Saturday, October 1, 2011

2 Zebiah Smallwood Hewson: Domestic Manufacture

Cut-out chintz quilt with Hewson panel.
Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Patricia Melton Smith. Click here for more:

Philadelphia, the largest city in the U.S. about 1800

The young United States depended on the "carrying trade" for imports and exports. Tobacco and indigo shipped overseas paid for chintzes and china---luxuries that had become necessities. The continuing embargoes, sea battles and piracy that interrupted trade benefitted a few American merchants who could meet demand for domestic goods in the decades of the British Wars.

John Hewson (about 1744-1821)

Philadelphia's inland port was a center of industry. Among the workshops in the suburban industrial areas along the Delaware River was the Hewson "Calicoe Printing Manufactory and Bleach-Yard," a family operation since before the Revolution.

Document Hewson wood block print

Hewson matriarch Zebiah Smallwood Hewson was in her late fifties in 1812. She had seen war before.  Her wedding day June 17, 1775 was the day the American Revolution commenced with British troops attacking Bostonians in what became known as The Battle of Bunker Hill.

Death of General Montgomery by John Trumbull, painted 1786.
Zebiah's cousin is on the ground in Trumbull's glorification
of Montgomery's death. Coins have spilled from 
Captain Cheesman's pocket. Legend tells he
placed them there before the battle to pay for his funeral.

Zebiah (or Zibiah) suffered exile, hunger, terror and family losses during the first war with Britain. Husband John Hewson, English immigrant and rebel, was held prisoner by the British in 1778; her brother Lt. Aaron Smallwood was killed in New Jersey and cousin Captain Jacob Cheesman died with General Richard Montgomery in the siege of Quebec.

Hewson's panels featuring a vase of flowers
 contributed to the Hewson legend as they are the most
 recognizable of early domestically printed textiles.
Many quiltmakers, including Zebiah, used them in quilts.
Over the 35 years between the wars the Hewsons advertised many types of fabrics for sale: "calicoes and linens for gowns, &c. coverlids, handkerchiefs, nankeens, janes and velverets for waist coats and breeches...single and double purple prints...muslins of an elegant chintz pattern, prints for shauls,... blue handkerchiefs, with deep blue grounds and white spots…very neat gown-patterns." 

A typical American indigo with "white spots"

The Hewson firm was characterized by a flexibility that enabled it to endure from 1774 until about 1820. Their longevity in a volatile business was also due to the support of the Commonwealth of  Pennsylvania, which awarded the Hewson Printworks subsidies, patent monopolies and a gold medal.

View of "the Jerseys" across the Delaware River
from the probable location of the
Hewson Printworks in Fishtown, Philadelphia
 near Penn Treaty Park

The Hewsons represented the city's textile printers in Philadelphia's 1788 parade celebrating the new Federal Constitution with a 30-foot-long mobile textile mill drawn by ten horses. On the float draped with printed cotton: a working carding machine, spinning machine and two looms to demonstrate cloth production.

Pencilers illustrated in 1754.
The work had not changed by 1810.

 "On the right was seated Mrs. Hewson and her 4 daughters, penciling a piece of very neat sprigged chintz of Mr. Hewson’s printing, all dressed in cottons of their own manufacture; on the back part of the carriage, on a lofty staff, was displayed the calico printer’s flag, in the center 13 stars in a blue field, and thirteen red stripes in a white field; round the edges of the flag was printed 37 different printes of various colours…."
We can imagine the spectacle and wish we'd been there to see the flag bordered with patchwork. The women "penciling" demonstrated a hand production technique considered appropriate for females. They brushed additional dyes onto the wood-block-printed fabrics.

Zebiah worked her time at the penciling table around her schedule as a mother. When she married John as a twenty-year-old he brought five young children whose mother had died after the birth of the last baby. She was more fortunate and survived twelve births including a pair of twins. At her death her husband wrote she was as "good and kind a mother to my five Motherless children [as] to the twelve children I had by her. About forty one years we lived together in love and unity."

Philadelphia's Chestnut Street about 1800

Philadelphia with periodic plagues of yellow fever, cholera and malaria was a difficult place to raise children.  Only four of Zebiah's twelve babies survived to adulthood. The first two died during the hardships of the Revolution. Twins Phoebe and Priscilla, born in her forties, lasted only two weeks to die on the same summer day. Her stepchildren were hardier. The eldest John Jr. took over the fabric company in 1810 when his father retired. During the War he supplied the government with textiles while acting on the city's defense committee.

Reproduction Hewson print

In 1813 Zebiah's husband wrote an old friend of their ten surviving children and 37 grandchildren (ten had died). "I have great reason to be thankful that there is but one Scabby Sheep in my flock, who abandoned his wife and five fine children and left them to starve. It proved the death of his wife very soon---and his children we have amongst us." Zebiah in her fifties was raising five young grandchildren as well as a daughter still living at home. And she was not well. "Mrs. Hewson is just now recovr'd from a Six months confinement by Sickness & debility...."

We can only hope she had help. John's will indicates they lived comfortably. He left silver, elegant furniture and mirrors to his many heirs. He summarized his career, pleased that his undertakings "often exceeded my expectations. You might be led to think I might have grown rich; but I never cared much about that…though not rich. I have been a Useful Citizen & not the worst of neighbours."

Detail of a printed bedcover from the
 Hewson printworks in the Winterthur Museum.
The border stripe's been reproduced.
Notice the printed version of the Vandyke scallop.

Zebiah died in 1815 right after the War was over. When her husband died six years later he left John Jr. the gold medal and the tools of the trade, to his daughters several bedcovers, chintz curtains and quilts.

See a quilt Zebiah made about the time of the War of 1812. She featured the panel and probably many other prints from the family firm. Her husband willed this quilt to Zebiah's daughter Ann's family who gave it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1934.

This is the time to stockpile Hewson fabrics. Andover (my competitors) have done a wonderful line in conjunction with the Winterthur Museum. Here is the fabric with the central vase repeated. It should be available this month. [UPDATE: Now the word is the Hewson reproductions will be available in December.]

You could piece it into the center of the field of patchwork you started last month.

Or you could do what Zebiah did and frame it in a border of triangles.
Here's a mockup of her center. She put small dogtooth stars in the corners but the butterflies in the new reproductions would look good appliqued there.

Fashion plate from 1811
 shows the importance of scalloped edges

Both Zebiah and the anonymous quilter who made the quilt at the top of this post used appliqued triangles as borders for their floral panel. We tend to call this free-cut applique a dogtooth border. Quilt historian Sandi Fox pointed out the relationship between these pointed scalloped borders and a fashionable finish in clothing called a Vandyke scallop.

See a lot more about the Vandyke scallop or dogtooth border in my blog post here:

A Note about the Hewson Myth
The Hewson printworks have a false reputation as America's first calico printers but directories and advertisements indicate several colonial printers decorated fabric with wood block, stencil and brush before the Hewson factory opened in 1774. By 1812 dozens of small ventures were creating domestically printed cottons and linens throughout the country.

Hewson daughter Sarah Alcock published a book about her father as a hero of the Revolution and "America's FIRST calico printer." Read it here:

I am looking for something like this simple dot,
madder brown on madder red,
which is what Zebiah used for her triangle dogtooth border.
I might print it myself but I shouldn't have any trouble finding
 something similar. It's so modern looking.


Anonymous said...

The Hewson fabric and many others have been pushed back because of the FLOOD in the NJ warehouse - thanks to Irene - caused the August fabric to be destroyed. It had to be reprinted and that pushed many many others back a few months. So I am saving my money and it is not easy as Lately is to Arrive soon and it will get first dibs on my savings!

Hilda said...

Wonderful post - thanks for the inspiration!