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.
The sort of thing that you can find at a very interesting website that specializes in historic reproductions of clothing and accessories **
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.