Beauty Blog: Part Five

Historic Arkansas Museum - Friday, April 24, 2020

By Carey Voss, Curator of Exhibits, and Victoria Chandler, Arkansas Made Researcher

More is more: the significance of time, intricacy, and perfection

School closures, layoffs, and social distancing left some people with a lot more leisure time. As a result, even jigsaw puzzles are making a comeback! Complicated puzzles and handwork like sewing, tatting, weaving, and knitting are great ways to distract ourselves and pass time with our families, but they demand exceptional powers of patience and concentration. Many people find these activities relaxing, while the rest of us are unable to fathom the degree of sustained attention required to complete such tedious work.

Parquetry Table, made by unknown inmates at Tucker prison farm, Tucker (Jefferson County), circa 1930, walnut, pine, oak, and ebony, 30 ¾ x 32 ¼ x 30 in., Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council Grant Purchase, 2008.30

Some objects provoke immediate expressions of awe and disbelief, and this parquetry table is an excellent example. While many craftspeople take pains to hide evidence of their work in the finished product, others display it proudly, as a badge of honor. Like elaborate stained glass windows or tile mosaics, the process used to embellish this table is no secret: parquetry employs precisely cut geometric wood veneers to create kaleidoscopic surface effects. It requires a lot of measuring, a lot of sawing, and even more time. While it seems almost inconceivable that any human being could produce something so complicated and yet so perfect, the truth is even more unlikely: inmates at Tucker penitentiary created this beautiful object in the late 1920s.

Before Governor Winthrop Rockefeller took an interest in prison reform in the late 1960s, Arkansas’s Tucker and Cummins prisons were notorious for their inhumane conditions. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many penitentiaries were working farms modeled after southern plantations, with wardens instead of masters. Arkansas prison farms were operated for profit, and to save money, trusted inmates ran almost all aspects of the enterprise.

The root of a very old proverb, “idle hands are the devil’s tools,” is the belief that leisure time breeds mischief. Under the guise of the moral benefits of industry, prison administrators organized a variety of labor programs. Well-liked inmates found themselves in blacksmith or carpentry shops where they created items to sell to the public, while less fortunate convicts sweated in the fields growing rice and cotton. This remarkable mosaic parquetry table probably kept several inmates busy for weeks or months; the entire surface of the tabletop and all four legs are covered in decorative parquetry. Upon completion, the table was presented as a parting gift to Tucker prison farm’s Assistant Warden Mitchell when he retired in 1930.

Chintz Appliqué & Pieced Quilt, made by enslaved individuals owned by Caleb Lindsey Sr., circa 1838. Pulaski and/or Jefferson counties. 104 x 103 in., Gala Fund Purchase honoring Peg Newton Smith, 95.53

In 1881, a newspaper in Arkadelphia challenged its readers to report the number of pieces in their quilts, “to show what home industry and energy can accomplish.” As a result of this friendly challenge, several women wrote to the newspaper claiming their quilts contained thousands of pieces. One Arkadelphia resident, Miss Nannie Winkle, created a quilt composed of 11,400 isosceles triangles! If Nannie Winkle’s “wonderful and handsome” quilt survived for us to examine, it would probably resemble the parquetry table discussed above in the sense that the time and dedication necessary to accomplish such a feat would be obvious. But many quilts are deceptive, hiding hundreds of hours of work in their tiny, even stitches.

Chintz appliqué designs pre-date repeating “block style” quilts by more than 100 years; hand-painted palampore bedspreads from India reached fad status in 18th century Europe, and roller-printing made sought-after chintz fabrics accessible to Americans by the early 1800s. When this quilt was created in the late 1830s, fashionable fabrics and an abundance of leisure time signified two things: wealth and status. Yeoman farmers and their families (who usually did not own slaves) worked from dawn to dusk growing food, tending fires, cooking and preserving food, caring for animals, maintaining their homes, and performing a thousand other essential tasks. The expression “time is money” is relevant in examinations of pre-industrial societies, where leisure time was at least as valuable as gold. Only members of the elite planter class could spare the time and labor necessary to produce a quilt like this one.

Some people might look at this quilt and see just another warm blanket, but if this textile masterpiece is “just” a warm blanket, then by the same logic, the heavily embellished parquetry table is “just” a sturdy place to set a drink or play cards. HAM’s 1838 chintz appliqué quilt is exceptional for many reasons, not the least of which are its age and sophisticated design. If Caleb Lindsey Sr. wanted to give his future daughter-in-law a warm bedcovering, industrially produced woolen blankets imported from England were available at dry goods stores in Little Rock. Instead, the Lindsey family used fine roller-printed English chintz fabric and enlisted the skills of enslaved artisans to produce a stunning wedding present treasured for almost 200 years. It is an aesthetically beautiful object, but the function of this quilt is (and always has been) more symbolic than utilitarian.