The Most Splendid Carpet
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"The President wishes to get a Carpet of the best Kind, for a Room 32 feet by 22... We can get no Carpet in New York to suit the Room—Carpeting of the best kind—Scotch Carpeting is almost the only kind to be found here. If you will be so good as to inform me if anything of the above description can be found in Philadelphia you will oblige me." [1]

When Tobias Lear wrote this letter in February 1790, on behalf of George Washington, carpets of quality were neither abundant nor easily acquired. Although more numerous than they were in 1758, when the only carpets mentioned among seventy-five inventories in Boston were two Turkey carpets belonging to the Jackson family, floor coverings "of the best kind" were still the province of the wealthy few. Research in American inventories reveals a basic pattern: by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, a majority of middle-class houses had inexpensive Scotch carpeting, floorcloths, or straw mats; only the wealthier possessed more elegant and serviceable British-made Brussels or Wilton carpets, and only the very well-off had Turkey carpets or imported British hand-knotted carpets from Axminster or Moorfields.

Turkey carpets were especially prized possessions of a small number of settlers in the seventeenth century, and more were imported in the eighteenth century before the Revolution. A few merchants and aristocratic landholders wishing to make a permanent record of their progress in the world ordered portraits of themselves in which Oriental carpets spoke for the wealth and importance of their owners. A colorful Anatolian carpet of the so-called Transylvanian type in the Robert Feke portrait of Isaac Royall and his family illustrates a customary use of these carpets as a table-covering and suggests that they were considered far too valuable to be put under foot. Somewhat later Oriental carpets might be purchased in cities like Boston or Williamsburg, but such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin still went to England to find carpets through London dealers.

FIGURE 3: "Isaac Royall and Family," oil on canvas by Robert Feke, 1741. Courtesy of the Harvard University Portrait Collection.

Early in the eighteenth century, a householder had little choice; either he was wealthy enough to buy a Turkey carpet, or his wife was accomplished enough to hand-stitch a needlework carpet or to weave a "list" rug out of wool or linen rags. Barring these alternatives, the floor might be covered with straw mats, or simply strewn with straw and herbs in medieval fashion. Reportedly, some Americans even used sand on their floors, swept into herringbone or swirl patterns. [2]

Towards mid-century painted canvas floorcloths became popular, particularly for entrance halls, but also in parlors, and later on in dining rooms. Often embellished with bold geometric designs or small repeating flower designs, complete with border, they added color and pattern to a room, but not warmth or quiet.

When Brussels and Wilton carpeting became available in America in the 1750's it was truly a luxurious improvement; these carpets, which could be laid wall-to-wall, cut off drafts, softened the footfalls of a busy family, and lent an air of bright attractiveness to a hitherto bare floor. Woven in strips on a twenty-seven inch loom, Brussels carpeting had a looped pile of wool and was sturdy and serviceable. Above all, it could be cut and sewn to fit a room exactly. Wilton carpeting was an offshoot of the Brussels technique made on the same narrow looms, but its loops were cut to give a smooth, velvety pile. Americans seemed to prefer Wilton to Brussels, judging from the evidence in inventories and auction advertisements. From the 1750's onward Wilton carpets appeared in the most fashionable homes. Joseph Pemberton, Samuel Neave, and Thomas Penn, to mention but three influential Philadelphians, had Wilton carpets in the years before and just after the Revolution. Brussels carpets are more difficult to identify in inventories. Although any of the "old carpets" common in Philadelphia and Boston records might have been Brussels, mention of them specifically does not occur with any frequency until the 1790's.

With the importation of Scotch or ingrain carpeting beginning about mid-century, a less expensive choice became available. Scotch carpeting, however, was not a highly regarded alternative. Tobias Lear turned up his nose at it for Washington's large room, and Thomas Sheraton in his Cabinet Dictionary of 1794 disdained it as "the most inferior kind." Despite these scornful comments, Americans could not get along without this soft, narrow, double-woven carpeting. Pileless and reversible, Scotch carpeting appeared everywhere, from nurseries and attics in grand mansions to the front parlors of the middle class. Cost, not serviceability seems to have dictated its use in the House of Representatives Chamber, the committee rooms, and the hallways of Congress Hall in Philadelphia, but the Senate Chamber was another matter: there something more luxurious was required.

FIGURE 4: Detail of Brussels carpet, c. 1860, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Author's photograph.

FIGURE 5: Detail of Wilton carpet, c. 1830, Attingham Park, Shropshire, England. Carpet composed of strips 27 inches wide, sewn together. By courtesy of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, London, England. Author's photograph.

FIGURE 6: Detail of Ingrain carpet, probably 18th century. Colonial Williamsburg Photograph.

Hand-knotted Axminster carpets like the Senate carpet were the most expensive of British-made carpets, and began to appear in newspaper advertisements just before the Revolution, some twenty years after their first manufacture in England. No Axminsters have been discovered in American inventories, and auction advertisements reveal that only a few were in this country in the 1770's.

When Oriental carpets were costly and hard to obtain in sixteenth century Europe, there were copyists at work both in England and France who imitated the "Turkey" carpets imported at such great expense from Anatolia. In the seventeenth century, the popularity of these copies led to the establishment of the famous Savonnerie carpet works in an old soap factory in Paris, where carpets, seat covers, tapestries, and screen panels were carefully hand-knotted in patterns imitating the Oriental imports. Almost immediately, however, the design vocabulary expanded from simple Oriental copies to the elaborate florals favored in seventeenth century decoration, and Savonnerie designs became famous in their own right. This reputation was enhanced by the fact that Savonnerie carpets were made exclusively for the King of France, for his palaces at Versailles and Fontainebleau, or as gifts to foreign sovereigns.

In 1750 two workmen from the Savonnerie factory became embroiled in a feud with the company and emigrated in some disgust to London. As recent research by Wendy Hefford of the Victoria and Albert Museum has shown, they raised enough money by subscription to begin a carpet for the Prince of Wales, but had to be rescued from debt by Thomas Moore, an enterprising hosier and tapestry maker. [3]

When this association did not last, another French refugee, Peter Parisot, hired the two men and set up a factory at Fulham, claiming immediately that he had introduced the hand-knotting technique which later came to be called "Axminster" to England. Thomas Moore disputed this claim, and when Parisot fired the two men for their "extravagant demands," Moore at once rehired them. There they remained from 1752 onwards, weaving carpets for the man who became famous as Thomas Moore of Moorfields, maker of carpets for the architect Robert Adam, and competitor of Thomas Whitty of Axminster, Devonshire.

For a few years Parisot continued his factory in Fulham, but because his carpets were so expensive he was forced to the edge of bankruptcy. In 1755 he sold the business to Claude Passavent, who moved the looms to Exeter, Devonshire, a county famous for its fine worsted. Here business flourished for six years, during which some very beautiful hand-knotted carpets with designs reminiscent of French sources were manufactured. Many of these "Exeter" carpets survive today in England, and can be easily distinguished from others of the same knotting technique by their tightly pulled multicolor wefts, their "counting warps" (a colored thread twisted in among the natural wool warps every 20 threads, so that the ruled cartoon could be followed more easily), and by the signature, "Oxon," woven into the border with the date beside it.

PLATE II: Exeter carpet, 1758, Petworth House, Sussex, England. Note dark colored counting warp threads and multicolored wefts. By courtesy of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, London, England. Author's photograph. (click on image for a PDF version)

FIGURE 7: The process of handknotting a carpet on an upright loom as illustrated in Diderot's Encyclopedia..., (Vol. IX, P1. 1). Note the cartoon of the design attached to the warp above the weaver's head.

One piece actually signed by Parisot himself still exists, a colorful and very closely knotted chair-back now framed on the wall at Clandon Park. It is an excellent example of the fine materials and meticulous craftsmanship which made the works of the Parisot factory desirable. After the Exeter factory dwindled and went bankrupt in 1761—Passavent seems to have been a singularly inept manager—the two British competitors remained.

Thomas Whitty was a weaver of woolen cloth in Axminster, Devonshire, who was convinced he could make carpets as fine as those of Parisot, if only he could discover the secret of the technique. While Parisot was still in London Whitty managed to visit the shop in Fulham, where he "obtained a view of everything I wanted, by which every remaining difficulty was removed from my mind, and I was thoroughly satisfied I could go on with the manufacture." [4] Upon his return to Devonshire, Whitty duplicated the simple vertical loom used by Parisot, and with his borrowed technique began to weave carpets.

The upright loom which Parisot used could be built to great width, although it had to be attached to the ceiling for support. Warp of any desired size was threaded on the loom, and cartoons of the design were pinned to the warp at eye level. Several weavers sat in a row beneath it. Each weaver worked a comfortable width of 27 inches, first weaving a few rows of wool warp, then, as if making a Turkey carpet, putting in a row of Turkish knots using ready-cut wool in any choice of colors. This type of carpeting was superior in three ways to woven looped carpeting: it was hand knotted and therefore stronger, it could be made to any width, and a greater variety of colors could be used to make the pattern.

Realizing that the Parisot operation was in difficulty because of the expense of these carpets, Whitty applied a businessman's mind to the problem of producing affordable carpets for the English market. To reduce the price and undercut Parisot, and later Passavent at Exeter, he used bast or "tow" fibers, mainly coarse linen, in the weft of his carpets, where the others had used wool. Instead of hiring men at a high wage to do his weaving, he was able to cut labor costs by employing women and children at very low rates, even going so far as to seek out and hire pauper children from Axminster and the neighboring rural parishes. At first his own wife and daughters sat at the looms, making costs so low that he could undersell the competition greatly. The year after he began work he had, in his own words, "orders for as many carpets as I could procure hands to make."

In 1757 he shared a prize with Thomas Moore of Moorfields from the Society for Promoting Arts and Sciences, for "making Carpets in England on the principle of Turkey carpets." Whitty recounted in his memoir of the Axminster manufactory that although Thomas Moore's carpet "was made of the finest materials" and was valued at 40 guineas, his own of about the same size was priced at only £26.5.0, while Claude Passavent's came to the "exorbitantly high" price of 80 guineas. It is obvious who reaped the benefits of this publicity. Price, however, was not the only distinguishing feature between the carpets of Whitty and Moore. Since Thomas Moore employed the same French weavers who began the Fulham-Exeter manufacture, his carpets had many of the same features. His carpets were wool throughout and sometimes used multicolor weft threads. He did not always sign his carpets, however, and the wefts were never pulled as tightly as those of Exeter. He also used the method of "counting warps" for ease in reading cartoons, sometimes a multicolored thread every 20 warps, sometimes a simple knotting together of every nineteenth and twentieth warp thread. [5]

Thomas Whitty did not adopt all of these peculiarities. He never signed his carpets, nor did he use counting warps or multicolor wefts, and of course, the weft threads of his carpets were usually of rough bast and tow fibers instead of wool. [6]

Whitty, Moore, and Passavent continued as rivals until the Exeter bankruptcy of 1761, when the English market was left to Moore and Whitty. Each had his own following among the wealthy classes in England, and both were employed by Robert Adam. Thomas Moore signed one of his Adam-designed carpets for the Duke of Northumberland and made one for Sir Edward Knatchbull at Mersham-le-Hatch, Kent, through the agency of Chippendale. For Osterley Park he made three carpets from Adam's drawings to match the newly applied neoclassical ceiling decorations.

FIGURE 8: Detail of Moorfields carpet at Kedleston, Derbyshire, England. With the kind permission of The Viscount Scarsdale. Author's photograph.

FIGURE 9: Detail of Moorfields carpet at Osterley Park, London. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Earl of Shaftesbury, Thomas Whitty's first customer at Axminster, became one of his best, ordering carpets for his house in Wiltshire well into the 1790's. Robert Adam ordered Whitty carpets for Saltram House, and many other carpets in mansions such as Rockbeare Manor, Powderham Castle and Uppark have been attributed to Whitty. At least one carpet made by him for Harewood House to match the ceiling designed by Robert Adam was seen on the loom in 1791 by the Reverend P. J. Clarke in his travels through England. [7] Whitty also had a London distributor, William Crompton, and it is probably from this dealer that Axminster carpets were shipped to America.

In the 1770's and 80's there were at least three Axminster carpets in America. One, sold at auction on July 6, 1772, belonged to Richard Vassall of Wall Street, New York, "lately embarked with his family for Jamaica." Another "elegant Axminster carpet" was sold in 1777 for the estate of Richard Colden, Esq., of New York, and in 1788 one appeared in the list of goods sold in Philadelphia by Governor John Penn. [8]

Interestingly enough, there was a Moorfields carpet in Philadelphia as well, in the Spruce Street house of William Bingham. English traveler Henry Wansey saw it in 1794 when he visited the "rulers of the Republican Court" in their fashionable and elaborate house modeled on the Duke of Manchester's estate in the West End of London. To furnish their house Mr. and Mrs. Bingham had brought back from their 1787 European tour "everything for the house and table which the taste and luxury of the time had invented," as their cousin Margaret Brown later remembered. [9] Henry Wansey described in his Journal the elegance of the drawing room:

"The chairs of the drawing room were from Seddon's in London, of the newest taste; the back in the form of a lyre, with festoons of crimson and yellow silk. The curtains of the room a festoon of the same. The carpet one of Moore's most expensive patterns." [10]

As for carpets in American public buildings, even less evidence exists. There was a "Turkey work" carpet, certainly of Oriental design, on the table in the Virginia House of Burgesses' Council Chamber in 1703 according to contemporary records. No other carpets have been identified by type prior to that for Congress Hall, although we know that Federal Hall in New York possessed, during Congressional occupancy in 1789-90, an unspecified "handsome carpet." That there developed a tradition for carpeting at least the most important rooms in public buildings is shown by the Senate carpet itself, the green carpet ordered by Thomas Bulfinch for the Boston Statehouse in 1798, and the fine Brussels carpet of star-studded crimson ordered for the Senate Chamber in Washington in 1823.

PLATE III: Detail of Axminster carpet in the Saloon of Saltram House, Devonshire, England. By courtesy of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, London, England. Author's photograph. (click on image for a PDF version)

Not one British-made pile carpet from eighteenth century American public buildings is known to survive today, so to see what the "Axminster" carpet in the Senate Chamber might have been like we must turn to the great houses of eighteenth century England. All of the Axminster and Moorfields carpets for which we have definite documented histories were made not for public buildings, but for English country houses. Fortunately, some of these carpets are still in the rooms for which they were made, and can be studied for design, color, and technique.

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Last Updated: 30-Nov-2007