Date of this Version
Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
Eighteenth-century legal documents from the Chesapeake region occasionally refer to silk bed coverings—blankets, rugs, quilts, and counterpanes—yet very few of these bed coverings have survived in museum and private collections. It is important, therefore, to closely analyze documentary evidence, particularly probate inventories, for clues as to the appearance, construction, commonality, and possible origin of these objects that were used in Chesapeake homes and were readily identifiable by men charged with assigning values to the chattels of a decedent.
Probate inventories, taken shortly after death as part of the process of settling an estate, are rich and tantalizing documents that provide a window into past ownership of material goods. However, inventories frequently are ambiguous and omit information that historians seek. While appraisers recorded things as small and seemingly insignificant as a paper of pins, they often grouped assemblages of objects as "parcels" or "furniture." At times, inventories are the only evidence we have for artifacts that no longer survive and, therefore, where object-based research is not possible. This proves to be the case for the silk bed coverings known as rugs or "ruggs," which were used in Chesapeake homes during the colonial period and were listed more frequently by appraisers than any other type of silk bed coverings.
Research using two sets of probate inventories from Maryland and Virginia indicates that silk bed rugs were owned primarily by the upper classes during the eighteenth century. The documents include the Gunston Hall database, a small sample of Chesapeake probate inventories that is heavily weighted towards the elite class [80+%]. The 325 inventories for this database were selected to provide information about the possessions of the social and economic peers of George Mason (1725-1792), builder of Gunston Hall on the Northern Neck of Virginia. Information from this database is supplemented by that from a group of more than 3,000 inventories recorded in Kent County, on the upper Eastern Shore of Maryland, and inclusive of people across a broad economic spectrum. The Kent County inventory study took into account all inventories recorded in the county, whether the decedent was a boarder and had only his wearing apparel or whether he lived in a mansion house filled with an extensive list of imported and domestic furnishings. The Kent data, therefore, presents a less biased, more democratic view of the ownership of silk rugs, but discloses a far lower concentration of silk bedcoverings. In the Gunston Hall study, 45 percent, or almost one half, of the people in the sample who died between 1740 and 1750, owned one or more silk rugs as coverings for their beds. In Kent County, silk rugs, though not widely owned, also peaked in popularity between 1740 and 1750 when 5 percent of the decedents in the survey owned them.