It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on Ebay when you have the collector’s itch. I wasn’t REALLY looking for a second civil war era carpet document bag—but there it was. Starting bid? A penny! I looked at the pictures carefully, got a bit excited about the original clasp and the shreds of original lining (I’ve worked up close with four other bags in this style, so I’m getting to know the original details). I got very excited about the bright colors and from the picture, the bag looked clean—THAT’S ALSO VERY IMPORTANT if you are an at home, “collecting for the fun of it” collector.
Is the overall condition important to you? It’s important to me because I don’t have much of a desire (or really much of an ability) to deal with muddy, shredded, bug-eaten fragments of anything—this type of bag is common enough, there really isn’t a reason to spend money on a wrecked example. Even a penny.
I’m still learning with Ebay, which is a funny thing to say when I realize that I’ve made purchases since the first year it started. But I mean that I’m still learning my own best ways of bidding and buying at Ebay. With this bag, I already had a fun example that makes me happy, so this wasn’t a must have. It was a would be nice to have. I thought about the amount of my top bid, and I bid that and stepped away. The end price was half of my top bid and actually less than 50 dollars, if you can believe that! And for that tiny price, I got a colorful example, full of my favorite 19th century Turkey Red worsted wool yarn and an interesting geometric pattern.
This was even more pretty in person than I was expecting, and the seller packed it perfectly–which can also be a challenge on Ebay. Only a handful of sellers mention their packing methods in their listings. A few months ago, an expensive and sort of rare 80 year old doll dress arrived packed in a Frosted Mini Wheats box…a FROSTED MINI WHEATS BOX! I saw it in the driveway (a windy day and I think it blew away from the porch) and I was about to put it in the recycling bin, when I noticed a shipping label on it. The Frosted Mini Wheats shipping cost 6 dollars—the perfect carpet bag shipping was free. So you never know what you might get on Ebay, and you do have to be careful shopping there–if I’d checked out the feedback of the Frosted Mini Wheats lady a bit closer, her clever box recycling efforts would not have been a surprise.
I couldn’t be happier with this bag. One question that comes up for me, after seeing so many of these bags in person: The dimensions, construction and hardware are identical. Are these from the same manufacturer? That’s the sort of quirky “I’m going to find that out someday” question that keeps historians going, I think.
If I ever thought about carpet bags before I became interested in textile history, the object in mind was a large satchel. A dusty flower patterned suitcase that gets loaded onto a stage in an episode of Little House on the Prairie or Dr.Quinn: Medicine Woman.
Carpet bags were a smart way for 19th century carpet factories to use up carpet remnants. Some factories sold these remnants to luggage companies while other carpet companies manufactured their own bags.
Carpet bags were designed in a number of styles. Consumers liked them because the carpet pile was very sturdy and worked well when you wanted something soft and colorful but also strong. Carpet remnants were also used to upholster footstools and folding chairs.This bag belongs to me and it is a document bag (another great Ebay find!) sort of a carpet bag briefcase! This style of bag, with a similar clasp and tape binding was probably produced by a number of companies, but two other examples I’ve seen (at the museum where I work) were each produced by a Massachusetts company: Bagley & Carleton from carpet produced by the Bigelow Carpet Company. The company name was stamped on the lining. These were a common type of bag used around the Civil War time period, but this example was probably a later bag, made around the 1870s or so. My bag shares many design similarities with the Bagley & Carleton document bags, but I think that the lining in my bag was replaced (so there isn’t a manufacturer’s mark) and while I’m dying to know if scraps of the original lining remain under the dark brown cotton fabric, I’ll just have to continue to wonder.
Carpets were woven with wool fiber on linen or jute warps. The Bigelow carpet company specialized in Brussels carpet. Brussels bags have this looped style of woven pile. Another style of carpet called Wilton carpet was a plush carpet created when the loops of the Brussels style were cut during the weaving process. Wilton carpet was also used for carpet bags, but that extra cutting step made it a more expensive option. Those Wilton bags have a velvet look and soft feel. Brussels carpet is (wonderfully!) ‘scritchy’ and bumpy when you touch it.
As a new collector, I have a very small collection of textiles and my budget is the main factor to determine what I will collect. You could say that this bag has great bones. The construction is remarkably intact for its age: It is missing a few small brass hook and eyes and there are just a few spots of bare carpet (that is called weft loss because the wool is used as the weft yarn (the rows that run left to right in a woven fabric while the warps run up and down) The construction is truly “Grade A” But honestly? The color scheme is a bit blah—okay, it is A LOT blah. It might even be described as a bit (gasp!) UGLY and that’s one thing that made this affordable.
There’s a teeny tiny splash of red and green, but the bag is mainly brown. I was really excited to see ANY red or bright green on this bag, considering the low price. Brightly colored examples are usually in the highest demand. If you are buying it for decoration instead of an interest in textile history, you can put it in a room that is inspired by that time period if the bags are bright and pretty enough. The examples at my workplace have great colors, but they are owned by a MUSEUM, so you’d expect that.
The replaced lining on my bag may have also contributed to a lower price, but when I look a little bit closer, the lining has some wear from use, and it was carefully hand stitched so this isn’t the original cream colored linen lining, but it may have been a 19th century repair.
The handle is very interesting. It is also an interesting example of how much we can actually learn from damaged objects and why even damaged objects can be valuable to a museum’s study collection. Months before I purchased my bag, I was cataloguing a document carpet bag at work. That bag has a detached handle and many elements of the bag’s construction are visible. My bag’s handle is intact! There is some wear to the carpet pile from the mysterious 19th Century era person (probably a man) who held and carried it, but it is firmly stitched to the bag on both sides. From just staring at my bag, I would not realize that the handle was produced by wrapping a piece of carpet around a length of jute rope.
I think that buying the best examples that you can afford is a good tip when you are collecting. If you want a carpet bag that is colorful because you are a nut for 19th Century dyes, buy the brightest example that makes you the happiest–even if the overall structure has seen better days. The large sections of bright red wool will make you smile and you might learn interesting things from the “broken” areas. I simply wanted a 19th century Brussels carpet bag because I was really interested in learning more about them after I researched one in our collection at work. I was interested in the most “intact” example that I could afford and the tiny splash of color (because I am a nut for 19th Century dyes) was a bonus.
**I post links to other websites and businesses if there is something interesting or helpful at the site, but I just want to let you know that I do not receive any kind of compensation or revenue if you click on them –Margaret
In the early 1960s, after making dresses for a number of department stores for almost 30 years, including Saks–Ann Lowe moved her business into a workroom and showroom at Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store.
She became the head designer of The Adam Room, a custom boutique specializing in debut and bridal gowns. Some styles were available for purchase “off the rack” but for the most part, a customer’s experience in the Adam Room replicated her experience in Ann Lowe’s own Madison Avenue salon. Lowe’s clients followed her to Saks—in the same way that they would follow her after she left Saks in 1962. Her work made her customers feel beautiful, and while the executives at Saks hoped to move Lowe’s customer base firmly to their store, they were probably quite disappointed when her loyal customers followed her from shop to shop.
This gold and pink silk shantung dress was probably a bridesmaid dress. Bridesmaid dresses usually have uncomplicated designs with a few unique adornments. The braided silk sash is such a pretty detail and it was a simple touch that could be added to a dress quickly. Imagine making six of these!
I was (oh, so very) lucky to find this on Ebay. Yes, EBAY! Ebay is actually a fantastic place to find vintage clothes—if you shop carefully.
While this is a vintage couture dress, and the listing correctly stated that it was an Ann Lowe dress, I was the only bidder…this isn’t the kind of dress someone would buy to actually wear. There are a number of reasons for this and I lucked out because:
Bright yellow is a tough color to wear.
Silk Shantung is heavy! Shantung is a thick silk and this is two layers of it along with a cotton lining.
There were a few condition issues (worn areas of silk in important and very visible areas, like the center of the bodice) some light stain issues, again in visible areas (possibly from the pink getting damp at some point and bleeding onto the gold).
This was priced correctly and the starting bid was set at a price that only a serious collector or vintage clothing shopper would have considered.
The ornament is very simple for an Ann Lowe dress. If this had Lowe’s trademark silk flowers all over it, there is no way that I could have afforded it!
The dress is also incredibly, unbelievably tiny. It looks like a size 6 or so, right? Read on…
Because I own the dress, and it is in very good structural condition, the first thing I did when it arrived was to try to get into it! I’m a costume historian, but I’m also a woman and a beautiful silk dress from Saks Fifth Avenue? I mean, come on— of course I’m going to try it on! It’s mine!***
This beautiful thing would not even come close to zipping. Incredibly tiny. Don’t be fooled by the great big skirt! Incredibly tiny. This gown is probably a modern size 0 to 2! I can show you views from the back, because it fit my model’s very tiny waist, but the dress didn’t really fit her from the front, it was actually too big! So, my flat photo on the measuring board will have to do.
Collecting vintage clothes can be so much fun! And in this case, I was just so happy to be able to own an example of the work of a designer I really admire. In grad school, one of my professors would say that the best way to get “un-stuck” from writer’s block when you are working with objects is to get that object right in front of you. Pick it up! Look closely at the fabric and the stitches! Not always possible when you are working on a project about a couture fashion designer! I’ve visited Lowe’s gowns in museums and a small state historical society—but it is very different when you have a garment to work with at home.
***Historian’s Disclaimer: “This dress is from the 1960s with mint condition seams and modern closures in great condition. 99.9% of its time is spent inside an archival garment box with acid-free tissue. If you are going to try something on, Make sure that you (or your models) are sparkling clean, without a drop of lotion, perfume or deodorant. And only wear it long enough to get some beautiful pictures. Test zippers carefully before you try to zip them shut. This is a late 20th century piece and I absolutely would not try on a dress from the 1860s—know what I mean? I own a civil war era carpet bag–but I don’t wear it on my shoulder or use it to hold things!! Use your discretion, but actual antique clothes should only be worn by mannequins and fragile clothes should be handled with extreme care” –Margaret