When I retrieved Sh.Misc. 1639 from the shelf, I wasn’t sure what to expect from an item described on the catalog card as “Shakespeare Tercentenary Celebration. Mementoes, tickets, programs…” Many of the components turned out to be fairly common–though no less interesting!—pieces of ephemera such as programs, fundraising letters, performance tickets, and even a train schedule. But one item was a little more exciting.
Item 16 is a badge, made up of three panels connected by a button, featuring detailed pictures woven in silk floss. I thought this might be a unique item in the collection, but it turns out that the Folger actually owns several silk pictures, most of them also related to Shakespeare or the tercentenary.
The 1864 Shakespeare Tercentenary Celebration, hosted in Stratford-upon-Avon by a committee of local Shakespeareans, coincided with the rise of woven silk pictures as a major commodity produced in nearby Coventry. While Coventry was traditionally known for its ribbon-making industry, and had adopted the use of Jacquard looms following their invention in the early 19th century, it was hit hard by a recession following the Cobden Treaty of 1860. The treaty lifted import tariffs, allowing Great Britain to cheaply import ribbons from France and beyond, and increasing competition for Coventry’s products. The town was forced to explore additional avenues of trade, and one of them was the woven bookmark.
The most famous bookmark weaver was Thomas Stevens, who produced a line of elaborately detailed silk-picture bookmarks which he trademarked as “stevengraphs.” They featured images of landscapes, historical figures and events. While stevengraphs were always distributed with with Stevens’ distinctive mounting and labels, as shown above and below, the weaving process itself was not unique, and soon other purveyors of woven silk pictures sprang up, such as J. Caldicott and Owen Brothers.
Stevengraphs and other silk pictures were created using the same basic process used by all Jacquard looms— a series of cards is punched with a pattern, directing when the loom should raise or lower the set of threads in the warp to reproduce the pattern in a cloth.1 Stevens’ process, and that of other silk picture manufacturers, also used a set of punch cards, but these were created from an image ten times larger than the bookmark itself would be, allowing for a high level of complexity.2 Stevens and other manufacturers soon expanded from bookmarks into other silk picture formats, including postcards and badges.
Early in the career of the silk picture trade, the Tercentenary Celebration offered an opportunity to show off examples of Coventry’s craftsmanship. The firm Mulloney and Johnson3 produced the official four-part silk badge, and even demonstrated a Jacquard power loom to attendees at the celebration.4 Journalist Andrew Halliday mentioned the ribbons in his account of the celebrations, published in Charles Dickens’ magazine All the year round: “item: a triple badge in Coventry ribbon with the Bard’s lineaments in floss silk, and woven representations of natal spot, and church containing dust…”
Stevens did not miss his chance to capitalize on the moment either, producing several commemorative bookmarks featuring an image of the Shakespeare funerary memorial in Stratford-upon-Avon’s Holy Trinity Church.5
Though stevengraphs and other silk pictures were produced up until the Second World War, they are remembered today mainly as a minor collectible item.
- The Victoria & Albert Museum has produced a wonderful short (silent) video that demonstrates how a Jacquard loom worked.
- You can read more about the punch-card creation process in Godden, Geoffrey A. Stevengraphs and other silk pictures (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971), pages 20-21.
- Stevens had earlier accused Mulloney and Johnson of copying his designs.
- Their badges were produced in several colors: the Folger owns black and bright royal blue versions and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has digitized a purple version. A turquoise version was also produced.
- In person, the combination of solid black background and variegated border threads creates an unsettling illusion of depth (for me, at least), where Shakespeare seems to be peering out at you from the darkness.