We tend to think of Colonial era Americans wearing drab brown homespun; in reality, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and even straight-laced John Adams loved multicolored European fabrics. In 1776, half of all major newspaper advertisements hawked foreign textiles, and by the 1790s, the United States were importing a staggering 3 million yards of printed linen and cotton. The most prized among these multihued prints was arguably Toile de Jouy.
In the 18th century, textiles were important status symbols. While visiting London in 1758, Benjamin Franklin sent his wife yards of cotton, “printed curiously from copper plates, a new invention, to make bed and window curtains, and seven yards of chair bottoms, printed in the same way, very neat.” Wealthy Colonial Americans were willing to pay high prices for printed cotton bed hangings - the Cadwalader family of Philadelphia paid £52 for fifty-six yards of "fine red & white copper plate" for a high post bed (the frame cost only £12!) in 1770 (when a man’s complete suit of clothing cost £4, a silver watch £5).
Meanwhile, in 1760, a penniless German immigrant - Christophe Philippe Oberkampf - launched a small factory in the French town of Jouy-en-Josas to satisfy France’s insatiable appetite for colorful block-printed cottons from India. "Toile de Jouy" (literally printed cotton from Jouy-en-Josas) rapidly set a world standard for innovative design and production techniques. By Oberkampf’s death in 1815, his enterprise was among the largest in France. Today, the fabric continues to epitomize
French “art de vivre” and is reproduced today by presti-
Bed hangings in the William Paca House, Annapolis MD, which cost £50 in 1766 -gious design houses around the world.
The factory at Jouy-en-Josas in 1806 by Jean-Baptist Huet Christophe Philippe Oberkampf (1738-1815)
While most imports into the American colonies came from England, Colonial Americans had access to French goods legally through London merchants in contact with Dutch intermediaries or illegally from ships of all flags, including colonists, that braved the English blockades. But when the French government announced its support for the United States during the War of Independence, American taste enthusiastically embraced all things French….
The Toile de Jouy Manufactory responded by designing several pictorial toiles including the famous “Hommage de l’Amérique à la France” (1783-89). America is personified as a Native-American female figure leaning on a club, wearing a length of cloth draped from her shoulder and a feather headdress. She pays homage to France (a seated woman wearing a crown and resting on a globe adorned with flour-de-lis), accompanied by and African-American holding a phrygian bonnet and a frontiersman in buckskins holding the American flag with its thirteen stars. This central group is surrounded by maritime scenes including the port of La Rochelle (from where Lafayette and Rochambeau’s expeditionary fleets set sail in 1780). Interestingly, this designed was produced even after the French Revolution, but the allegorical “France” stopped wearing a crown and the fleur-de-lis disappeared. Homage de l'Amerique a la France (c.1790)
The first American diplomats to be posted in France became patrons of Toile de Jouy. While Thomas Jefferson lived in Paris from August 1784 to September 1789, he repeatedly purchased Toile de Jouy at the Hotel de Jabac in the rue Neuve de Saint Merri, the Paris show room for the Oberkampf factory. Among the 86 crates of French goods he brought back to Monticello were "One piece of toile de Jouy, and two bolsters print in red with partridges in a garden." Abigail Adams loved her bedroom in Auteuil, France in 1784, which she described, "My chamber is hung with a rich India patch, the bed, chairs and window curtains of the same, which is very fashionable in this country." Meanwhile, printed cottons with patriotic themes were imported into the new nation. In 1784, John Smith & Sons of Baltimore ordered "4 pieces printed furniture in dark purple, Washington patterns."
Homage de l'Amerique a la France (c.1790)
Though cotton clothing was favored by Abigail Adams for its “Republican simplicity”, printed cottons continued to be luxury products until textile manufacturing became widespread in the United States (the first spinning mill was launched in 1791 but manufacturing really only took off during the War of 1812 when imports from England were banned). Indeed, in 1800 a worker at the Jouy factory would have spent an entire week’s wages on just one yard of its most expensive cotton.
Toile de Jouy continued to be favored by American First Ladies in the 20th century. Mamie Eisenhower commissioned Schumacher to design a red and white “toile” with patriotic symbols and used a toile pattern for a dress.
Jacqueline Kennedy, who had a passion for French decorative arts (and even used a French interior designer for the White House) selected a blue & white toile for John F Kennedy’s bedroom and two other Toile de Jouy patterns for two White House guest rooms.
From the Lasersohn Collection Later, as Mrs. Onassis, she used a red and white Toile de Jouy design
in her own Manhattan living room.
President Kennedy's bedroom Two guestrooms in the Kennedy White House
America’s love affair with Toile de Jouy endures today…. Many leading American designers incorporate Toile-inspired prints into home designs or fashion. And that will be the topic of another blog from Jill’s Corner!
Jacqueline Onassis's New York living room