Life seemed complete for our guest columnist – a multi-degreed education, a distinguished career and community standing, loving family, a restored 1906 turreted Queen Anne Victorian home in an idyllic countryside setting and filled with objets d’art. Then one day a lady crossed his path and life has never been the same.
Read one man’s captivation with collecting parlour pillows by Jason Ross Haxton Director of the Still National Osteopathic Museum, KCOM Medical School, Kirksville MO Regardless of your antique collecting weakness (fabric, furniture, or glassware) most of us remember our earliest purchases. And most likely our earliest purchases hold a fair amount of sentimental value or horror at our naïveté.
Seventeen years ago I was smitten by a dewy-eyed, dark haired beauty that stared at me from a crisp fabric background of fresh daffodils and cherry blossoms. I was able to rescue this fair damsel on a pillow from the sunny window of a run down antique shop for $25, after a good bit of haggling. This Victorian beauty was soon fluffed up and resting against the high back headboard of my wife’s heirloom oak bed. For about five years the face on this pillow stared out to me every morning and night of each day.
And life seemed pretty good! Then several years later, while on a trip to San Antonio TX, antiquing with the woman who trained me in antiques and raised me (my mom), I had a sudden uncomfortable feeling in the mists of what looks like every other antique shop old furniture, glassware and framed pictures filled every nook and cranny leaving items juxtaposed in new and sometimes humorous relationships to each other.
Across the room was a familiar face staring at me from a gold-gilded frame buried in a sea of framed prints that included dogs, yard long chicks, old buildings, and cottages on tree lined country lanes. I am not into buying prints – preferring original oil paintings. I shrugged off the image but my eyes kept drifting and locking onto this new but seemingly familiar face. It suddenly hit me that the same artist that had designed the parlor pillow that I had kept in my bedroom had also created this woman.
Upon closer inspection I could see the same rich colors on the familiar waxy looking fabric. I had discovered my first framed pillow top. After a little bargaining and for $80 this new beauty was headed back to the state of Missouri with me. Looking at the image of my first pillow and this pillow top side-by-side, another revelation occurred to me.
My latest pillow top purchase with the changing leaves, wind blown hair, and the woman wrapped in her wool shawl, it looked like an image from fall. And my first pillow with daffodils tucked in the hair and the face of the woman framed in cherry blossoms could be an allegory for spring. I had two parts of a four-season pillow set. I was familiar with the Victorian pieces sometimes following a theme from nature. On my parlor wall I have art nouveau plaques of nymphs depicting the elements of water and fire. My next thought was, if I am correct about the four seasons would I ever be able to find winter and summer after 100 years?
This is the lady who started it all, one of the four seasons called Spring. The corded braid and double tassel were favored adornments for parlour pillows.
A second lady enters the scene and our collector succumbs to Fall.
Not to be outdone, Winter beckoned but only from a distance. Someday she will join the others to complete the four seasons.
Who can resist Summer and so the seasons became a trio. Off and on for the next 12 years I have never entered an antique shop without glancing around for parlor pillows or framed pillow tops. Then, on a whim during the winter holidays this year I did a “completed auction e-bay search” with the search words: woman pillow. I was surprised to hit “pay dirt” when up popped a winter beauty that had sold on-line just days before my search. She was wrapped in a velvet fur trimmed cloak and hood, surrounded by pine boughs with flecks of snow blowing across her face and hair.
Although I missed that bid, I contacted the new owner who really only wanted the vintage Gibson Woman with her horse pillow top that was sewed on the opposite side of the winter woman pillow. The Gibson Woman and horse piece is too delicate to be removed. So, I have developed a great rapport with the owner and someday the winter pillow may join my set — but I did find her. Finally, last week while emailing a person who was selling a parlor pillow top I inquired if she had anything that looked like my four seasons.
Indeed she had a pillow with a woman who had blue eyes, with blonde hair wrapped in a turban, surrounded by daises and spider webs mixed with yellow ribbons around the edge. It seems to be a match by the same artist. So after 17 years I believe I have found the whole set. Through the many years of searching, I have come across many variations of women, horses, dogs, flowers all parts of sets waiting to be completed by somebody not me! Maybe by you. Parlor pillows must have been fairly common (an early fashion trend).
Even in historic pictures inside of my own Queen Anne, Victorian home taken around 1908 a parlor pillow can be seen peeking from behind a piano stool. I recently bought a Victorian photo postcard showing a mother reading to her children on the front porch, with her parlor pillow proudly perched on the steps. Now you and I know that the parlor pillow had no business on the front porch except to show off the woman’s excellent taste in decorating accents to those she was writing back home to with the photo postcard.
I have heard of other Victorian photo postcards that are post marked and “showing off” such pillows, which has helped in dating some of the pillow images. It’s funny how often these pillow tops are used as framed prints by owners oblivious to the true nature of these decorative items. Many pillow tops were too beautiful to thrown away even after receiving a good bit of wear and have been removed from the pillow, folded and tucked away with prized fabric pieces. As mentioned, I have seen several pristine pillows as well as many in the background of old photos.
From this information it appears the correct way to sew a parlor pillow was to back the pillow top with a finely woven, solid colored (red), cotton fabric, fill it with feathers, and attach cotton braiding that would end in a double drape tassel at the lower left hand corner see Spring pillow, first photo. Concerning the fabric, several parlor pillow collectors have suggested that these bright images my have been created by transferred ink placed on limestone blocks, this is a printing process called lithography.
Also, in the early 1900’s and into the 1920s, a sturdy fabric similar to cretonne was used to make glazed chintz through a process or treatment using paraffin; giving a slick or waxy feel to the fabric. Another type of wax finish to the material is called cireing or cereing, which is slightly heavier than glazing and gives more of a wet look when new. Most of the pillows I have seen have this waxy or wet look and feel. The high quality of the fabric and extra coating (much like our “scotch guarding” today) has helped these pillows keep their fresh look and added longevity to the life of the fabric of these approximately 100-year-old pillows.
Photo dated 1908 found during restoration of Jason’s home. Jason spotted a parlour pillow on the floor [see inset] but unfortunately its survival is unknown.
Closeup of parlour pillow.
Postcard of Victorian mother reading to her children with parlour pillow in clear view
An example of displaying a pillow cover in a frame.
Frilly lacey eyelets were another favorite trim to show off pillows. Until recently, pillow tops and whole parlor pillows have pretty much gone unnoticed and mostly unappreciated. Only now are small collections of pillows and pillow tops are stating to be shown. It is hard to only buy one of these pieces and stop – trust me. A quality pillow top in excellent condition sells for around $100 – $140. But at the right shop you may still find one for a lot less. But, don’t count on this trend continuing for very long.
Here’s a collectable that is waiting to take off nationally and once in demand and the value increases, we may yet be amazed at the pillows and tops that come back to light from the old linen cabinets and trunks. Good luck finding these pieces that fit in nicely in even the most packed home of antiques. A little paint a couple “Victorian” throw pillows and you have the perfect start for a person wanting to get hooked on antiques.
OF GRACEFUL HOMES AND HOLLYHOCK SUMMERS – THE PERFECT SETTING FOR PARLOUR PILLOWS
The perfect resting place for parlour pillows is Jason’s restored 1906 turreted Queen Ann home.
Magnificent hollyhocks that have been on property for 100 years are an inviting entrance to the home. Plants are babied to perpetuate bloom and life. Not in view are abundant blackberry bushes. Lovely ladies with poppies and animals or gracing cards all say forget me not in the Haxton collection.
Poppies in hair
Lady and dog
Lady and horse
Ladies on playing cards
Forget me not
About the author: Aside from his museum directorship, Jason serves on the Kirksville Arts Association board. He is preparing a health and wellness exhibit to be featured at the Smithsonian Arts and Industry Museum in May 2003. He is also working on a national curriculum covering health and science for youth preschool to 8th grade. His degrees are many – BA in commercial art, MAs in guidance and counseling and humanities ABT -extinct Mayan pottery of the Peten and a MAE in progress. Jason began collecting antiques in 1984; favorites are ancient art pieces from the Americas.
Community-minded Jason with buddy antique collector and U.S. Senator Jean Carnahan with whom he’s worked on many historical projects. The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.
To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.
Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.