Late 19th century Betsy Ross embroidery, courtesy The Women's Cooperative, Davistown Plantation,ME.
and those of its imitators, appearing just when schoolteachers began searching for a creative
way to teach Underground Railroad history, bears a remarkable
resemblance to that of the descendants of Betsy Ross in 1870,
when Philadelphia began planning celebrations for the
In that year, several Ross descendants
suddenly filed affidavits claiming that Betsy had told them
she had made the first American flag. These affidavits - made
more than 90 years after the event, by people who were young
children when Betsy died in 1836 - were the first mention of the
flag story. No independent record exists of Betsy having anything
to do with the first flag, and much evidence, including
contemporary documents, completely refutes the Ross family
But donations were solicited nationwide (amid
considerable controversy), and 1898 the building where Betsy might have rented
a room was purchased and turned into the "Betsy Ross
House" museum. Generations of American schoolchildren have
been taught the Betsy Ross myth as historical fact, and more
than a quarter million people visit the "Betsy Ross
House" each year, where the myth is perpetuated.
Nell Irvin Painter, retired Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton University, points to another example of how tenacious pop-culture
myths can be. In 1971, screenwriter Ted Perry wrote the voiceover
script for a film on pollution, based on a speech he had
heard a 1970 Earth Day rally. Perry thought the speech had first
been given by Chief Seattle in 1854, but in fact it was written 20
years after Seattle's death. Perry's film was a hit, but to
his horror his "Chief Seattle Speech" was universally
misattributed to the long-dead chief. Despite Perry's efforts,
that of historians such as National Archives archivist Jerry
L Clark, and even statements by members of Seattle's own
tribe, in the 1990s both an award-winning "nonfiction" children's
book and Al Gore's Earth in the Balance were quoting
"Chief Seattle's" environmental wisdom. The
children's book is in its 12th printing and is often suggested as
a Social Studies teaching tool. The author, who specializes
in self-help books, refuses to accept that Chief Seattle never
said what her book claims he did.
calls such stories "fakelore". A
specialist in Native American oral history, he is often asked
whether "what matters [is] providing children with
interesting and pleasurable material to read that exposes them
to other times and other cultures." Singer replies that
such an argument
the ethical question. At the risk of sounding puerile,
misrepresentation, false advertising, feeding children
misinformation, is unethical, however ordinary in textbooks
and commercials....Consistently, parents, teachers, and
children accept fakelore as the real thing, for whatever
purpose it is used....Fakelore makes a mockery of
should always be cited, and sources that are secondary
adaptations and undocumented claims that "I heard it
from..." should not suffice. ...
is time authors, parents, educators - even publishers -
accept that you cannot teach about other cultures by
assimilating them into a safe, homogenized curriculum or by
substituting well-intentioned misconceptions for demeaning
people asked to accept the "Quilt Code" as
historical fact deserve answers to three basic questions:
If "code" proponents so often disagree about how it
originated, what blocks it included, what they meant, and how
the quilts were used - what can we possibly say we know, or
can even imagine, about this "code"?
we know nothing about the "Code," have no firsthand evidence of it, and
historical research about quilts, slavery, and the Underground
Railroad directly contradicts the claims made about the
"code", on what basis can we be expected to believe
it existed at all?
important - why should a story for which no evidence exists
be chosen to supplant the real, documented life stories and
achievements of 19th century African-Americans, both slave
of Harriet Tubman, author Catherine Clinton observes
[Earlier accounts of Tubman's life] are more folkloric than
analytical, more riddled with inaccuracies than
concerned with historical facts. Much like
Sally Hemmings before her, Harriet Tubman has been
subjected to more fictional treatments than serious
historical examinations, a reflection not of her
place in the American past but a failing on the part
of the academy. This absence of scholarship
must be recognized as a form of
"disremembering". While Tubman was
alive in the imaginations of schoolchildren and
within popular and underground culture, she was a
mystery to professional historians, who
consistenlty mentioned her but failed even to set
the record straight about her role and
contributions....Tubman's life demands more than pop
the story of all those who participated in the Underground
Railroad deserves the care of scholarly research. No matter how appealing
the "Quilt Code" story may be, until such research uncovers significant, specific corroborating evidence
from firsthand sources, people genuinely interested in quilt
history, the history of the Underground Railroad, and that of
take it any more seriously than the story of Betsy Ross: a
modern-day symbol with no basis in fact. But while
the Betsy Ross myth involves only an historical footnote - the
maker of one flag - the "Quilt Code" myth attempts to rewrite an entire, critical chapter of
EPILOGUE - Selling slavery:
"Quilt code" as marketing gimmick
Since the publication five
years ago of Hidden in Plain View, a number of individuals (most
of them white) have used the "Code" to market all sorts of
questionable objects. Following are the stories of some of these attempts.
(For more retailers, see also the new "Quilt Code" Hall of Shame.)
Railroad Bed Rugg"
|In early 2002 a retired
antique dealer purchased a yarn hooked rug for $10 at a yard sale near
Augusta, Georgia. Her son and daughter-in-law, who had started an
archaeological survey company a few months before, arranged for a query
about it to be posted on an astronomy
website. In it they claimed to have discovered the rug contained an
Underground Railroad "code" and asking for "additional
historical information or comments":
Although we realize that we
are not experts on African American arts or the Underground Railroad, we
believe that there is more to this piece than just meets the eye. At the
least we believe it is a rare form of African American art. At the most,
it is another clue into the Underground Railroad. Either way, we are
excited at the priviledge [sic] of conducting research and sharing it
with the real experts.
The owners of this rug
say it contains an Underground Railroad "code".
Three months later
the owners, the rug and their claims about it were featured in
the online newspaper in the area where the couple do business.
They also placed the rug and their claims also appeared on
website, where it is listed on the title page as a "recent
Because the owners claim its motifs relate to the song Follow the Drinking Gourd, the rug caught the interest of Joel Bresler, who has been researching the song's history and whose website, www.followthedrinkinggourd.org, is scheduled to debut in early 2007. Although it is widely assumed to be a
coded spiritual from the Underground Railroad period, Bresler has located no documentary evidence it dates any earlier than the very late 19th century. The first mention he has found dates to 1928, when it was published by H.B. Parks, a white man who claimed he
first heard the song in 1912 (like the Quilt Code, only in the South rather than among northern blacks who might be descendants of successful fugitives). But Bresler notes that by that time, the abolitionist relatives Parks claimed had confirmed the song's coded
meaning to him were likely long dead. Bresler has uncovered a number of other problems with the song's provenance and ostensible message of escape north; even the phrase "drinking gourd" as a term for "Big Dipper" seems not to be used until after
the song was published. Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson also points out that no connection between Follow the Drinking Gourd and Harriet Tubman exists. Tubman worked
along the east coast, while the song is supposed to concern the Tombigbee River watershed from lower Alabama to northeastern Mississippi.
To me, it appeared the
rug is around a hundred years old, made from vegetable-dyed yarn in a
central medallion design reminiscent of the Log Cabin quilt (introduced
in the North in the mid-1860s). The "drinking gourd"
looked an awful lot like the flower between the "NB" at one
end of the rug; what the owners describe as "trees" and a
"river" strongly resemble the vining borders first popularized
in 19th century applique quilts. Neither I, nor my colleague, nor
anybody else I asked saw a quail or a disembodied leg;
nor could I imagine what messages they might convey on a map.
I also noted several problems with the owners' assessment, including a
lack of any provenance that indicates the piece was made before the
Civil War or even that it originated in the South, let alone that it was
slave made. I also noted that the materials
used were not limited to the time period claimed, and wondered whether
the technique were even possible during that era. Meanwhile
I contacted two respected experts in hooked rugs and bed rugs to be sure
my conclusions were reasonable.
Bresler forwarded my opinion. The
owners were not pleased, and responded to my colleague, CCing me and
another person on their email, published verbatim here.
Jamar has been restoring 19th century hooked rugs in both private
and museum collections for a quarter century, and for many years headed
the restoration department at one of the nation's most highly-respected
American primitives galleries. She has handled countless antique hooked
rugs of every technique and type, is herself a rug hooking artist, and
has written and taught extensively on the subject. A summary of
her comments after viewing the owners' pictures of the rug:
- Since "to spin wool is to
'process' it", the yarn cannot be described as
"unprocessed". In any case, the way it has worn, its
uniformity, and loose twist indicate it was most probably not
- Vegetable dyes are not a reliable
indicator of age.
- The foundation fabric does not
appear to be feedsack, but some sort of linen or cotton yardage,
possibly monk's cloth.
- The foundation's not being the more
fragile burlap, rather than the rug being used on a bed, may account
for its being in generally good repair.
- However, yarn is missing in
"not an inconsequential amount", and the rug shows
evidence of either regular wear, some sort of chemical instability,
or aggressive cleaning with a brush (since it looks unusually clean,
almost bleached). In her experience, this rug would not be described
as being in "excellent" condition.
- The term "hit and
miss" refers to the practice of using up odds and ends of
hooking materials. This rug is made with all the same yarn and the
color palette is uniform throughout, so she does not consider it
done in a "hit and miss" style.
- The photos indicate the
technique used is needle-punching, the tool for which was not
developed until 1881. Thereafter, needlepunch was the method
commonly used by cottage-industry rugmakers. She has never heard of
a pre-1880s needlepunched rug.
- The appearance of both the
yarn and the foundation remind her of "the cottage rugs made by
different industries from the late 1800's into the 1930's".
She found the rug "very
appealing and interesting" with a "wonderful folkyness"
typical of "a free and open expression of a technique". She
recognizes this habit in her own work: "often I just start out and
go where it takes me design-wise and colorwise. When I'm done with the
latter ones I can see things I didn't know I was putting in and I had no
intention to suggest, they just happened." She also confirmed
with another rug historian the date needlepunching was introduced.
I shared Jamar's comments and my
own thoughts on the owners' most recent statements (summarized below)
with the owners and the others to whom they had sent their email. In
the sections below, the owners' statements appear in block quotes.
Jamar's remarks on
needlepunching are corroborated by Helene Von Rosenstiel in American
Rugs and Carpets from the 16th Century to Modern Times (1978,
William Morrow & Co., New York). Von Rosenstiel describes the first
punch needle, developed by Ebenezer Ross, "...who had devised a
new "Novelty Rug Machine"....This was the earliest of the
punch-hooks, adapted to use either narrow-cut rags or yarns....In the
early 20th century, the old craft of rug-hooking became a fairly
widespread cottage industry throughout the eastern United States and
The author includes pictures
of ads for both Ross's first punch needle, patented on December 27,
1881, and for his second model, patented a decade later.
|The US Patent Office database
reaches back to 1795. A search for needlepunch rugmaking tools
revealed that no patents for such tools were issued before 1881, but
dozens of such tools were patented thereafter. Most patents were issued
between 1885-1890, suggesting inventors were capitalizing on a new trend
in crafting. If the technology used to produce it was not
available until 1881, how can the owners' rug date to c.1850?
It is a well know [sic]
fact that hooked rugs were quite difficult to translate into symbols
visually on their surfaces. As a result, it is difficult to obtain the
intended "picture" which often is blurry and questionable
what was really intended in the designs. This is the designing flaw of
these types of primitive rugs.
includes several examples of antique hooked rugs. Are the images
"blurry"? Is it "questionable what was really intended in
The first needlepunch rugmaking
picture to see the patent.)
It might be believed
that the vegetable-dyed yarns might have been introduced and
reminiscent of similar items introduced in the North, has nothing to
do with telling us about surfacing examples such as the rug in
question. Especially if they happen to have originated in the South.
It is hard to discern what
the owners are trying to say here, but as Ms. Jamar and many other
textile historians have noted, vegetable-dyed wool was common in rural
areas well into the 20th century, particularly in the South.
A common misconception
is present here when an assumption is made that 19th Century
African-Americans only may used [sic] cut strips from wool fabrics
because they were probably deprived of socioeconomic access and time
to use spun woolen yarn. This has little basis in reality and is
simply not true. Not only were these items probably readily available
but not uncommon even with slaves in the antebellum south. The idea of
depriving slaves of common items such as these are now recognized as a
belief rather than factual. (New Archeological studies have shed light
much on this fact).
While it would be interesting
to see how "new Archelogical studies" have "shed light
much" on the standard of living of the average slave that
contradicts first-person narratives, the question is moot: as has
already been pointed out, the technique of yarn needlepunching with
which the owners' rug is made has not been shown to date from before
Feed Sack is also a term
that doesn't mean "Chicken Feed Sack" it was a fabric with
many uses that started showing up more regularly in the 1850's and not
just after the Civil War. It would have been more common near railroad
routes of this time period.
Although 20th century housewives
recycled feedsacks in many ways, the word "feedsack" describes
not a "type of fabric with many uses" but a fabric sack. Pat Nickols notes that sacks of the early and mid-19th century were often linen, which was supplanted by cotton as that crop grew in importance. Bemis
Bag Company (founded 1858) claims to be the country's first producer of
commercial sacks, but Bemis was preceded a decade earlier by the firm owned by Henry Chase, whose improvements to the Morley and Johnson chainstitch sewing machine quickly and inexpensively producing the strong seam a sack required. Both Bemis and Chase used cotton
fabric, but during the Civil War, because of the interruption in
cotton production, Bemis introduced jute sacks (commonly known as
"gunny sacks") - what we now call burlap. Such sacks were used
from everything from coffee to cotton, and were often recycled for use
as the foundation for hooked rugs, although other fabrics continued to
be used by those well-off enough to afford them. Since burlap, made from
jute, was not in general use in the US until the middle of the 19th
made with a burlap foundation must date from after that date, but rugs (such as the one in question) with a foundation
of another fabric may date from any time at all; the fabric could be decades old.
Also this was not a
bedcovering!!!! A bed rug was a quite common item to travel with as an
extra cloth for whatever might be needed (i.e. cover a draft on a
window or on the feet). It was not the size of a bed!
Jessie Marshall, literally
the woman who wrote the book on the history of bed rugs (Bed Rugs:
18th and Early 19th Century Embroidered Bed Covers), thinks
otherwise. Ms. Marshall wrote me that based on the size, technique used
(needlepunch rather than crewel embroidery) and design, the owner's
textile does not appear to be a bed rug, and adds that "If you
would recommend them reading my book on bed rugs they would realize that
what they have is probably not a bed rug."
Such remarks - from people
whose life work involves the study and restoration of hooked rugs and
bedrugs, and documentary evidence of the history of the tool needed to
make the owners' textile - raise significant doubts about the owners'
claim that this is a bedrug dating from before the Civil War.
But here [sic] are so
few examples of anything like this from the South, that it could be
argued strongly that no one has a clear understanding of textile
creation in the south as far as African-American items are concerned.
(this is because of several economic factors in the deep south that
can't be denied). My point is that the period examples that can be
drawn from for comparisons are just not there. Maybe in the better
document [sic] north, but not in the south.
Nothing could be further from
the truth. Among other things, of 585 documented African American quilts
in American museums, at least two dozen date before 1865, and more than
a hundred from between 1865-1949. Almost all originated in, and
remain in, the South.
There is also a
tremendous miscommunication and knowledge of many African-American
crafts, symbols and textile creations. Anyone, "expert" or
others, claiming anything to the contrary is just not facing facts or
the lack thereof.
There is indeed much
misunderstanding of African-American crafts - primarily in the subtly
racist presumption that an object's maker can
easily be determined just by looking at it. Studies of
Southern and African-American textiles have shown that, despite the recent marketing of
modern "Afrocentric" designs, before the 1960s a craftswoman's
aesthetic is as much a product of socioeconomics and region as race. For
example, the "plain" quilts made before WWII by poor
white women in the Ozarks are virtually indistinguishable from those
made by blacks in Gee's Bend during the same period; "fancy"
turn-of-the-century quilts made by better-off women of both races tend
to be similar as well.
If every item that
surfaced was judged on provenances than [sic] we hardly have anything to
The very first question an
historian or appraiser asks of an object - and the easiest to answer -
is "Where was it found?" In any case, we are not talking about
"every item," but this particular one. It seems strange
that the owners omit entirely from their website and query (the venues
they control) any information about where and how it was acquired.
Did the family member (an antique dealer) who bought it at a yard sale
not ask for the rug's history, or even notice the seller's race?
Could the owners not go back to that home and inquire?
None of the four books the
owners cite discusses rugmaking.
Their primary source
appears to be Hidden in Plain View.
Stitched from the Soul:
Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South
was written by a folklorist, not a textile historian. Its only
mention of the Underground Railroad and textile signals is a
passing, unsourced reference to Log Cabin quilts, and the only rug
in the book is braided.
To my knowledge, no
reference to any sort of "code" in quilts or rugs or any
tangible object appears anywhere in Blockson's compilation of slave
narratives, nor for that matter in any of the hundreds of known
- Of John Michael Vlach's The
Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts, the publisher itself
says it is "a survey...by no means the last word on the subject
of traditional Afro-American art and craft. Rather, it will provide
inspiration..." Vlach never mentions rugs. Only three of
the 18 quilts pictured date before the 1930s (Powers's two c.1890
Bible quilts and one c.1910 sampler, maker unknown); most date from
If I have learned one
thing about this subject it is that a lot of people are not admitting
the obvious....There is much to keep learning about and keeping our
mind open about here....There is a lot of poorly based and learned
knowledge out there so we have to take the"experts" with a
grain of salt.
As for the textile
expert and others we have shown it to, I would have to compile the
list which I will not do presently in this email. I agree this is a
critical point. It seems to have passed every test so far....Whatever
the origin and date of this rug is, it will continued to be shown to a
variety of the best individuals we can find around the country.
Since the very first textile
experts people I asked found the owners' claims wanting, and more than
one museum has turned the owners away, it would seem "every
test" has not indeed been passed. One wonders why the
owners' first step was not to obtain a written appraisal from a
reputable textile historian specializing in such articles, and why they
are unable or unwilling to give the name of the person they say dated
the rug to 1850. If the rug cannot be shown to be from the period
claimed, then any other assertion about its place of origin, the maker's
race, the Underground Railroad, or whether it lay on a bed or a floor is
The drinking gourd is
clearly present. (there is a flower type item on the rug which my be
what Leigh is talking about). This is as good a depiction of the
dipper as I have ever seen! A quail or a similar type item is also
If more than one person says
no such image can be seen, how can the owners describe it as
"clearly present"? Is the quail a quail, or a "similar
type item"? Is it there, or isn't it?
The rug in question is
covered with all types of symbols whether you choose to see them or
not. And they are definitely open to some debate....I was especially
perplexed with the fact that some "experts" looked at this
piece and claimed no African-American affiliation while other
knowledgeable individuals were 100% sure that it was. Who is right?
In a single email, the owners
insist the images are "clearly present"; a few sentences later
they are visible only if the viewer "chooses" to see
them. The owners claim the rug has "passed every test",
then say "some 'experts'" clearly disagree with their
assessment. Which is it? Are the images plainly visible to
all (presumably a basic requirement for a signal flag), or discernible
only by those who "choose" to see them? If they
have been turned away by more than one museum, how has the rug
"passed every test"?
How much does a desire for
such symbols to exist, and for the maker to have been black, play into
what the owners "see"? The owners say "several groups
have offered to purchase" the rug, but that they want to find
" a facility where it can be adequately preserved and made
available for research and viewing". The rug's value, both
monetarily and in professional prestige, is many times greater if it is
an antebellum, slave made, "coded" rug than if it is just a
nice common turn-of-the-century rug whose origin is unknown. Can what
the owners "choose" to see remain unaffected by this?
The owners sent me several
more emails. None addressed even one of the questions raised, but all
threatened to hold me "liable" - apparently for pointing others
to their website.
A "Seat of Great
The Magazine: Antiques
is a glossy, monthly publication filled with serious articles on high-ticket
antiques and art objects; an air of legitimacy infuses every page. Among
the articles on "Nineteenth-century paintings" and "Seventeenth-
and eighteenth-century silver" in the January 2005 issue appears a lavish, two-page
advertisement; the magazine's standard charge for such space is around $10,000. The subject: "A SEAT OF GREAT
on a photo to enlarge it.
supersize and see detail, click on a photo; then hold
your cursor over the lower right corner of the
enlargement to reveal the "yellow box" icon.
Click on that icon.
Described as "perhaps the most important African American
artifact yet discovered," the chair, says the text, displays
...an astounding fusion of West
African and African American iconography suggesting an unbroken chain of noble
Akan lineage, encoding their most sacred secrets: including a star map to
freedom. Forensic evidence suggests a history of three separate and successive
(An "enstoolment" is the
Akan version not of a chair or stool, but of the ceremony we would call a coronation.) A link to the dealer's
website appeared in the magazine ad. The site featured one item: the chair.
Click on the "Soul
of a Nation" link (screenshot here)
, and the website declares:
American Chair (Stool) achieves the remarkable transference of an entire body
of West African culture, religion, cosmology, and the methods employed to
safeguard these traditions within the hostile new world of American slavery.
An understanding of the Akan-Ashanti sacred stools and their paramount
importance in West African culture will assist in the comprehension of their
only known American counterpart. The device, in its nearly untouched original
condition, provides a treasure trove of forensic and interpretive data
relative to the secret and forbidden underground webworks of early African
encouraged the viewer to check back for information on research and
publication by "national and international
institutions, scholars and journalists".
The chair was
brought to my attention by a client with an extensive collection of American
folk art. To her it looked like a nice, simple 19th century ladderback chair; she
thought the cushion, which had a cat embroidered it, was "sort of
cute", but was puzzled by the ad's claims. I was puzzled too.
Akan stools appear in this 1876 stereoview of the
display at Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition.
|The chair's embroidered cat motif was remarkably similar to those seen in other household textiles from 1890-1920, particularly in Pennsylvania and New England.
And everything I'd read about Akan stools indicated that each was
carved from a single piece of wood, shared a common basic form
(a slightly crescent-shaped, usually backless seat set on a
column which rested on a stepped, platform base), and rarely
incorporated textiles. I also found that to the Akan, a
stool is a very personal object, believed to contain the
owner's soul - so personal, in fact, that when a man dies, his
stool is retired
to a special shrine. The object in the
magazine ad had four legs, no apparent symbolic carving, and a
seat cushion, and was claimed to have been used in three
separate "enstoolments." And it did not have
the carving and nailhead embellishment of the Akan four-legged
chairs called asipim and konkromfi. Who,
we wondered, had determined that the chair in the ad was a
royal Akan American "seat of great authority" - and
To find out
more, I emailed the dealer, located on Virginia's "Delmarva" peninsula, and asked a colleague to do the same. Kate Clifford
Larson also contacted him. Larson is the author of Bound for the
Promised Land, a highly-acclaimed
biography of Harriet Tubman,
and is the consultant for the
National Park Service’s Harriet Tubman
Special Resource Study. She also serves on the advisory board of the Historic
Context on the Underground Railroad in Delaware for the Underground Railroad
Coalition of Delaware - the very region where the chair is claimed to
originate. What follows is a compilation of our conversations and
correspondence with the dealer.
The dealer (who
may also have been the chair's owner - this was never quite clear) replied to my colleague with the following email:
I will refer you
to The Magazine ANTIQUES (January 2005) for another concise
description and more detailed photographs of the African
American Chair (STOOL) As the info. on the website suggests
one would need to appreciate the significance of West
African sacred Stools to understand the multi-dimensional
integrated communication involved. More strictly speaking
the chair and all three of its needle worked coverings are a
single documentary device, specific to time, person and
place. The icons you see flashing on and off on the website
are all on the second covering. The cat covering is the
first and the third is not pictured on the site but you will
see it in the magazine. A detailed presentation has been
given at the National Geographic Society in Washington and a
feature article will appear in that publication September
2005. Through the dimensions of form, color, number, texture
and juxtaposition whole bodies of sacred esoteric
information is being communicated. It is an ancient method
of passing down sacred knowledge....
To me, he wrote
only that there was "far too much going on regarding the chair (stool) to put
it all in an e-mail" so asked me to phone him. Larson did so as
well. In both conversations he seemed at once
reluctant to discuss the chair in detail and unable to resist the urge to do so.
After I identified myself, he told me he was good friends with the Keno Brothers
(of Antiques Roadshow fame), lectured at Colonial Williamsburg, and owned
"the biggest antiques restoration company in the country," "in
business for four generations." He
asked what I knew on the subject, explaining that he didn't want to discuss
things I couldn't understand. Then he began a remarkable one-hour description of
the chair, asking early on whether I might have a buyer for it. He
variously said the chair is insured for $5 million or $6.2 million; because of
its historical importance, he
hopes the buyer would agree to make it available for at least a year for further
study and documentation. The dealer said that he knows Hidden in Plain
View author Raymond Dobard personally, but while he thinks Dobard is
"on to something", he believes that the chair will "prove some
things about the [quilt] 'Code' and disprove others". Ozella (Tobin's source for the "Code") is "too far removed" to know the "Code" accurately - hence the importance of the chair.
In each conversation the dealer
emphasized that the chair had been "vetted" through various
"authorities and universities" which he declined to name. He
said a "detailed presentation" on the chair was given to the National
Geographic Society in Washington, and that it will be featured in the September
2005 issue of National Geographic Magazine, which he said is presently doing
follow-up research and taking photographs. When I asked him to assign a date to
the chair he declined, then said it "could be as early as 1788".
He later offered to Larson that it had been authenticated by
Virginia's Chrysler Museum of Art as a typical c.1780-1840 ladderback chair from
the Delmarva peninsula. He said that Colonial Williamsburg is doing the textile
research and would soon present "an extensive writing on it" (although
when asked later to confirm who was performing the fiber analysis or to detail
exactly what Williamsburg was doing, he "didn't want to talk about
that"). Since the chair is a post-Colonial, non-Williamsburg piece, I
wondered why Colonial Williamsburg would be involved. He explained it is
because Colonial Williamsburg is so well-funded and because although the chair
dates from the early 19th century its style classes it as
"Colonial". Most important, it would be a real tourist draw.
African-American items are "hot" right now, he said, and Colonial
Williamsburg does not have much in the way of such artifacts.
He became circumspect when I asked whether he knew anything
about the original owner, and said he was "not
going into that". I clarified that my interest concerned not who had
legal ownership of the chair but the chair's origins, and he answered that he knew nothing other than that it
was bought not long ago by its previous owner (recently deceased at age 45) in a $2 boxlot
at a local auction. He has not asked the auction house where that lot
originated. He told Larson, however, that the chair was acquired from an
unknown black person. Wherever it came from, and although he admits to
having limited experience with antique textiles of any sort, as an "an
expert in esoteric and underground" culture with "knowledge of ancient
texts," as soon as he saw the chair, the dealer "knew what it was. You
take what you believe and then pursue it."
He said that when the previous owner
acquired the chair, the cushion was covered with "13 layers of 19th century
cotton calico," an indication, he says, of the chair's importance. The
former owner was, he said, knowledgeable enough to have removed them with care. Inside
those 13 layers were found three successive covers executed in needlework of
various types. He said that there is "nothing which suggests [the
needlework cushion covers] couldn't be 18th century" although they
"may not be", but finally stated he believes the newest of the 3
worked covers was made no later than 1840. Proof that the "enstoolments"
took place, he claims, is that each layer of fabric on the cushion was covered
while it was still in good condition. Why else would someone recover and
refinish a chair in good condition, the dealer asks, unless it was for an "enstoolment"?
The dealer refused to answer any
questions about dyes, yarn twists, or fibers used - the fundamentals of textile
analysis. Instead, he repeatedly referred to "testing the
chair's DNA", giving great importance to chemically analyzing the
smoke he says was used to darken the chair in order to identify the kind of wood
used for the fire. When asked whether he had shown the cushions to anyone in the
quilt or textile history world and what their thoughts were, he said their opinions on it are "very
diverse" and refused to give the name of anyone he consulted, finally
dismissing them with the remark that "that crowd's pre-bias is so
strong." He also said he was not interested in having the
Smithsonian look at it because he "has a problem with
|The cat cover
The oldest of the worked covers can
be seen in pictures of the chair. It depicts a cat (a "symbol of
cleansing and purity") in what the dealer described as a
"carefully-executed open X pattern" (which further questioning
revealed to be counted cross-stitch), worked in black wool with red background
on a base of "jute feedsack".
The cat cover from the ad.
Click to enlarge.
When informed that jute
("gunny") sacks were not in general use in the US until the Civil War,
he said he didn't really know if the fiber was jute, but was using the word for
convenience because "that's what our upholsterer calls that kind of
fabric". He then said the fabric was stamped with the name of a
town in England which had a textile mill for just 20 years in the late 18th
century, helping to date the fabric. He would not state the name of the
town or the source of his information because "it took a long time to
research," but "that's the only thing that stamp could indicate
because it's an unusual name." Compare the cat embroidery with c.1910-20 New England examples here.)
The brickworks cover
brickworks cover from the ad, containing the "snakes
with eyes". Click to enlarge. See
detail of "snakes" from the ad here.
|The next-oldest layer is made from
rectangles of dark wool suiting fabric in a brick-like pattern with seams
embellished with featherstitching - identical to a type of quilt common in the
1900-20 period, when women collected tailor sample books for the purpose. (The
dealer said the "color juxtaposition" was significant and that a West
African scholar had suggested that computer imaging be used to determine the
original colors of the fabrics, which was critical to their analysis.)
typical of quilts of that period and style are the embroideries on some blocks: a spider web,
a cross, an anchor and a dollar sign. About this the owner promptly
corrected me, saying that the dollar sign was "Masonic snakes with
eyes," adding that he had carefully counted the "chain links" (chainstitches)
from which they were made because the number of "links" is
The anchor, he said, was not the common maritime symbol (also used
by Christians to signify faith). He would not say what the "snakes" or other symbols
meant, but vaguely referred to Masonic symbols and black Masons in Delmarva,
noting that "a major book release" about the symbols' meaning would
soon take place. (I understand Tobin, author of Hidden in Plain View, is
attempting to write a book on the "quilt code" and the Masons.)
He observed that the red paint, which he called "blood wash" and said
was significant, had dripped onto this cover. To him this not only indicates the
cover was contemporaneous with the chair being painted with "blood
wash"; it is evidence of the chair's important ritual symbolism. Every time
a new leader was "enstooled," he said, the chair was redone.
(Strangely this is not the practice among the Akan.)
The "star map"
One of the last two layers ( it was
never clear which) contains what the dealer called a "star map". This
is not pictured in the ad or on the website. The
stated in two separate conversations that when carefully studied the
"map" points right to where Harriet Tubman lived in central New York.
When he was told by Dr. Larson that Tubman did not live in the house until
1861 - more than two decades after he says the cushion was made - the dealer
backpedaled, saying that he did not mean to imply that is what the signs
show. In a later conversation,
the dealer claimed it was "just coincidental" that the "map"
pointed to where Tubman lived. When asked why he then would mention
Tubman's name at all in connection with the chair, he said that Tubman "came from the same
culture". He also explained that the "map" contains the North Star
because to escape from the peninsula "you can't just go due north, you have
to follow the North Star" (except for satellite purposes, the North star is "due
north") and that this path is the only way for slaves to escape the
peninsula (which Dr. Larson says is known to be untrue). I asked why an escaping slave would have to be told by a map
that to go north, he should follow the North Star. The dealer replied that the map had
different levels of meaning and that because it was on what in effect was a
royal throne, it was at least in part symbolic.
The crazy cover
To the textile or quilt historian,
the outer, newest layer looks like typical late 19th-early 20th century, mainstream
American crazy piecing in wool with decorative embroidery on the seams. Not so,
says the dealer; it is "absolutely African-American," and he has
documented that the shapes are not random but have "deep roots in West
|Since this layer, he says, dates to 1840 or before,
this "revolutionizes the whole idea of crazy quilts." Moreover,
describing himself as an
"expert in ancient texts," the dealer says he has determined that the embroidered seams of the
crazy-patch cushion cover are in fact Akan (or Adinkra) writing, which he said
he confirmed with an unnamed person who is " the only expert in Akan
writing in the US." (This seems surprising. Akan is the native
language of 44% of Ghanaians, more than 43,000 of whom immigrated
to the US since 1980.)
chair's crazy quilt
cover (above) is identical to early 20th century
crazy quilts such as one known to have been made by a
white woman in 1930 (left). But the dealer claims the
chair's cover was made before 1840, and that the
readable Adinkra/Akan writing.
When asked how Akan writing could
appear on a 19th century Virginia object, the dealer claimed that significant
numbers of Akan slaves had been transported to the Chesapeake during that
period. Dr. Larson has researched this subject extensively, and states that while ships of enslaved Akan from
Africa did drop anchor in the Chesapeake Bay, the region already had a surplus
of slaves, so they were immediately transported to the deep south. No evidence
exists of an Akan presence of any note in the region where the chair was
Even more astonishing: the
dealer claims his expert can read the "Akan writing".
would not tell me what the writing says.)
Malcolm-Woods One of just two "experts" Smith would name is
Malcolm-Woods, a Virginia abstract painter and self-described "Africanist" who
at the time was a visiting assistant professor in
the Cinema & Photography department at Southern Illinois University.
Smith told Larson that Malcolm-Woods is the "expert" he consulted on the "writing," but although
Malcolm-Woods was among the names he gave to me, he told me she is not his "writing" expert - only that she "has seen things like this
before." Malcolm-Woods neither confirmed or denied
claims to have found "a system of graphics that to the outsider looks like a decorative
design....in African American quilts as early as 1750". (italics mine)
But she is best known for her 2005 doctoral dissertation
claiming to have found an African-American cemetery in
northern Virginia whose engravings were nsibidi writing used by African secret societies - in
her words , "the only examples of an unadulterated cultural link to Africa."
The main marking on the gravestones is a rectangular symbol with two circles that Malcolm- Woods thinks signifies a journey. Other inscribed symbols on the slates are a star-like design that she believes means unity and a flower image that may signify two men
loving the same woman. Several stones are blank. Two have words inscribed.
Such a discovery would have been the first of
its kind. But it appears Malcolm-Woods simply presumed the dead were African-American
despite serious doubts expressed by the archaeologists she
consulted and even though the stones bear an uncanny resemblance
to parts of a late 19th century slate mantlepiece. (In fact,
she observes that a factory making such mantlepieces operated in
Malcolm-Woods transcribes only one of the two
headstones inscribed with names and dates, concluding that the
interred is the wife of a white man named Samuel Downey and stating that although
he appears in
census records, his wife is nowhere to be found. Ignoring
information to the contrary from a variety of sources,
Malcolm-Woods decides Mrs. Downey must have been black.
But Samuel's wife Susan does indeed appear in census
records, right below his name. Those same records confirm her
birth and death dates, and describe her and her children as white. Census records also
suggest, as Malcolm-Woods was told by
a Downey descendant, that Susan was related to the farmer/laborer Wood family,
who for generations owned the land where the cemetery is located.
The Wood family also is white.
antebellum Igbo graveyard with Nsibidi engravings is most probably
the late 19th century burial ground of the Wood family, and whose headstones were
fashioned from parts of a locally-manufactured slate mantlepiece.
For an expanded
discussion of Malcolm-Woods's "Igbo"cemetery, click here.
Nibley The only other "expert" Smith named is Hugh Nibley, whom he described as "a teacher of Comparative
Studies." Nibley, who died in 2005 at the age of 94, was for many years the Mormon Church's chief expert in
ancient writing, but is criticized not only
by other Biblical scholars but even by his
fellow Mormon academics for methodology so poor one Mormon scholar describes
it as "work[ing]
from the conclusions to the evidence".
In 1980 Nibley was brought in by
church elders to examine the "Anthon transcript", a document
covered with hieroglyphics which its owner, dealer Mark Hofmann, said was Mormon founder Joseph Smith's own copy of the characters found
on the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. After
examining it, Nibley stated that "This offers as good a test as
we'll ever get as to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon...Of course it's
translatable." According to the Provo Herald, "Nibley
also said he counted at least two dozen out of 47 characters in the Demotic
alphabet that could be given phonetic value. 'This offers as good a test as
we'll ever get. Nobody could have faked those characters. It would take 10
minutes to see that this is fake.' " The Herald
checked with Nibley again to see if he remained confident. Said Nibley, "I
still say just what I said before. It can be translated.' The LDS bought
the document for $20K.
The Anthon transcript was the
first of many such rare documents which the LDS bought over the next few years
from Hofmann, culminating in an 1830 letter from
Mormon witness Martin Harris stating that Joseph Smith claimed when he
went to get the gold plates for the Book of Mormon, a 'white salamander' in
the bottom of the hole 'transfigured himself' into a 'spirit' and 'struck me 3
times.' Commonly referred to as the "white salamander letter",
the document's controversial statements caused a
flutter in the Mormon hierarchy, who arranged to buy it from the dealer. Then
things went awry; two people who had raised suspicions about Hofmann
ended up brutally murdered.
Hofmann was convicted of the murders in
1986. He has since admitted to them, confirming that his motive
was to keep anyone from finding out that all the
documents he had sold the LDS were forgeries - including the Anthon transcript,
whose writing Nibley had said "nobody could have faked". Hofmann
had written the "hieroglyphics" on an endpaper torn from an old book
he found in the LDS
library, then aged the paper with peroxide and a hot iron. Authors
Jerald and Sandra Tanner observed, "That Dr. Nibley could see ancient
Egyptian characters on a document that actually contained the doodlings of
Mark Hofmann throws a cloud of doubt over all his work."
Smith holds Nibley's expertise in high regard.
Responses from the Chrysler Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, and National Geographic
I contacted Gary Baker,
Decorative Arts curator of the Chrysler Museum, who told me the museum does not
authenticate objects, but does provide opinions. To prevent such opinions
from later being misrepresented, the museum keeps a copy of the opinion with the
recipient's signature on it. Bauer said he personally did not see the chair, had
never heard of Smith, and could not find anybody else at the museum who
had. I phoned Smith for an explanation. He told me Larson is "a liar",
insisting that he had instead told her that the authenticator was Gordon
Lohr, who wrote a
book on 18th century furniture published by the Chrysler Museum. Later in that same conversation he said
Lohr did not
in fact authenticate it, but that after personally inspecting the chair had
only given his "opinion" that it was a typical ladderback chair from the Delmarva
Peninsula, c.1780-1840. A few minutes later Smith said there was no
difference between "authentication" and an "opinion", and that my
attempt to clarify which he meant showed my complete ignorance of antiques.
Gordon Lohr wrote me that he had "only seen photographs" of
the chair, which to him "appears to relate to other ladderback
chairs from the Eastern Shore, circa 1820-70." He added that
"It's an interesting chair; however, at his price, I don't know
where you would go with it."
Larson spoke with Linda Baumgarten, the Curator of Textiles at Colonial Williamsburg, who stated
that Williamsburg is not interested in the chair, and that they had voted to decline doing any chemical analysis of the fabrics because
they all agreed that not only the fabrics, but the stitching and pattern, were
probably 1880 and later - certainly post-Civil War. Baumgarten was very
skeptical of Smith's claims. She said one of her assistants may
decide to do the analysis privately, but that Williamsburg would not be
involved, and that Smith had been informed of their decision. When
asked for an explanation why his claims about Williamsburg's interest and
participation differed from what the museum's own textiles curator had stated, Smith again said Larson was lying; "obviously" nobody had talked to Linda
Larson contacted National
Geographic, and was told that nobody in the Research Department had heard of the
chair or Smith. A Research Department member than called Larson
to obtain more information; Patrick McGeehan, a research correspondent for the magazine,
then phoned to confirm they
could not find anyone who knew anything about the story. When asked for an explanation, Smith said it was obvious I was lying, because "you cannot just up
and call National Geographic". He reasserted his claims, still refusing to
give the name of any NG staffer because "you'll harrass them".
Finally he revealed his contact was Shelley Sperry, whose title he did not know,
explaining that "everybody there wears a lot of hats". He "didn't want to give details,"
but it appeared he or others initially contacted
the magazine about the chair, and Sperry eventually returned the call.
What he described as a
"presentation to the National Geographic Society" turned out to be the
dealer's presentation to Ms. Sperry alone. Smith said this "was the same
thing" because "do you know how big the National Geographic Society
Before Larson could call National
Geographic again, she received a call from Sperry herself, who said she
is on the magazine's research staff. Sperry said that while Smith had
discussed an article on the chair with her, nothing firm had ever been
established; she was still checking his story. She had not been informed of Colonial
Williamsburg's decision or of Lohr's opinion. It was her impression Smith had no background in textiles, Akan stools, or the history of slavery,
escape, and the Underground Railroad in the region the chair is supposed to be
from, and that his claims might be the product of wishful
Epilogue: The $5 Million "Enstoolment" Goes to Auction
In January 2006 Smith consigned
the chair with Brunk Auctions, a North Carolina auctioneer, who
listed it on Ebay
Live with 20 detailed photographs and an opening bid of
$15,000. It also appears in the Brunk online
catalog. All but one of the other auction descriptions are
about 200 words long and contain nothing more than dimensions,
condition, and provenance. The description for the chair is
nearly three times longer, and very detailed:
392 -- Maple ladder-back side chair, retaining its original
three-layer patchwork seat cover over a rush seat and a dry, old
surface, probably African-American, Delmarva Peninsula, 19th
century, 37-1/2 x 18 x 13-3/4 in. Surface accretion of early
pigments and finishes, wear and minor abrasions to surface, seat
covering with stains, repairs, loose stitches and wear, top two
layers detached. Estimate: $30,000 - $60,000 Literature: The
Magazine Antiques, January 2005, two-page color
research into the history, surface and symbolic devices of this
chair suggest that it is an African-American secret society
chair. The three successive needlework seat coverings, each
loosely stitched or tied to the seat frame, possess both
stylistic and forensic characteristics highly suggestive of a
secret society function. This example presents an array of
numerical, symbolic and interrelated design features associated
with esoteric mnemonic devices. The predominant use of the
esoteric number “three” is presented as follows: three seat
coverings arranged on a three-stepped, three-rung ladder-back
chair. The middle or central covering is arranged as follows:
three sets of symbols with three icons in each set; three linear
symbols utilize three lines each; three figurative icons; three
twelve-pointed stars aligned up the middle with the third star
hidden. The central covering is constructed with 26 patches and
in presentation would conceal the 27th or primal covering. The
number 27 (27=3 x 3 x 3) being highly important in esoteric
numerology representing the greatest secret, i.e., “secrecy
itself”. The outer covering, or so-called “crazy quilt”,
represents the same function as the outer structure of esoteric
groups, i.e., to cover, hide or give an otherwise meaningless
front to the order. The final or third covering (the 27th
square), is a black cat on a red background executed in an
open-lattice relief pattern or an “X” pattern. This pattern
is common in West African stools, granary doors, and
particularly in royal robes and headdresses. The cat is
associated with female purification societies and executed with
the “X” relief pattern suggests at least a claim of royal
connections. The three figurative icons on the central covering
are the most blatantly West African. The spider (Ananse, the
creator of the cosmos and dominant figure in Akan folk tales),
the spider web (literally the cosmos itself), and the wheel
(congress or authoritative gathering, also found on
African-American gravestones). The three-lined symbols also have
strong West African connections, the most obvious being that of
primal male and female (the embedded sword and mother’s
cradle). The most enigmatic is the three entwined snakes in the
appearance of a dollar sign. The $ symbol was also used in early
slave-holding account books to denote slave value. The chair
surface was redecorated after the application of each covering
with the final being a blackening in the West African tradition.
The central covering seems to have been applied soon after the
first covering (cat) with little evidence of fading to this
primal covering. When the central covering was displayed, the
wood surface was decorated in red (possibly a red blood wash).
Given the chromatic and symbolic complexity of the central
covering, this would have produced quite a stunning effect.
Overall, the entire device displays a complexity of form,
numerology, color, texture and iconographic juxtaposition which
conveys a consistent spectrum of cosmology, religion, and
specific organic esoteric information. Extensive research and
technical analysis of the chair and its covering are available
layers of "19th century calico" apparently were either
not included in the auction, or not deemed worthy of
mention.) Auctioneer Andrew Brunk stated that while his firm
"stand[s] behind our cataloging of the chair as a 19th
century ladder back side chair [emphasis added] - as to its
importance and interpretation, we leave that up to
bidders." Brunk said that Smith was "very
forthright" that "opinions" about the chair
"vary widely", and therefore before bidding started, it
would be announced that "there is disagreement about the
interpretation of the chair and its importance, and bidders can
make their own assessments and conclusions."
Brunk graciously mailed me copies of the "extensive
research" referred to in the auction description; I received
it 1/9/2006. It consists of the following (email
me for scans):
of what appears to be a presentation on the chair.
of images of five African wood and bronze sculptures (unidentified
as to source) in which the dealer says appear the "open xxx
pattern," "embedded sword" and "spider
web" motifs he finds on the chair; plus a photocopy of one of
the gravestones Malcolm-Woods claims is African-American.
of webpage articles:
section from another on "The
Akan Group," in which the third paragraph of that
section is highlighted, and refers to who owned the Akan stool
and its importance.
summary of textile history from a vintage clothing
website. Nothing highlighted.
- A portion of another
paper concerning the Akan
concept of libation. The following is highlighted:
Generally the 'abusuapanyin'
(the family head) performs libation for the family and the
senior male member of the royal family officiates at the stool
the dealer refers to the chair's red color as a "blood
wash," the author of this article explicitly states (in
the paragraph right below the one highlighted by the dealer)
that "Blood is never used in libation."
short article from The Magazine: Antiques (undated),
on which the dealer has written "encoded decorative arts.
The chain link symbol". The article concerns the meaning
of the Latin motto on an 18th century Chinese export bowl; the
author believes the motto refers to King George III.
Pediatric Aids Foundation webpage on "The
Meaning of Colors". The site's purpose is to
encourage quilters to make quilts for children suffering from
AIDS. The site gives no source for the meanings it
provides. Nothing highlighted.
list of Akan symbols and their meanings from the website of a company
that manufactures doors. Nothing highlighted.
- A page on the "Origin
and history of the word 'dollar' and dollar sign".
The dealer has highlighted the section entitled "The
Slave Theory," which reads:
There have been
claims that the dollar symbol, $, is derived from the words for
"slave" and "nail" in Spanish (or in Latin,
according to one version of this theory that posits an earlier
date for the invention of the symbol). The shackles worn by
slaves could be locked by a nail which was passed through the
rings or loops at the ends of the shackle and bent while it was
still hot and malleable. The Spanish for slave is esclavo and
for "nail" is clavo. Therefore the "S" with
a nail, $, or S-clavo = esclavo or slave. Slaves constituted a
store of wealth and as a result the abbreviation for slaves that
slave-owners used in their account books came to represent
Smith has not highlighted
the sentence that follows it, in which the author observes:
This seems like the
kind of explanation that would be popular with conspiracy
The dollar sign can
be drawn with one pillar or two. As one Freemason explained to
me, thinking I was "a member of the craft": the two
pillars represent pillars of Solomon's Temple; the S figure is
"the snake of Solomon." In the case of the single
pillar dollar sign, we are looking at the snake which is
superimposed upon The Tree of Knowledge.
The author of the website then refers
to the Bible as "the jew-book" and concludes with this
The only people who
benefit from debt-based currency are the jews and their Zionist
stooges. No nation can tolerate such a money system and survive,
for it means sacrificing self-rule in exchange for alien
slavery. OUR RACE IS OUR NATION!
7, 2006 the chair sold for $1,700.