A Special Sofa in the New Museum Exhibition

Written by: Patrick Sheary, DAR Museum Curator of Furnishings
November 19, 2015

When visiting the DAR Museum’s new exhibition Remembering the American Revolution 1776-1890, a large blue rococo-style sofa stands out from other objects.  Its historical significance prompted me to give the 18th century sofa a more authentic look in upholstery fabric and design.

Colonel Thomas McKean who signed the Declaration of Independence and represented Delaware at Continental Congresses owned the sofa. Made in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, between 1765 and 1790, it is constructed of mahogany, ash and oak. When McKean died in 1817, the sofa was located in the north parlor, valued at $5.00, and appeared in his estate inventory.

The sofa was last upholstered in 1991 and represented the latest research at the time. This included a mattress, or seat cushion, shaped back pillows (conforming to the shape of the crest rail), and piped seams. Textile company Scalamandre made the red wool watered moreen show cloth.

New research in preparation for the exhibition suggested that the upholstery needed reevaluation and a treatment developed to better reflect 18th century design. Analysis of period paintings and drawings, surviving sofas with the original upholstery, and the frame itself provided evidence as to how this sofa likely looked when new. 

Examining portraits showing sitters reposing in a sofa provides important clues as to how these look when new. Two portraits in particular show layers of pillows and bolsters compressed in a pile behind the sitter using them as support.  John Singleton Copley’s A Portrait of a Lady (1771) illustrates both boxed and knife edged pillows in on a sofa.

Though shaped box pillows could be used at the back, as seen in the 1991 reupholstery at the beginning of this article, rectangular ones represented another option. A drawing of a sofa in the Great Parlor at Strawberry Hill in England shows the other type of pillow. Keeping the pillows straight across the back helps accentuate the shaped crest rail and doesn’t hide the expensive upholstery behind. The drawing depicts square pillows along the back and round bolsters at the sides. 

Absent is a mattress or cushion on the seat which is consistent with designs shown in Thomas Chippendales’ The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director, one of the most important 18th century furniture design books.

The frame also provided important clues about the sofa’s original look. In the paintings most of the sofas depict brass tacking along the edges. We know, however, that decorative brass tacks weren’t the only finishing treatment. If this sofa originally had brass tacks, corresponding holes would be present in the frame. The conservators examined the frame for evidence of brass tacks but found none which meant that the 18th century upholsterer used tape or piping to trim the edges. The choice of tape more clearly and dramatically defined the curving shapes important in rococo design. 

The blue fabric now on the McKean sofa is wool harateen with a stamped or embossed design comprising of pomegranates and leaves. Eaton Hill Textile Works in Marshfield, Vermont, custom dyed and hand wove the fabric in a period indigo color.  It took two months to weave the thirty yards necessary to cover the sofa and make the pillows. The pillows and bolsters are edged with a standing seam covered with the tape, while the boxed pillows along the back are tufted to keep the feather stuffing from settling.

Period style upholstery methods are also used on how the fabric is placed on the sofa. The layout of the fabric’s stamped pattern differs from how it is done today. These days patterns are matched at the seams and centered from side to side creating a consistent design. This modern method wastes fabric. In the 18th century, because fabrics like this were expensive, upholsters usually did not match the pattern. Instead, they laid out the fabric in the most economical manner reducing waste. 

The underside of the seat is just as interesting as the showy parts because the support foundation can be observed. Upholstery seats and backs are supported on a web framework. Usually consisting of linen tapes, these are loosely woven and tautly attached to the frame. Resting on the tapes is the linen sacking which holds the stuffing material, in this case curled horsehair.   

A final touch related to the finish of the front legs. Sometime in the 19th century, the sofa went through a heavy restoration campaign. This resulted in most of the legs (except for the rear center) being replaced. Until recently, the front legs remained unadorned and seemed to be missing something. Comparing this sofa with others, it became apparent that cuffs or “Marlborough feet” likely ornamented the sofa. Conservators made new cuffs based on surviving example.  Now the legs appear finished and more closely relate to the others sofas of the time.

With all this work complete Colonel Thomas McKean and his wife Elizabeth McKean would likely approve. The DAR Museum wants to acknowledge and thank the many people involved in this important project. Chris Shelton, conservator of Robert Mussey Associates, Inc. in Boston, repaired the frame and reupholstered the sofa. Kate Smith and Justin Squizzero of Eaton Hill Textile Works wove the beautiful wool fabric. All photos can be seen on the blog website here.

We hope you will plan to visit the DAR Museum soon to see Remembering the American Revolution 1776-1890 and this beautiful sofa. Learn more about the exhibit here: www.dar.org/RAR.

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