The Most Splendid Carpet
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William Peter Sprague, who wove the Senate carpet in the neoclassical style in 1791, was a transplanted Englishman, born around 1750, probably in Kidderminster, Herefordshire, or in Axminster itself. The chronology of his early life is unknown; the Sprague or Sprake family, as it was sometimes spelled, was almost certainly dissenters from the official Church of England, and as such their births and deaths were not recorded in the official registers kept in each Church of England in Axminster and the surrounding rural parishes.

More than one researcher has suspected that William Peter Sprague must have been an apprentice of Thomas Whitty in his Axminster carpet factory opposite the official church, in South Street, in the crowded, gray little hilltop town. [1] The conclusion is not unwarranted. Not only did Sprague advertise, much later on his arrival in America, that he made "Axminster" carpets, but he also married Mary Whitty, the oldest daughter of Samuel Whitty, Thomas Whitty's first cousin, probably in 1772. The coincidence of this seems overwhelming; it shows that Sprague was at least an acquaintance of Thomas Whitty, and probably means that he met Mary through an apprenticeship at Whitty's factory.

FIGURE 14: Photograph of the Senate Chamber carpet being reproduced in Spain, in a manner that must be similar to that employed in the 18th century. Courtesy of Connoisseur Collections.

The Sprague's first son, William, was born in Devonshire, probably the following year, but when Mary Whitty Sprague, the second child, was born in 1774 the Sprague family was living in Church Street, Bloomsbury, London. Of Sprague's purpose in going up to London there is no indication, but much later this daughter, Mary Whitty Sprague, remembered that her father had served in the British Navy against the American forces during the Revolution, leaving the family behind in London. [2]

Sprague, however, was not a man of uncompromising loyalty to the British crown. Liking what he saw in his American landings, he "espoused the cause of Washington," returned to England, packed the family belongings, engaged passage on a transatlantic ship, and moved the family to New Jersey sometime before the war was over. [3] The exact date of the Spragues' arrival is not known, but Burlington, New Jersey, records show that William Peter Sprague bought property there in 1783. Family tradition has it that he became an Alderman in 1787, a not insubstantial position for a carpet maker recently arrived from England. Possibly he had begun at once to weave carpets.

On September 19, 1787, he was advertising in the Pennsylvania Gazette in Philadelphia:

"Orders received by Peter William Sprague [sic.], of Burlington, for any figure, size, shape, of American made floor and bedside carpets, wove after the Axminster mode, which for softness, warmth and duration, exceed anything of the kind ever attempted in this country. A few of both floor and bedside carpets are now for sale in Third-street, at the store of Richard Wills, and Son, where Jersey Paper money will be taken for them."

By 1790, Sprague had himself moved to Philadelphia, probably attracted by the chance to be closer to his principal market. The census of 1790 found him living to the north of the city, in the "Northern Liberties Twp., Philadelphia," in a household also containing "four free white males under 16, and three white females." The three females certainly included his wife and at least one daughter, and family history has it that another son, Nathaniel, was born a year after the Spragues settled in Burlington. It is not clear who the others were. It is possible that some were poor children, taken in by Sprague as apprentices or weavers, as was the custom at Axminster.

The Philadelphia City Directory for 1791 records that "William Peter Sprague, carpet maker," lived at 458 North Second Street, in the Northern Liberties, where he must have been engaged in making the Senate carpet and one for President Washington's residence. In June of 1791 the Senate carpet was on the floor of Congress Hall, and the detailed description of its design appeared in the American Daily Advertiser. By this time Sprague had hired "poor women and children" to do the work at a low rate of pay, so that his projects were "20 per cent cheaper, and nearly as low as Wilton carpeting" but "of double its durability." His carpets were made more cheaply by using materials "of the refuse and coarser kind," indicating that he probably used coarse linen and wool fibers in the weft and warp of his carpets, just as Thomas Whitty had done at Axminster.

On December 24, 1792, Sprague placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Packet, respectfully informing the public that, "the Philadelphia Carpet Manufactory is removed to Third Street, Northern Liberties, near Cootes' [sic.] burying ground. An assortment of Carpets, of the Turkey quality, are for sale, of various dimensions, grounds and patterns, superior and cheaper than the imported." This new address was "the first brick house above Brown Street," or 422 North Third Street, according to the Philadelphia City Directory for 1793. Coates' burial ground was on Third Street at the southeast corner of Brown Street, some seven long blocks north of High Street (present day Market Street). In the nineties this area, although separated from the most populous sections of Philadelphia by Peggs Run, stretched westward from the Delaware towards the Ridge Road and was nearly as heavily populated as the streets around the High Street Market. The area had a schoolhouse, and market sheds in Second Street below Brown. Its population included numbers of Ulster-Scot and English dissenters, who, having fled religious conflict in the old country, enjoyed "mission and revival services" conducted for them in an ordinary house at the corner of Second and Coates' Street by ministers of the Second Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. To this "Campington Church" William Peter Sprague and his family belonged, sitting in pew number three and paying £1.13.1-1/2 rent for half the space in the row, which they shared with the Widow Deborah Newman. [4]

The neighborhood was not a fashionable one. Wealthier and more influential Philadelphia families chose to live south of High Street, closer to the State House and other public buildings. Rather it was a center for artisans and small businessmen, who lived along the unpaved muddy streets in small crowded houses and in little "courts" and alleys behind the numbered streets between Third Street and the Delaware River.

In the area of William Peter Sprague's residences were laborers, coopers, tanners, ferrymen and mariners, clothweavers and stockingweavers, painters, and wheelwrights. There were two "doctors of physic" on Second Street; a midwife and a "druggist" lived nearby. Two schoolteachers lived cheek by jowl with boatbuilders, starch-makers, and a seamstress, and there was even a sugar refiner on Coates' Street near Third. When the Sprague family was living on Second Street in 1790 there were two taverns within sight, and an inn directly next door, to add to the busy neighborhood.

It was in reality a complete small community, a microcosm of industriousness separated and rather isolated from the rest of Philadelphia. To the north side of Peggs Run was a broad, tidewater marsh where sportsmen hunted birds. It flooded frequently, and a boat was sometimes required to get across to the business establishments of "Camptown" or "Campington," as it was sometimes called from the barracks built by the British on North Third Street before the Revolution.

But isolation was never a bar to commerce. Throughout the 1790's, William Peter Sprague continued to live in the neighborhood, although he moved his carpet establishment several times. In 1794, Sprague's address appeared as 431 North Third, a few doors away from his earlier manufactory. It is not clear whether he still held on to the old property at 422 North Third, for he sold a property on North Third in 1795, but in 1796 "William Peter Sprague, Gentleman," still lived on North Third near Brown. By 1797 he had moved once more, to Brown Street between Front and Second, where he was again manufacturing carpets.

Here there is a hiatus in the documentary record, and the name of William Peter Sprague is not seen again until his death in about 1808, when his will was registered in the City of Philadelphia, with no clue as to his whereabouts between 1797 and that date. It is likely, however, that he continued to live in the Northern Liberties, and that he was still associated with the Campington Church he had attended in 1793, in view of the fact that his daughter, Mary Sprague, occupied pew number three as late as 1799. Abraham Dubois, probably the son of the famous silversmith, who also belonged to the Campington Church, became the administrator of Sprague's estate in 1808. [5] After Sprague's death, his widow, Mary Whitty Sprague, moved to Pittsburgh to be with her eldest daughter, Mary, who had married William Strickland in 1803 and followed him to the West. Thus the craft of hand-knotting Axminster carpets passed forever from the Philadelphia scene. [6]

FIGURE 15: Carpet formerly attributed to William Peter Sprague, possibly French c. 1804-1812. Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

William Peter Sprague left behind him two famous carpets, one in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall, and another ordered by George Washington for "the large dining room" of his house at 190 High Street, which he had rented from Robert Morris. Little is known about President Washington's carpet except that it must have measured nearly thirty feet square with "an alteration conformable to the bow" built into the large dining room in 1790. George Washington's account book shows two payments to "Wm. Sprague" in April 1791, for a total of $215.25, for "the Carpet in the large dining room."

At one time it was believed that the so-called "Mount Vernon carpet" now on display in the First Ladies Hall of the Smithsonian Institution, a loan from the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, was the carpet Sprague had made for the Presidential dining room. It was given to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in 1897 by Mrs. Townsend Whelen, a descendant of Judge Jasper Yeates, a Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and a member of the Pennsylvania Convention of 1787 to ratify the Constitution. Mrs. Whelen quoted a family tradition to the effect that it had been given to President Washington by Louis XVI of France, but that Washington, leery of accepting such a gift from the King of France, had given it to his friend Jasper Yeates.

John C. Milley studied this carpet for Independence National Historical Park in 1963, when first steps were taken towards the reproduction of the Sprague carpet for the Senate Chamber. [7] He wrote in his 1965 report:

"In the February 1947 issue of Antiques Magazine, Mrs. Marion Sadtler Carson challenged the traditional story with some justification. She noted that the Mount Vernon carpet had a medallion center, with a rendering of the United States Seal, similar to that described for the Senate carpet, and immediately concluded that the Mount Vernon carpet was the one made by Sprague for the large dining room of the Philadelphia house. She also speculated that Yeates had purchased the carpet at public auction when Washington sold his Philadelphia furnishings in 1797, or received it as a gift from the President at that time."

However, wrote Mr. Milley, "technological, historical, and stylistic evidence make the attribution to Sprague exceedingly tenuous." At the request of Mr. Milley, curators at the Smithsonian Institution and the Textile Museum made a technological investigation of the carpet. Their inspection revealed that the Mount Vernon carpet was not a hand-knotted Axminster type, but a hand-woven cut pile carpet. In a short report, they explained: "Although most of the pile is worn, as far as can be determined, this rug has a Wilton construction. Its cut pile is formed by different colored warp yarns which are brought to the rug's surface to form a design. In sections where certain colors of warp do not form the design, they are carried along in the ground web." [8] As we have seen in his advertisements, the only documentary evidence we have, William Peter Sprague made Axminster, not Wilton carpets, suggesting that the carpet was most probably not made by Sprague. Historical analysis supports this conclusion.

It will be remembered that Washington ordered his carpet from Sprague for "the large dining room," which was located on the second floor of 190 High Street. In readying the house for his occupancy, Washington had this room and the large drawing room below extended to 34 feet by the addition of bow windows. It seems improbable that a carpet measuring 15 by 17 feet, the size of the Mount Vernon carpet, would have been ordered for this room. Secondly, the Mount Vernon carpet shows no evidence of having been cut down, or ever having been made "conformable to the bow." Moreover, because the entrance to this room was from the stairhall, a visitor would not have been able to view correctly the U.S. Seal found on the Mount Vernon carpet, since it is deployed across the breadth of the carpet.

What, then, is the Mount Vernon carpet? We know it is a carpet of Wilton construction, but whether it is English or French cannot be shown by the technical analysis done on the carpet to date. Stylistically speaking, the problem of attribution is almost as great. The only point of similarity between the Mount Vernon carpet and the description of the Senate carpet was that both had the United States seal as a central medallion. Using this motif alone, the carpet might be French, because the Savonnerie carpet factory manufactured a carpet with a central eagle medallion; but it could also be attributed to some manufactory in Scotland or England, where the motif occurs in other textiles. At first glance, then, Mrs. Whelen's story of the carpet's origin in Louis XVI's France might be a splendid bit of true romance. On further consideration, however, the design of the Seal itself dates the carpet to the early nineteenth century, many years after both Louis XVI and George Washington were dead.

A comparison of the eagle medallion in the Mount Vernon carpet with representations of the United States seal varying in date from 1782 to 1812 shows its late date stylistically. The eagle in the Senate carpet was "displayed," and held in its sinister talon a bundle of "thirteen arrows," a concept faithful to the official United States seal of 1782. The Mount Vernon carpet eagle is caught in the moment of taking flight, and holds it its sinister talon seventeen arrows. These discrepancies might be regarded as irrelevant were it not for the fact that "displayed," meaning "standing with wings outspread," was a common heraldic term well understood by a generation whose English forebears still recognized each other by their family coats of arms; and that the shield of the Mount Vernon seal repeats in its stripes the number seventeen of the arrows, strongly suggesting a specific meaning. Other examples of the use of the United States seal in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries help to illuminate the meaning of these differences.

FIGURE 16: Wafer impression from obverse of first die of the Great Seal of the United states, 1782. The National Archives, Washington, D.C.

The United States seal went through three revisions, at least, before its adoption in 1782. As Dr. Frank H. Sommer points out, the committee of 1782 settled upon a design that was purposely enigmatic, in keeping with rules for the formulation of a device; each element of its design, although symbolic, was fixed with respect to placement and meaning. [9] It is true, also, that the seal was almost immediately vulgarized for decorative purposes, thereby losing its original official meaning. This vulgarization, however, was not one of revolutionary style change, but one in keeping with artistic style, and the need for correctness of meaning.

FIGURE 17: "A Display of the United states of America," engraving by Amos Doolittle, second state, 1791. Independence National Historical Park Collection.

Prior to 1791, when Vermont entered the Union, there was little need to alter the original design, except in superficial ways. One of the earliest datable examples of this freedom is found in Amos Doolittle's print of 1787, "A Display of the United States of America." Mr. Doolittle spread the cluster of clouds, he arched the top of the shield, and he dropped the wings somewhat—but the eagle is still "displayed," and it has the correct number of stars and stripes, and it is absolutely symmetrical.

In 1792, the fifteenth state, Kentucky, was admitted to the Union. It is significant that between that year and 1796, when Tennessee entered, we find innumerable examples of the seal now boasting fifteen stars and stripes. Exceedingly important stylistically, is that the eagle has become a bit more flamboyant—a bit more decorative—but it has not moved from its appointed transfixion. Examples from the period following Tennessee's entry into the Union have sixteen stars in the constellation. It is at this point, at century's end, that the device witnesses romantic changes. In the 1798 Massachusetts $10 gold piece the arrows are switched to the right talon; in the 1797 tympanum of the First Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, the eagle assumes an altogether asymmetrical pose. Between 1802, when Ohio entered as the seventeenth state, and 1812 when Louisiana became the eighteenth, we find a host of asymmetrically designed seals giving testimony to the union of seventeen. On Samuel McIntire's carved wooden pediment of 1805, for the Salem Custom House, is an asymmetrical eagle which bears but little resemblance to the original seal, and it has seventeen stripes in its shield. According to this chronological sequence, then, the eagle found on the Mount Vernon carpet must date between 1802 and 1812.

FIGURE 18: "View perspective de la Chambre a coucher du Cit. V. a Paris," Pl. 13, Percier and Fontaine's Recqueil de Decorations Inerieurs..., 1813. Note combination of star-studded field, anthemion and swan motifs. Photograph courtesy of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum Libraries.

Bearing in mind that new combinations of design motifs can be defined as a new style, other aspects of the carpet's design can be used to substantiate this dating. Prototypes can be found for the swan, the butterfly, the anthemion, and so forth, in classical engravings and in eighteenth century design; but it is only in the nineteenth century, with the popularity of the French Empire style, that the star-studded field itself is found in abundance, alone, or combined with the main motifs of the Mount Vernon carpet. It appeared alone in the Brussels carpet ordered for the Senate Chamber in the Capitol in Washington in 1823, and in textiles and draperies of the same period. But its most striking use, in combination with other motifs, occurred in France in the designs of Percier and Fontaine for Napoleon, the Empress Josephine and their admirers. The fact that in these designs all the motifs of the Mount Vernon carpet appear in various combinations, and above all that the swan itself was the personal emblem of the Empress Josephine, suggests strongly that the Mount Vernon carpet is French, and dates specifically from the period of the first French Empire, 1804-1815.

In any case, the Mount Vernon carpet cannot be related in any way except by inspiration to the Senate carpet, nor can it be attributed to William Peter Sprague. [10]

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Last Updated: 30-Nov-2007