“Are We At Winterthur Yet?”

In June, I wrote that I’d rather trade having a birthday cake and presents at home for the opportunity to go to Winterthur to see the “With Cunning Needle: Four Centuries of Embroidery” exhibit. Even though there’s 10 days left to go until my birthday, my wish came true last week, when Cindy, my mother and I spent a few days in the Brandywine River Valley.

Named for an ancestral home in Switzerland, Winterthur was built in 1837 and is one of the homes of the du Pont family. Henry Francis du Pont was born there in 1880, returned there to manage the household, garden and grounds after his graduation from Harvard, and inherited it in 1927, after his father’s death. After opening his home and collections on a limited basis to visitors for 10 years, Mr. du Pont permanently opened Winterthur to the public as a museum in 1951.

Today, Winterthur is the premier museum for American decorative arts. Situated in a beautiful 1,000-acre preserve of meadows and woodlands, Winterthur is home to nearly 90,000 objects from two centuries of American decorative arts, dating from 1640 to 1860. The collection is displayed in the 175-room house, which still looks much like it did when the du Pont family lived there, as well as in exhibition galleries.

Just before Mr. du Pont died in 1969, he returned to his beloved family home. “Are we at Winterthur yet?,” he asked during his journey.

That’s how I felt, when all those recent hurricanes and tropical storms caused raging rivers in Pennsylvania and Delaware that postponed our trip for a few days. Would I ever get to this place I’ve been anxious to see for two decades?

Thankfully, the water subsided and Orangina headed east last Monday. As we crossed over the swollen Susquehanna River, I thought about Eric Blore’s classic Susquehanna St. jail scene in “Shall We Dance,” one of my favorite Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films. “What is this, a spelling bee?,” indeed!

When we arrived in Wilmington, we took a practice drive past many of the great Brandywine River attractions, like Nemours and the Hagley Museum, so we’d know just how to get to Winterthur the next day. Seeing this historic, picturesque region at dusk set the stage for what promised to be a memorable Tuesday.

The next morning, we decided to begin our visit to Winterthur at the library, which houses more than 87,000 volumes and 500,000 manuscripts and images. Earlier this summer, I asked Emily Guthrie, NEH Associate Librarian at Winterthur, whether we could see some rare books from the library’s special collections during our visit. Six wonderful needlework-related books were waiting for us in the rare book reading room. We began with two German volumes, Rieger’sche Stickmuster: Modèles de Broderie par Mademoiselle Francoise Rieger en noirs et enluminés (Mannheim, 1808) — the first given example of published embroidery designs by a woman — and Neueste englische Muster zur Weisen-Stickeren für Damen, dritte Sammlung: enthaltend Rocktouren, Caracos, Gillets, Halstücher, Jawls, Kanten, Guirlanten etc., published in Leipzig during the first decade of the 19th century. We moved on to the Needlework Pattern Book (London: J. Bell, 1806-1819), a collection of 134 engraved pattern plates from La Belle Assemblée, an English fashion periodical. Designs of stylized leaves, flowers and geometric figures were accompanied by captions indicating intended uses, such as for decorating sleeves, handkerchiefs, collars, dress borders, and nightcaps. The Workwoman’s Guide (London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., 1840) contained instructions on cutting out patterns for apparel, upholstery, making bonnets and knitting. The Artist’s Vade Mecum (London, 1762) was a compilation of prints designed as a reference tool for artists and craftsmen that was published by Robert Sayer, a well-known Fleet Street printer. Finally, Ornamental groups, descriptive of flowers, birds, shells, fruit, insects, &c. and illustrative of a new theory of colouring from designs and paintings (London: William Miller, 1808) was a magnificent volume of hand-colored engravings of flowers and accompanying text by Mary Gartside, an artist who exhibited at the Royal Academy and taught flower painting. Focusing on scientific, rather than decorative, aspects of flower painting, it was a subscription volume that was a source of inspiration for women who painted china. We noticed that one of the subscribers listed was none other than Mr. J. Wedgwood.

Emily invited us to look at “The Butcher, The Baker, & The Tallow Chandler: Crafting Tangible but Temporary Goods in Early America,” an exhibit of items from the library’s collection, suggesting that fancy molded candles, elaborate loaves of bread and cuts of meat were as much the product of design decisions and style choices in American culture as elegantly carved furniture. The show-stoppers of these cases were the illustrations from Johann Ferdinand Schreiber’s 30 Werkstätten von Handwerken, a 19th century publication from Esslingen am Neckar, Germany.

As we left the library, we took a good look at “The Ephemera of Fabrics,” the library’s exhibit complementing “With Cunning Needle.” Fashion plates, textile labels, ribbon and fabric samples, textile and clothing advertising ephemera, and a lace sample book were on display.

En route to the museum, we walked through the Dorrance Gallery, which houses the Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens. Our first Winterthur souvenir was “Of Soup and Love…the First Is the Best,” a brochure about this collection that was donated to Winterthur in 1996. Besides presenting information about these fashionable and stylish tureens, the brochure includes a recipe for clear mushroom soup, which Mr. Du Pont served his dinner guests on May 6, 1966.

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