Ruth Culver Coleman (American)
Possibly Sag Harbor, Suffolk County, New York
Linen with wool embroidery; 80 3/4 x 95 5/8 in. (205.1 x 242.9 cm)
Sansbury–Mills Fund, 1961 (61.48.1)
This magnificent bed cover and set of bed hangings (61.48.2) (currently sewn together into a second coverlet) are undoubtedly the finest eighteenth-century American embroideries in the Museum's collection. Both a name and a probable location can be assigned to them, but a number of elements in their attribution remain uncertain. Although these pieces resemble work that is generally attributed to Connecticut, in about 1898, Margaret Whiting of the Deerfield (Massachusetts) Society of Blue and White Needlework took photographs of them while on a visit to Sag Harboron the eastern tip of Long Island, New Yorkand identified them as the work of one-time resident Ruth Culver Coleman. Whiting was a crusader in the cause of repopularizing eighteenth-century American handicrafts, especially needlework. The location is plausible when one remembers that there were probably exchanges between the fishing communities on either side of the Long Island Sound. The pieces could have been made in Connecticut and imported with a bride to Long Island, or it is possible that only the patterns of the embroidery designs traveled across the Sound.
In 1909, one of these pieces was displayed at the Metropolitan 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. Item 592 in the exhibition catalogue notes: "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 Mulford was the daughter of Ezekiel and Julia Prentice Mulford of Sag Harbor. Ezekiel was the owner and agent of whaling ships. Julia Prentice Mulford's grandfather was Benjamin Coleman (perhaps the husband of Ruth Culver Coleman), who, after moving from Nantucket, was living in Sag Harbor by 1776. As far back as Benjamin, the family probably made their living from shipping or fishing. Although the 1790 census shows both Colemans and Culvers living in the Sag Harbor area, Ruth Culver Coleman has never been definitively identified. As always, official records of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century women who were not heads of households are scarce.
Aspects of 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 made into a bed cover, and were all of the pieces stitched together from the same set? When Margaret Whiting took her photographs in 1898, the all-blue pieces were already sewn together. The illustration shows that the blue coverlet 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 our 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 were involved.