In my work as a rare materials cataloger, some very remarkable books cross my desk. And although I've learned that even the most plain-looking books can hold surprises, I was taken completely unaware by this unassuming, even drab, volume with its crumbling leather spine and torn paper label on the front cover.
Hmm, what does the label say? 'Sales Book', maybe?
So it's probably an old account book full of crabbed handwriting and calculations, but surely it has something of interest for a researcher, or it wouldn't have wound up here. Let's see what it is.
THIS IS AMAZING!!!
You've GOT to SEE THIS!!
The other catalogers, alerted by my gasps, crowd around to admire the contents.
The book is filled with amazing swatches of colorful silk fabrics; see below for some examples.
So, what on earth is this lovely book?!
Recently acquired by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library (CHM) branch of the Libraries, this volume is indeed an old account book, with manuscript ink annotations from an unidentified early 20th century printing company from the New York City area. But the pages are unexpectedly filled with nearly 600 glorious swatches of beautiful silk fabrics featuring the most gorgeous, brightly-colored patterns. The Art-Deco era designs and the fine woven textures are absolutely stunning. Looking at the album, various questions cross my mind. Where did these fabric swatches come from, and why were they pasted in this account book? And if I only have a vague idea of the answers, how can I describe this book so that anyone who would be interested in it will even know that it exists?
Well, fortunately there are a few clues to help narrow down the possibilities. The handwritten notes on the pages are dated from 1911 and 1912. The fabric swatches are probably later than that, although they could have been created in an earlier time and simply inserted in the book by a collector after 1912. Since the book contains the business records of a New York City-area firm, and New York has long been a center of the fashion industry, it's likely that the person who pasted in the swatches was also from that region. This hunch is confirmed by CHM librarian Stephen van Dyk, who bought the volume at auction in Boonton, New Jersey. The auction house described the fabrics as originating from Paterson, New Jersey (Mr. van Dyk's hometown!), the main center of the silk textile manufacturing industry in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Following a prolonged strike in 1913 of Paterson's dye workers and silk workers who wanted eight-hour workdays, higher wages, and better working conditions, many of the textile factories closed down or moved elsewhere. If the fabric samples pasted in this volume were created in the mills of Paterson, then it's likely that they date to approximately this period.
Some of the tougher questions raised by this book of fabric swatches remain unanswered for now. Who carefully collected and mounted these lovely samples in the account book, and what connection might there be between the unidentified printing company whose records are written in the pages of this volume and the collector and producer of the textiles? Was it a sample book to show to potential customers? Did a dressmaker adapt the cast-off manuscript ledger as a scrapbook to keep souvenirs of the beautiful fabrics that he or she had used? Perhaps the samples were kept by the child of someone who worked with the fabrics? Although the purpose, the source, and the collector remain unknown, this amazing scrapbook is now available at the Cooper-Hewitt Library for consultation by researchers and anyone interested in the history and design of American textiles.—Diane Shaw
[Patterned silk textiles sample book] fNK8805 .P38 1912 CHMRB