2018: Blood Cotton: Legacies of Slavery and Exploitation in the Decorative Textile Industry

Thousands of visitors to the McCarl Gallery have appreciated the beauty and craftsmanship of woven coverlets and the machinery that produced them. Rarely, however, do we stop to consider the high cost, paid in human lives, of 19th century cotton and textile production in the American South and the industry’s dependence on the enslavement of Africans.  Cotton grown in the South fueled the Northern textile mills and the products of those mills were sold within the United States and abroad. Weavers relied on spun cotton thread from these mills and the demand for coverlets and other textiles drove the expansion of Southern slavery. The exhibit will juxtapose the visual magnificence of woven textiles with the inhumane realities of 19th century cotton manufacture. Most of the coverlets chosen for this exhibit were intentionally selected because they have unknown weavers or origins. We chose “unknowns” to reflect the realities of the lives of thousands of unknown men and women whose lives were sacrificed at the expense of the cotton industry and who often remain invisible within the coverlet industry.

2018: Washed and Hung: Laundry and Textiles in America

One of the most hated jobs in the Victorian household was the laundry. Women who could afford to have someone else take on the task did. Laundry work took an enormous amount of energy and physical labor.

In the 1830s, women typically heated their water on an open cooking hearth or the stove. The use of cooking facilities for laundry water meant that kitchen spaces were often unusable for food production on wash day. For middle and working class women, the washday was typically a
once a week task.

This exhibit explores how the arduous task of laundry was done prior to the 21st century. The exhibit features the coverlets of the McCarl Collection, a common household textile of the 19th century as well as laundry artifacts from the Kerr Memorial Museum in Oakmont, Pennsylvania.