Historical events turned into evening attire
Celebrities today have their own clothing lines, perfumes, and even cosmetic labels. What if the founders of our country had the same publicity? Hiram Royal Mallinson gave American history that treatment in his company's Early American series of silks.
Mallinson was the owner of H.R Mallinson Co., a large American silk manufacturer. During the spring of 1929, Mallinson produced a series called Early American, with designs depicting American stories and events. The silks that appealed to me the most involved George Washington, Betsy Ross, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, and a Showboat from New Orleans. These prints follow a patriotic pattern, some with angled designs fitting into the 1920s Jazz Age styling. I was curious why this imagery was selected and, as an intern in the textiles collection, I was able to do some research on these beautiful silks.
While not many were used in ready-to-wear clothing, individuals would purchase a few yards and create perhaps a dress or blouse and scarf, or hat and purse, or a cravat and pocket squares. What fascinates me about these designs is the time period in which they were created. While the Stock Market Crash of 1929 affected American lifestyles, or perhaps evoked a patriotic resurgence, these silks were introduced the spring before the crash.
So why the focus on early American history? A possible reason for the expressive line points to the year 1926. In 1926, Stehli Silks produced an American popular culture line called Americana Silks. For example, one of the Stehli designs included a design by illustrator Ralph Barton titled "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," based on the book with the same title by Anita Loos. Perhaps in response, Mallinson's designs highlight American icons, focusing on scenes commonly viewed as important facets of our history and characteristics those iconic figures represented. Whether Mallinson produced this line for a straight profit or because he wanted to convey beliefs of what Americans should understand about their history, 21st-century viewers will have their own perspectives on this vibrant line.
Within this the design is a collage of George Washington's achievements. While Washington could have his very own spring collection with each individual achievement, Mallinson focused on just a few: Washington taking command of his army, Valley Forge, Washington at Mount Vernon, with his mother, and his inaugurations. These scenes focus on "the perfect American character," made clear in Mallinson's description on the print in his catalog, "Early American Series." Characteristics that Americans should aspire to, such as bravery, leadership, and integrity, qualities that commanded respect, are shown in "The Life of George Washington" design.
Just as the Washington silk depicted him as the "perfect American," this design equates Betsy Ross with patriotism. The story goes that when asked by Washington to create a flag, Ross did so within 24 hours. The scenes chosen here are the Liberty Bell, 13 stars with the original colonies' seals inside them, Washington asking for her help, and Independence Hall. Ross's story symbolized initiative, passion, and devotion to her country.
The legacy Americans have left behind through the centuries can speak deeply to what the nation stands for. Benjamin Franklin, for example, left a legacy of involvement in scientific and technological experimentation and innovation. The scenes depicted here use Franklin's printing press and his experiments with kite, key, and lightning as the basis for celebration of a whole raft of later inventions. The design linked great American innovation from humble colonial beginnings to the technological explosion of the 20th century.
While Washington, Ross, and Franklin speak to active characters, patriotism, and innovation, the "Life of Lincoln" design seems more introspective. Depicted in Lincoln's design are images of him studying by firelight and splitting rails, and then the White House, and the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln represents a different approach to his leadership role. While the Washington design shows a strong commanding leader, this design presents a more humble and peaceful figure. Mallinson could have focused on Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, or on his career in law, but instead he shows him as a barefoot man, working with his hands and educating himself. Lincoln represents tolerance, humility, and patience. The images of the president's house and the memorial built to honor Lincoln's memory speak to his role as a preserver of the Union.
The previous images speak to the greatness of our country; the Showboat on the Mississippi does too, but with a twist. The scenes on this silk depict a pre-Civil War Southern culture, represented by scenes of life in New Orleans, including images of African Americans. Depicted in the bottom corner is a group of enslaved people picking cotton. Mallinson was remarking on the bleak truth of slavery and the myth of the Old South; the company's publicity stated: "…as recently as 66 years ago, enlightened Americans fought for and died in the belief that to derive their very existence, prosperity and luxury from the unrecompensed sweat of another man’s brow was wholly right and justifiable."
This collection was an exciting find for me. These images and Mallinson's Early American series in general speak both to the pride that Americans have in their country, and also to the imperfections of that past. Seeing these icons used and displayed as art was fascinating to me as a history student—they transformed from text to textile. This collection attracted my historical interest as well as solidifying my new appreciation of textiles.
Amy Jean Anderson is an intern in the Division of Home and Community Life.