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American Toiles:
Revolution and Romance
click to enlarge

from "Newport Toile" by F. Schumacher


Toiles -- printed fabrics of historical or pastoral scenes -- are once again popular in home decorating, just as they have been, on and off, for two hundred and fifty years.

First produced in Ireland in the 1750's, they spread quickly to England and then to France, where they became known as toiles de Jouy. (Toile is French for cloth and Jouy was the factory in Versailles where they were manufactured, becoming the favorite fabric of Marie Antoinette.)

After the American Revolution, the British exported toiles (which they called copperplate prints) to their former colonies with images such as George Washington riding a chariot and Ben Franklin in a fur hat.

By the 19th century, roller printing replaced copperplate printing and Americans began producing their own toiles, based mainly on eighteenth century European designs.  Present-day toiles also follow classic patterns.

But in the twentieth century,  designers were inspired by a unique American vision, creating fabrics that retold our history and our simple pleasures (or at least our yearning for them).  This exhibit looks at American toiles -- both historical and pastoral -- created from the 1930's to the 1970's.

Historical Toiles

Click for detail Colonial Williamsburg's restoration in the 1930s created popular interest in Early American history and design. Williamsburg's buildings and people - from slaves to gentry - are featured in this multi-colored chintz with an unusual dark blue ground
This 1942 honeycomb-weave toile, "Treaty Elm," is based on the 18th century Benjamin West painting of Penn's Treaty with the Indians.  Note the fabric being offered the Indians in trade for land.  click to enlarge
click to enlarge A traditional one-color toile, the "Spirit of '76" by Percy Kent, depicts scenes from the American Revolution, highlighting the lives of George Washington and Betsy Ross. 
"Benjamin Franklin," a 1952 Waverly Bonded Fabric, uses green floral borders to add interest to the simple drawings of Franklin and his inventions. click to enlarge
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The Bicentennial Celebration in 1976 triggered another revival of interest in toiles and colonial history.  Waverly's "Philadelphia Toile" depicts scenes of Independence Hall and other landmarks, while Schumacher's "Newport Toile" includes people as well as places.

Pastoral Toiles

American pastoral toiles were mainly influenced by French and English ones.  Yet while the musical lovers and shepherds of  "Serenade" are European motifs, the sketchy drawings and colorwashes are distinctly American. click to enlarge
click to enlarge This idyllic fishing scene, a common subject of Old World toiles, has a Tom Sawyer/Becky Thatcher air about it.
Three versions of the classic toile, "Four Seasons," include the original 18th century French pattern (right),  a multi-color 1970's adaptation by Waverly (bottom left), and a mid-20th century whimsical take-off (bottom right).
"Paysanne," another reproduction of European scenes, has a more-the-merrier American quality, with no less than ten different vignettes in a 38" repeat.  It was styled by David Stapler, one of Philadelphia's leading fabric entrepreneurs. (See our exhibit, "The Fabric of Our Lives: A History of Philadelphia's South Fourth Street.")