Winterthur during World War II: The Curtain Project

This stereoview shows Ruth Wales du Pont’s bedroom in 1938, and shows the window treatment at that time. As with all the following stereoviews, Robert Brost took the photo, which was then hand-colored by Annette Karge.

I am trying to get the entire house catalogued—sewing labels on all the curtains showing the rooms and seasons in which they are to be used etc. and I think it will be another year before I am entirely through with this performance.
– H. F. du Pont to his cousin Bessie Andrews, July 23, 1943 (letter in the Winterthur Archives, HF242)

During the long years of World War II, most of the house at Winterthur was shut down and most of the staff away at war. H. F. du Pont and his wife, Ruth, spent these years as concerned civilians, doing what they could for the war effort at home. Ruth volunteered at a local hospital, and H. F. donated milk to the hospital.

During the tense year of 1942, du Pont escaped from the ever-present drum of bad news from the Pacific and European fronts by organizing his Americana collection. On August 7, he spent hours dictating to his secretary of 43 years, William Ersfeld, his ideas on how the future Winterthur Museum should care for the furnishing fabrics:

The curtains, upholstery, bed hangings and bedspreads at Winterthur are themselves a textile museum; and the way that the materials are draped, upholstered, etc. carries out the best tradition of a museum of decorative arts. Many, many hours have been spent looking at paintings, engravings and books to find the correct models for the period of each room, and their execution has taken countless hours of hand-sewing. …They are priceless and have cost thousands of dollars to fashion and the materials are unprocurable again.

Only very worn fragments remain of this set of curtains that Potts depicted as hanging in Ruth Wales du Pont’s bedroom (also known as the Blue Bedroom) during the war. Each of these windows would have had rotating seasonal changes, sometimes two in summer and winter and sometimes as many as four.

Leslie Potts, who was born on the property in 1905 and later became the Winterthur farm superintendent, worked as a draftsman for du Pont during the war. He was a graduate of the University of Delaware Agricultural School and had received training at Temple University as an architect. In 1943, he made room plans of Winterthur and also began a curtain study project, which seems not have been completed. Today, only a small sample of the colored drawings made by Potts of the curtains survive.

Winterthur’s curator of textiles, Linda Eaton, notes, “Throughout the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s Ernest Lo Nano worked with Henry Francis du Pont to create the furnishing textiles—curtains, bedhangings, and upholstery covers—here at Winterthur.

Du Pont would only allow Lo Nano to call himself curtainmaker and upholsterer for the newly opened Winterthur Museum in his ads because du Pont himself claimed to have done the time-consuming research necessary to design the interiors. Nevertheless, du Pont considered him to be the best in the field.

Lo Nano’s work represented an interpretation of historic furnishings that was consistent with the best scholarship of the time. Working with the foremost scholars, Lo Nano was using some of the same sources that we use today to interpret how textiles were used in historic interiors.”

Here are a few examples of Potts’s drawings next to earlier images of the rooms showing the furnishing textiles.

Cecil Bedroom or H. F. du Pont’s Bedroom 

Leslie Potts’s drawing of the 18th-century hand-embroidered curtains hanging in H. F. du Pont’s bedroom window.

The curtains, shown here in the May 1935 stereoview, are still highly prized and hang around the bed in the Patuxent Room today.


Centerville Dining Room

Potts’s drawing of the curtains hanging in the Centerville Dining Room.

 

A 1947 glass slide of the Phyfe Room with curtains that look extremely similar.

Empire Parlor

Potts’s drawing.

A 1938 stereoview showing the curtains in place.


Grey Room or H. F. du Pont’s Dressing Room 

Potts’s drawing.

 

A 1935 stereoview with the curtains in place.

Patuxent Bedroom

Potts’s drawing of the Patuxent Room curtains.

 

The Patuxent Room in stereoview, winter curtains, 1935.

Port Royal Parlor

Potts’s drawing of curtains in the Port Royal Parlor.

 

A 1947 glass slide showing portiers of the same design hanging in Port Royal Parlor.

 

By Maggie Lidz, estate historian and curator of garden and estate objects. Don’t miss Color Counts, Maggie’s special exhibition at the Delaware Antiques Show this November 9–11, which focuses on H. F. du Pont’s use of color in decorating and entertaining.

This entry was posted in Decorative Arts, Design, Life at Winterthur, Textiles and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Winterthur during World War II: The Curtain Project

  1. Kevin Fenimore says:

    What a great little article. The pictures added depth to the story.
    Thank you!
    KJF

  2. Did the duPonts use fabrics from Scalamandre for the reproduction drapes? Some of the curtains look extremely similar to the ones hung at the Hammond-Harwood House during the same era, and I know that our fabrics came from Scalamandre and that at least some of the curtains were made by Lo Nano.

    • Linda Eaton says:

      Henry Francis du Pont preferred to use antique fabrics, so these early curtains are made from 18th or 19th century fabrics. It was only later in his life, when it was no longer possible to obtain large yardages of the period textiles, that du Pont realized the museum would need to use reproductions, like the fabrics produced by firms like Scalamandre, Schumacher and Brunschwig & Fils.

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