Mulford's possession is enticing in this regard. When were the all-blue wool-embroidered bed hangings (61.48.2) made into a bed cover, and were all of the pieces stitched together from the same set? It is made up of many lengths of fabric; some of these base fabrics are all linen; others have a linen warp and a cotton weft. The two long panels at either side of the piece, which may have been the two head curtains, are the most elaborately embroidered and most closely match the motifs on this coverlet. The three smaller pieces at the coverlet's center have a different base fabric, and the embroidered motifs are less confidently wrought. There are three fragmentary pieces at the top right of the coverlet that are of yet another base fabric of a slightly different weave. Because of the variety of base fabrics, it is questionable whether or not all of the pieces are from the same set of bed hangings. If they are all from one set, did Ruth Culver Coleman embroider them all herself? If one considers the diversity of fabrics and designs, it looks as though a number of different hands may have been involved.
[Peck 2015; adapted from Amelia Peck, "American Quilts & Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," 2007]