[My Chamber of Textile Thoughts. No: XXXI  |  By Viveka Hansen]

This third observation from North America will give a glimpse of textiles and clothing discussed by John Adams (1735-1826) and Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818) in their correspondence from 1762 to 1801. The preserved collection of the couple’s private letters, also digitised today, have been studied from numerous angles in both the past and at present. While my brief research into their day to day written communication together with additional historical sources, builds the foundation for this “Textile Thought”. The aim is to catch the spirit of time from a textile point of view by emphasising notes, questions or wishes regarding various garments and fabrics from their correspondence. Cotton, wool, silk, linen, quilts, muslin, velvet, jackets, ribbons and trousers were just some of the mentioned materials and clothes!

One important inspiration for this study originate from Abigail & John – Portrait of a Marriage by Edith B. Gelles, a book found in the lovely bookshop in Concord, Massachusetts. Among many everyday stories from the year 1778 the author explains that Abigail had discovered that trade in fabrics and other goods through her cousin Cotton Tufts Jr. could be an important addition to the family’s economy, when John was working in France. The following conclusions by the author are of particular interest from a textile point of view: ‘In time, Abigail began to place her orders directly with agents in France. Tea was a good item, as was chocolate. Fabrics of various sorts – calico, calimenco, serge, denim – flowers, ribbons, and handkerchiefs were good sellers, along with dishes, cups and saucers. Her requests reflected the luxury items that newly wealthy Bostonians coveted to show off their elevated social rank.’ Continuing; ‘Abigail left no account record of her commercial enterprises, so it is not possible to calculate whether she profited by them. Since she continued this activity for several years, she can’t have done badly’. (p. 119-20). Photo: Viveka Hansen.

One important inspiration for this study originate from ‘Abigail & John – Portrait of a Marriage’ by Edith B. Gelles, a book found in the lovely bookshop in Concord, Massachusetts. Among many everyday stories from the year 1778 the author explains that Abigail had discovered that trade in fabrics and other goods through her cousin Cotton Tufts Jr. could be an important addition to the family’s economy, when John was working in France. The following conclusions by the author are of particular interest from a textile point of view: ‘In time, Abigail began to place her orders directly with agents in France. Tea was a good item, as was chocolate. Fabrics of various sorts – calico, calimenco, serge, denim – flowers, ribbons, and handkerchiefs were good sellers, along with dishes, cups and saucers. Her requests reflected the luxury items that newly wealthy Bostonians coveted to show off their elevated social rank.’ Continuing; ‘Abigail left no account record of her commercial enterprises, so it is not possible to calculate whether she profited by them. Since she continued this activity for several years, she can’t have done badly’. (p. 119-20). Photo: Viveka Hansen.

During my journey earlier this year in the states of Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts, I became curious of the Adams’ impact on the history of textiles. Extensive material has generally been published about the couple, particularly related to John Adams’ importance during diplomatic missions in France and England, vice precidency and his time as the second president of U.S. 1797-1801. The couple had furthermore many reasons or opportunities to write letters with their frequent long periods of separation, and both were very able letter writers. Several portraits also clearly demonstrate the type of clothing they wore during different stages in their adult life, one can conclude that they followed the fashion/style of clothing, but mostly avoiding unnecessary luxury details. Many years of their marriage was on the other hand filled with representation in both Europe and America, clothes must at this stage to an even greater extent have followed the fashion of each place and time. More than 1,100 letters have been digitised by Massachusetts Historical Society, including the couple’s early courtship period in 1762 and throughout the political career of John Adams up to 1801. The correspondence is filled with every day subjects, private discussions, family matters and political observations of the day; in these written conversations raw materials, fabrics and clothing was one area among many. But it must be stated that a search through the digitised letters reveals that textile materials could be mentioned for various reasons; private needs or wishes for oneself or the family, Abigail’s trade with fabric and other goods for a couple of years, political aims with a hope for more future manufactures in America, import from Europe or enquiries from friends and family for a particular garment or cloth.

Abigail Adams by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1800-1815. Courtesy of: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (public domain)

Abigail Adams by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1800-1815. Courtesy of: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (public domain)

The frequency of different materials mentioned in the letters; like silk, cotton, wool, linen, gowns, skirts etc can be studied below. Concerning the two writers – generally it can be stated that Abigail mentioned textile materials more frequently than her husband. Partly due to the obvious traditions for the woman to take care of the household linen, being adept in all sorts of textile craft, planning for the family’s garments, but also for her involvement in trading in various cloths during the early 1780s. The correspondence also gives clear signs that most discussions of textile and clothing, can be found in letters written during a twenty year period from the early 1770s to the early 1790s.

TEXTILE MATERIALS & CLOTHING MENTIONED IN THE CORRESPONDENCE

  •       Cotton                                 Abigail      John
  •       1762-1771                               –                 –
  •       1772-1781                               7                 2
  •       1782-1791                               2                 –
  •       1792-1801                              –                 –

Cotton was primarily described in the following ways: cotton will grow, need of cotton wool, bags of cotton, cotton price, cotton quilts or striped cotton in a total of 11 letters. For example: Letter from Abigail to John, 20 June 1783. ‘… glutted with them. I do not wish for any thing more, than I want for my family use. In this way a few pieces of Irish linnen and a piece of Russia sheeting together with 2 green silk umbrellas I should be glad of as soon as convenient. If you should have an opportunity from France to send me 3 Marsels cotton and silk quilts I should be very glad; they are like the jacket patterns you sent me by …’

  • Wool/Wollen…                   Abigail     John
  • 1762-1771                                    –               –
  • 1772-1781                                    8               4
  • 1782-1791                                    –               –
  • 1792-1801                                   –               –

Wool or woollen materials was primarily discussed as follows: wool in great demand, sheep wool, or wool price, no wool, works in wool, woolens, any thing of the woollen kind… or light woolen stuffs in a total of 12 letters. Here one representative example: Letter from Abigail to John, 13 – 24 November 1780. ‘When ever you send me any thing for sale, Linnens especially Irish, are always saleable. Common calico, that comes cheep from Holland, any thing of the wollen kind such as Tamies, Durants or caliminco with ordinary linnen hankerchiefs answer well.’

  • Silk                                         Abigail     John
  • 1762-1771                                    –               –
  • 1772-1781                                    6               2
  • 1782-1791                                    3               1
  • 1792-1801                                   –               –  

Silk was foremost described in the following manner: remnant of silk, pair of silk mitts, patterns of silk, black silk gloves, silk quilts, silk stockings, yards of black silk, Persian silk, piece of white silk, green sewing silk or only as “silk” (total of 12 letters). One of the most informative letters including silk and a range of other textile materials can exemplify: Letter from Abigail to John, 5 July 1780. ‘The other sent by Mr. Guile who I hope is safely arrived, but least he should not I will enclose a list of some things which I wrote for by him and some patterns of silk which I want for mourning for myself and Nabby – 15 yards of each kind which will be about four Livers per yard. If any thing of the wollen kind could be had which would answer for winter wear, be so kind as to order enough for two win Gowns. 2 or 3 pair of black silk Gloves, if they were not in a former list which you carried. I have forgot. 3 black fans, a piece of black ribbon, half a piece of Narrow, 6 yard of plain black Gauze, 6 figured, four yard of plain Muslin. If I omitted in a former list a pound of white thread, (none to be coarse) we can make that; please to add it now and half a dozen pieces of Quality binding different colours, ditto shoe binding. Calico can never come amiss, nothing in greater demand here. With Linnen am well supplied.’

  • Linnen                           Abigail      John
  • 1762-1771                             –                –
  • 1772-1781                             8                5
  • 1782-1791                             8               5
  • 1792-1801                            2                3

Many detailed descriptions about linen/linnen can be seen, particularly from Abigail’s writing concerning qualities she wanted John to look out for or order, either for the family needs or trading for money. These requests or wishes included: table linnen, pieces of new linnen, Irish linnen, Chamber linnen, fine linnen, family linnen or simply “linnen” in a total of 31 letters. One such representative example is quoted from Abigail’ letter to John, 7 May 1783. ’…10 yd of crimson English damask for a winter gown, and 18 yd of a light brown sattin, Mouse coulour. Mr. Storer has a good fancy and would purchase them if you give orders. 2 pieces of good Irish linnen, ah dear Ireland, no linnen like yours — so white so strong &c. France for Cambrick, so I should like a piece as I expect to close my mercantile affairs with this Letter.’

John Adams by John Trumbull c. 1792-1793. Courtesy of: The White House Art Collection, Washington, D.C. (public domain)

John Adams by John Trumbull c. 1792-1793. Courtesy of: The White House Art Collection, Washington, D.C. (public domain)

More specialised textile terms or materials were not lacking in the correspondence:

  • bandano – Abigail only: 1780-1782 (5 results).
  • calico – Abigail only: 1780-1782 (9 results).
  • caliminco – Abigail only: 1775-1782 (8 results).
  • cambrick – Abigail 1781-1783 & John once 1780 (5 results).
  • damask – Abigail only: 1775, 1782, 1783 & 1794 (4 results).
  • denim – Abigail only: 1782 (1 result).
  • diaper – Abigail only: 1780 & twice 1781 (3 results).
  • durants – Abigail only: 1780 (1 results).
  • fans – Abigail only: 1780 (2 results).
  • gauze – Abigail only: 1780-1782 (9 results).
  • muslin – Abigail only: 1780-1782 (7 results).
  • serge – Abigail only: 1782 (1 result).
  • tambour  – Abigail only: 1781 (2 results).
  • tamies –  Abigail only: 1780-1782 (4 results).
  • velvet – Abigail: 1781 & twice 1782, John: 1774, 1777, 1778 & 1797 (7 results).

What is evident while studying the letters is that special textile terms were almost solely a knowledge that Abigail possessed, John did not seem to have been familiar with qualities like: calico, caliminco, damask, diaper, gauze, muslin etc. If he could not see the difference between these various fabrics that Abigail wished him to purchase, instead John’s contacts abroad must either have worked within the textile trade or had a good understanding about luxury fabrics! One such clear example can be read in a letter from Abigail to John, on May 25th in 1781; including a List of Articles wanted from Holland. ‘A List of Articles per Capt. Brown. Half a Doz. Tambour worked Muslin hankerchiefs. 9 Ells Book Muslin. 1 pd. of white Threads. 12 Ells of light crimson caliminco. 1 peice of coarse cambrick. Any light wollen Stuffs that will answer for winter Gowns. 3 coulourd waveing plumes (all Stolen from Capt. Jones). A small Box of flower for Miss N-y [Nabby], with a couple of peices of Genteel Ribbon. 6 Ells of white flowerd Gauze. 1 peice of fine Linnen.’ Special textile terms were particularly frequent during the years when Abigail supplemented the family income with selling of clothes or supplying her uncle Cotton Tufts and cousin Cotton Tufts Jr. in their commercial trade. More common vocabulary for various garments were mentioned by both of them, foremost the following listed below; but even here Abigail’s letters gives more examples of ordinary clothing and fashions accessories.

  • cloaths/cloathed/cloathing – a matter of written conversation in many situations by both Abigail and John (1774-97) connected to personal garments or the family’s need for clothing & bed clothes, but also manufacturing or trading in cloths (52 results).
  • coat –  Abigail: 1777, 1794 & 1797 & John: 1764, 1778 & 1799 (6 results).
  • gown –  Abigail only: 1779-1794 (11 results).
  • jacket – Abigail only: 1782-1783 (2 results).
  • lace – Abigail: 1780 three times & 1782 twice. John: 1774 twice, 1776 & 1778 (9 results).
  • hankerchiefs – Abigail only: 1775-1782 (16 results).
  • rags – Abigail: 1776 & John: 1764 & 1777 (3 results).
  • ribbon – Abigail: 1780-1782 &  John: 1779 & 1788 (12 result, whereof John 2).
  • shirts – Abigail only: 1782-1797 (3 results).
  • trousers – Abigail only: 1782 (1 result).
  • thread – Abigail: 1776-1782 & John: 1776 (11 results, whereof John 1).
  • waistcoat – Abigail: 1794 & John: 1764 (2 results).
Independence Hall in Philadelphia (completed 1753) was where John Adams went on with his daily work during several periods, and for that reason numerous letters were posted to Abigail from the city. Among many detailed descriptions, he did the following enlightening observation about the possibilities for the domestic textile trade and manufacturing in a political unstable time from Philadelphia to his wife on May 28th in 1777: ‘You will see by the inclosed Papers, among the Advertisements, how the Spirit of Manufacturing grows. There never was a Time when there was such full Employment, for every Man, Woman and Child, in this City. Spinning, Knitting, Weaving, every Tradesman is as full as possible. Wool and Flax in great Demand.’  Photo: The IK Foundation & Company, London in 2014.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia (completed 1753) was where John Adams went on with his daily work during several periods, and for that reason numerous letters were posted to Abigail from the city. Among many detailed descriptions, he did the following enlightening observation about the possibilities for the domestic textile trade and manufacturing in a political unstable time from Philadelphia to his wife on May 28th in 1777: ‘You will see by the inclosed Papers, among the Advertisements, how the Spirit of Manufacturing grows. There never was a Time when there was such full Employment, for every Man, Woman and Child, in this City. Spinning, Knitting, Weaving, every Tradesman is as full as possible. Wool and Flax in great Demand.’ Photo: The IK Foundation, in 2014.

To be continued…

Sources:

  • Gelles, Edith B, Abigail & John – Portrait of a Marriage, 2009.
  • Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. (Visit in 2014: Bridge Builder Expeditions – North America): http://www.ikfoundation.org/ilinnaeus/iprojects/bridgebuilder.php)
  • Massachusetts Historical Society, The Correspondence between John and Abigail Adams; The original letters can be studied in parallell with the transcribed version. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/letter/  (“textile” search terms & quotes from the transcribed letters)
  • National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (portrait of Abigail Adams)
  • The White House Art Collection, Washington, D.C. (portrait of John Adams)

PLEASE REFERENCE AS FOLLOWS:

  • Hansen, Viveka, ‘Textile Observations – The Correspondence of Abigail & John Adams (H 3)’, TEXTILIS (November 11, 2014); http://textilis.net/ (Accessed: Day/Month/Year)