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  SALTILLO SERAPE, MADE circa 1885-1910, IN THE VARY RARE FORM OF THE MEXICAN NATIONAL FLAG; ACQUIRED IN MEXICO BY TEXTILE MANUFACTURING MOGUL AND BANKER, A.L. WILLISTON (1834-1915) AND HIS WIFE, SARAH (1839-1912), OF NORTHAMPTON, MASSACHUSETTS

Available: Sold
Frame Size (H x L): Approx. 54" x 95"
Flag Size (H x L): 42" x 83"
Description....:
Mexican Saltillo serape, made of loom-woven wool in aniline dyes, with beautifully saturated colors. Sewn in two panels (the customary method), and joined with hand-stitching, the blanket is fringed at one end only with fine, braided, hemp twine. The design is in the form of the national flag of Mexico, and while one might presume that was a typical form, produced for the tourist trade, it is actually a very rare pattern, which I expect was likely either commissioned either for or by the man and his wife who acquired it on a visit to Mexico. This occurred in the late 19th century or the beginning of the twentieth.

A hand-inscribed note, inscribed on a length of linen or hemp fabric and hand-sewn near the fringed border, reads as follows:

“This blanket was bought by Harry's parents,
Mr. & Mrs. A.L. Williston, on their
trip to Mexico in ____ -- Sidney S.
Williston had it in his dorm at Harvard
where he graduated in 1936 -- It is his.”

The writing is difficult to read, but with a bit of genealogical digging, there was enough of it to allow me to unravel what could, at first, not be deciphered.

Asahel Lyman Williston (1834-1915), who went by Lyman or A.L., was the son of Samuel & Emily Williston, a couple of meager means, who began an ingenious button-making enterprise in Western Massachusetts in the 1820’s. Emily was an expert seamstress, and began the related work on her own, but this would become a massive, cottage industry endeavor, with work jobbed out to independent contractors--mostly women, working at home in their spare time. The venture grew until it employed a staggering number of households—over 1,000—in that part of the state.

The buttons were fabric covered, designed in a style produced in England. In 1929, Samuel went into partnership with his brothers, also button-makers, who produced metal and enameled buttons. Though that venture would fail, Samuel discovered a machine, engineered in England, that could stamp out a button and cover it in fabric in just one punch. Utilizing this technology, he opened the Williston-Knight Button Company in 1847, and one year later, the Nashawannuck Manufacturing Co., which made elastic suspenders, and the family’s wealth and influence grew to massive proportions. Along the way, in 1841, Samuel, the son of an Episcopalian minister at the only church in Easthampton, Mass., founded Williston Seminary. A secondary or post-secondary school at that time, this would eventually merge with the Northampton School for Girls to become the Williston Northampton School, which today operates as a college preparatory boarding school.

A.L. Williston attended Williston Seminary, later earning an M.A. from Amhurst College. He worked his way up through his father’s manufacturing concerns to become president of them. He also served as president of the Mill River Button Co., treasurer of the Williston Arms Narrow Fabric Co., and as President of the First National Bank of Northampton, and in many other roles within the community. He was an incorporator of the Florence [Massachusetts] Savings Bank, and served on boards of local schools and colleges throughout the region, including not only Williston Seminary, but Smith College and Mount Holyoke.

In 1861, A.L. married Sarah Tappan Stoddard (1839-1912). The Williston’s had six children, including Henry (Harry) Stoddard Williston (Dec. 15, 1872 – Mar. 9, 1942), the man referenced in the note on the serape. In 1907, Harry married Sydney Augusta Williams of Washington, DC. Harry and Sydney had two children, one of whom was Sidney S. Williston (Apr. 10, 1913 – Dec. 23, 2000) the former owner of this serape, also referenced in the note.

Sidney, the grandson of A.L., was a Harvard-educated, electronic and acoustic engineer, who, following a career with the Submarine Signal Service in the Navy, purchased Mario’s Art Shop and Conservatory in Washington, DC in 1962, a reputable conservation lab, to pursue a career in art conservation. A noteworthy educator in that field, heavily involved until his death, 38 years hence, a memorial fund was established in his name at the Washington Conservation Guild. Sid, as he was called, probably had an interest in art early on, and evidently displayed the serape in his room at Harvard.

The design of the flag is very close to those that had been in use since 1821. The tri colors represent the armies of the Three Guarentees, which defeated Spain to secure Mexican independence. Bars representing these were originally set on the diagonal, in February of that year, then turned upright in November. The eagle appeared at the same time, perched on the cactus and wearing a crown, with the cactus growing upright from a rock, which emerged from a body of water. Variations of the eagle have been in use ever since, with the rattlesnake appearing in 1823. The original rattlesnake design was very similar to the one on the flag in question here. Used until 1829, then readopted from 1858-1862, and once again from 1867-1893, the primary difference between the various recorded eagles and the one on the serape, is the way that the eagle is facing. The only years in which the eagle faced its proper right was between 1835 and 1846, on the flag adopted by the Centralist party. Because there is a tremendous amount of variation in early devices of all sorts, this feature should definitely be taken with a grain of salt. The banner present above the eagle on the serape does not appear on any officially adopted flag or national coat of arms, nor do the tipped flags emerging from beneath the cactus. The open wreath, depicted here with laurel branches on both sides, was supposed to be an oak branch with acorns on one side and laurel on the opposite. Each of these deviations may have been the product of either poor memory or artist’s liberty, if not on behalf of the maker of the serape, then perhaps someone who had produced a crest that the maker obtained for reference.

Per the inscription, the year of A.L. and Sarah Williston’s trip to Mexico remains unknown. The personal travels of private individuals was sometimes reported as significant news in early American newspapers, but in spite of significant effort, I could not track this information down. What is known is that A.L. passed away in 1915, so the serape must have been acquired in or before that year. Given the style and the colors and the fringe, it is likely that this occurred between say 1885 and 1910.

It is of interest to note that the eagle on the flag of Mexico happens to have seen its most significant change in almost a century, in 1916, one year after A.L.’s death, when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent General John Pershing to capture Poncho Villa. In 1916 and subsequent formats, the eagle was viewed in complete, side profile, instead of facing the viewer, with simply the head being turned to the left or right.

Although they may not look as if it is the case, in the 1850’s, serapes sometimes took two years to make. They were often expensive, even at the time they were made. It seems most likely that, being a textile mogul with many business and monetary interests, A.L. and his wife were gifted the blanket by a Mexican official or businessman, as a memento of their visit. Whatever the case may be, the strength of the image, colors, texture, and fringe make this a wonderful example. In addition, the fact that this pre-dates most of the early Mexican flags that one might expect to encounter, in combination with the interesting provenance, combine to make this a very desirable crossover between early Mexican decorative textiles and early flags.

Mounting: The textile was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, which is led by expert staff. We take great care in the mounting and preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples.

The black-painted and hand-gilded molding, with its wide, shaped profile, is Italian. The background is 100% cotton twill, black in color, that has been washed and treated for colorfastness. The glazing is U.V. protective acrylic (Plexiglas).

Condition: Overall excellent, with but minor imperfections and loss in the fringe.
Collector Level: Advanced Collectors and the Person with Everything
Flag Type: Sewn flag
Star Count:
Earliest Date of Origin: 1885
Latest Date of Origin: 1910
State/Affiliation: Other
War Association:
Price: SOLD
 

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