A lovely, richly colored firescreen has just been conserved at Museum Textile Services, and is a perfect seasonal subject for the MTS Blog as we head into the cold weather. In the 18th and 19th centuries, fireplaces were used constantly to warm the house, bringing bright, hot, roaring fires in the long, dark New England winter. A firescreen protected the faces--and sometimes voluminous clothing--of those sidling up to the fire from its high heat and sparks. For wealthy families, these screens also became lavish decorative objects, stitched and designed with care by the women of the family.
This firescreen was made by Abigail Brooks Adams and is part of the collection of the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. The Adams family produced two presidential couples, John and Abigail Smith and their son and daughter-in-law John Quincy and Louisa Johnson. The third generation of Adams, Charles Francis and Abigail Brooks were also a political power couple, and it was Abigail Brooks Adams who made this beautiful firescreen. You may recall that in 2013 MTS replicated a set of silk bed hangings purchased in France by Abigail and Charles, which we documented in a series of blogs.
From the letters and diaries left behind, it appears the relationship between Abigail and Charles was full of care, affection, and mutual respect. The entry in Charles’ diary from their wedding day on Thursday, September 3rd, 1829, is particularly sweet and humorous-–he clearly had eyes for no one but his Abby.
To conserve the firescreen, we first carefully remove the deteriorated watered-silk lining and gently cleaned all elements with a HEPA micro-vacuum. The beads received additional cleansing using swabs and saliva. We were lucky to find a very good match with modern glass beads, which we stitched into place and secured the neighboring thread ends. A few missing crewel stitches were likewise replaced with modern wool yarns. The lining was encapsulated in magenta nylon net and then we stitched it back in place using cotton thread. We were then able to reuse the ribbon with hook-eyes that the Adams National Historical Park is using to suspend the firescreen from an ornamental brass T-bar.
Preserving the Abigail Adams firescreen has a nice historical echo, paying homage to this beautiful physical artifact left by a woman who herself worked for historical preservation.