|EXCEPTIONAL 1821 PRINTING OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE ON CLOTH, IN MULBERRY RED ON A SULFER YELLOW GROUND, PRODUCED AND DISTRIBUTED BY ROBERT & COLLIN GILLESPIE FOR THE AMERICAN MARKET, AN UNUSUALLY LARGE EXAMPLE AMONG KNOWN VERSIONS OF THIS TEXTILE, IN EXTRAORDINARY CONDITION; EXHIBITED JANUARY – AUGUST, 2023 AT THE MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
|Frame Size (H x L):
|42.5" x 40.75
|Flag Size (H x L):
|32" x 30.25
|Printed in mulberry ink on cotton, this kerchief-style broadside is one of the earliest known renditions of the Declaration of Independence rendered on cloth. The text appears within a wreath of oak leaves, interspersed with circular medallions that contain the seals of the thirteen colonies. This is crowned by whimsical portraits of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. An American eagle flies above celebratory flags and banners over the Presidents’ heads, with the names “Hamilton” and “Putnam” in banners to the left and right.
Revolutionary scenes fill the bottom corners. One depicts “The Patriotic Bostonians discharging the British Ships in Boston Harbour,” and the other illustrates “General Burgoyne’s Surrender to General Gates at Saratoga.” The entire piece is surrounded by six-pointed stars amid braided ropes or chains, with anchors in the corners.
Examples of this rare textile exist with two other border styles. One of these has grape vines, beehives, flags and scrolls. Another has a militaristic border of cannon, cannon balls, anchors, flowers, and gadrooning (rope-like decoration). Slight variations of this sort are common across pre-Civil War political flags and kerchiefs, which often exist in several different forms that are nearly, yet not precisely identical. Printers and engravers seem to have preferred the production of designs with subtle differences.
Three color variations are also known. In addition to mulberry, blue and black (or sepia) versions exist. In other pre-1830 American political kerchiefs and yard goods (textiles sold by the yard), these three color combinations are likewise found.
Perhaps the most interesting characteristic that differs from one to another, however, is the size. Both the cannon-ball-and-anchor- bordered version, and the grapevine-and-beehive-bordered version, are smaller in scale. The version under examination here, with the 6-pointed stars, is considerably larger and thus required a completely different copper plate engraving. One is documented in "The American Flag: Two Centuries of Concord and Conflict" by Howard Madaus and Whitney Smith (2006, VZ Publications, Santa Cruz, CA), p. 11.
Two examples of the smaller variations of this kerchief are recorded in “Threads of History: Americana Recorded on Cloth, 1775 to the Present” by Herbert Ridgeway Collins (1979, Smithsonian Press), each in a different color combination. Item 23 (p. 57), which is black and white, resides at the Smithsonian’s own Cooper-Hewitt museum, while item 58 (p. 72), in blue and white, is part of the collection at Winterthur. The Cooper-Hewitt example is listed simply as “19th century” and noted as “English or American”, while the Winterthur example is labeled with a date of 1820-1825 and labeled as “English”. Madaus and Smith date the example featured in their text as 1825-28, or earlier.
It is of interest to note that period documentation of manufacture of these kerchiefs was more recently discovered by a research assistant who was working with me on a text slated for future publication. The textiles were produced for the American market by Robert & Collin Gillespie in Anderston (near Glascow), Scotland. In 1821, an announcement was published in newspapers in major cities up and down the east coast. This read as follows:
"We have received (says a New-York paper) from Collin Gillespie, Esq. of Glasgow, formerly of this city, two Handkerchiefs, the finest specimens of printing on cambric ever produced. The design is a facsimile of Binn’s superb print of the declaration of Independence, and contains the signatures of the illustrious signers with great exactness. In one corner is a representation of the “patriotic Bostonians discharging the British ships in Boston harbor,” of their cargoes of tea; and in the other the surrender of Burgoyne to Gates at Saratoga. In a branch of laurel, on each side, is inscribed the name of Hamilton and Putnam, and the likenesses of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. The only deviation from the print, is the omission of the portrait of John Hancock."*
Gillespie emigrated to the United States from Scotland in 1793 and became a citizen in 1798. He traveled back-and-forth between his home countries as the head of the Collin Gillespie & Company merchant faction. His brother, Robert Gillespie took control of the cotton spinning and textile printing factories in 1808 or 1809.
In actuality, it was not precisely the Binns version that Gillsepie copied, but more so that of competing printer by the name of William Woodruff. The stories of Binns and Woodruff are intertwined and, along with the role of another printer by the name of Tyler, are integral to this discussion.
Before 1818, Americans were not able to view copies of the Declaration of Independence. The text had been published in some newspapers during the 18th century, but at the time it was more of a tool to achieve independence and not precisely the iconic treasure that it would soon become, and there were no large-scale, printed copies that reproduced the actual document or any representation thereof.
John Binns began taking subscriptions to fund a facsimile of the Declaration in 1816, but failed to produce the work until three years later, in April of 1819. In the meantime, rival printer, Benjamin Owen Tyler, became the first to publish an engraved rendition, which he released in 1818. Printed on parchment, velum, linen and silk, this appeared in a simple, unembellished style, without pictorial imagery. Almost all were printed on parchment. Today just four of Tyler's engravings are estimated to survive that are printed on cloth. This is actually a fairly remarkable number, because, according to Declaration expert Seth Kaller, only 6 may have ever been ordered. Tyler's original ledger book is among the holdings of the University of Virginia, where it is part of the Albert H. Small Declaration of Independence Collection. Having had the opportunity to pour through the book to compile data, Kaller counted "roughly 1,694 copies sold on paper, 40 on vellum, 3 on silk, and 3 on linen."
While Binns was carefully developing his design, its concept is said to have been stolen by William Woodruff, who formerly worked for an employee of Binns' by the name of George Murray. Murray was responsible for the Arms of the United States and the 13 state seals on the Binns version. Woodruff produced a very similar printing with minor changes, including calligraphic signatures instead of nearly exact copies, and the replacement of John Hancock's portrait with one of John Adams. He included trumpets in the array of flags, slightly raised, plus a much larger eagle and branches of oak that were woven through the entire wreath. His state seals were also different and in a different order. Woodruff completed the project at a lower cost and released his version two months before Binns, in February of 1819 as opposed to April. Binns accused Woodruff of stealing his concept and filed a lawsuit against him, but lost because the magistrate declared that “neither the design, nor general arrangement of the print, nor the parts which composed it, were the invention of the plaintiff.”
Collin Gillespie was a textile manufacturer and merchant who emigrated to the United States from Scotland in 1793 and became a citizen in 1798. He traveled back and forth between his home countries as the head of the Collin Gillespie & Company merchant faction. His brother, Robert Gillespie took control of the cotton spinning and textile printing factories in 1808 or 1809. It is likely that Collin brought both the Binns and Woodruff copies to his brother to reproduce on cloth. Gillespie adapted Binns’ signatures and Woodruff’s imagery, then expounded on both to create a more elaborate representation. Patriotic sentiments for his adopted country, and/or an understanding of its populous, probably influenced the illustrations in the bottom corners.
It is of interest to note that the first identical copies of the Declaration of Independence were not made until 1823. With the fifty-year anniversary of the document at hand, fear of the degradation of the original caused John Quincy Adams to seek out the services of William J. Stone of Washington, D.C., who soaked the original in order to make a copperplate engraving. Stone then printed a copy on rice paper for each state and each surviving signer. It was not copied again until 1843, when the Stone plate was allowed to be used by Peter Force for another printing that was inserted in a book.
The large size of this particular textile and exceptional graphics provide significant visual impact. When combined with such an early date, as well as the distinction of having been one of the earliest printings of our nation’s most important document, the result is an extraordinary stand-out among America’s first known political textiles.
Provenance: Exhibited from January – August, 2023 at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
* "Hankerchiefs", The Farmers' Cabinet (Amherst, New Hampshire, vol. 19, iss. 35, May 19th, 1821), p. 3.
Mounting: The textile was mounted and framed within our own conservation department, which is led by expert trained staff. We take great care in the mounting and preservation of flags and have framed thousands of examples.
The modern, gilded molding has an early American profile and an exceptional finish. To this a black-painted, shadowbox molding, with a bowed profile and a textured surface, was added as a cap. The glazing is U.V. protective plexiglass. Feel free to contact us for more details.
Condition: The sulfur yellow background—almost never found intact, is modeled throughout, but the overall condition is otherwise exceptional.
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