Auburn Prison, coverlet; Jacquard, double-cloth; 1842; New York

This blue and white, Jacquard, double-woven coverlet is made of cotton and wool. It features the “Bird of Paradise” pattern with floral and geometric borders on all four sides. It is woven in two sections, each thirty-nine inches wide. The sections were sewn together by hand. The date “AD 1842” is woven into all four corners with a stylized floral or carpet design cornerblock now known to be associated with the Auburn Prison Loom House and coverlet weaver, James Van Ness. The original owner was the donor’s father. He lived in Ontario County, New York. Coverlets could be commissioned by a man or a woman for use in the home. Being double-cloth, the coverlet was woven using two sets of warp and weft yarns. The blue yarn is indigo-dyed 2-ply S-twist, Z-Spun wool and the white yarns are 3-ply, S-twist, Z-spun cotton. The coverlet is made of two panels which were originally woven as one length.
Not much work has been done on prison weaving in the 19th century. Ralph S. Herre wrote a dissertation while at Penn State University entitled, "The History of Auburn Prison from the Beginning to about 1867." He confirmed that the prison did have a carpet weaving shop, sold to local customers, and even attempted to cultivate and manufacture silks. In American Coverlets and Their Weavers (2002), Clarita Anderson included an entry for a coverlet which had a family history of being from Auburn State Prison and dated 1835. Anderson pointed out that of the four confirmed Auburn State coverlets she had encountered most are Biederwand structure, not double weave. She attributed the coverlets to New York weaver, James Van Ness (1811-1872).
The two Auburn State Prison coverlets in the NMAH collection have a similar corner block organization but different motifs, suggesting the possibility that the individual(s) designing the point papers and cutting the cards for these coverlets were the same person, maybe even Van Ness. More research is needed to confirm Anderson's attribution. It could be, and likely was the case, that the prisoners were trained in coverlet and ingrain carpet weaving by a master weaver, perhaps even Van Ness. At the very least, ornate Fancy weave jacquard card sets were purchased by the prison with the express purpose of producing fancy weave coverlets for general consumption. Prisoners at Auburn State were organized in what became known as the Auburn- or Congregate-Style. Prisoners spent most of their time in isolation in their cells. They were released for work hours, six days a week. They walked silently to work, worked in silence, and lived in silence. This coverlet is a fascinating material glimpse into the culture and economics of prisons in the 19th century.
Currently not on view
date made
place made
United States
Physical Description
double weave (overall production method/technique)
cotton and wool (overall material)
overall: 82 in x 78 in; 208.28 cm x 198.12 cm
overall: 85 in x 78 in; 215.9 cm x 198.12 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Mr. Edgar Brown, thru Mr. and Mrs. Sterling Newel
See more items in
Home and Community Life: Textiles
Domestic Furnishings
Data Source
National Museum of American History


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