J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, March 13, 2015

Has General Washington’s Riband Come Back Around?

Back in 2010 I wrote some articles about Gen. George Washington’s decision in July 1775 to adopt a blue sash or “ribband” across his chest as the sign of his rank in the new Continental Army.

It turns out that Washington’s riband might survive in the collections of Harvard University’s museums, having come back to Cambridge after passing through the hands of painter Charles Willson Peale, who owned a museum himself.

In this Common-Place article, Philip C. Mead of the Museum of the American Revolution writes of the general:

The decoration he chose, a blue silk moiré ribbon worn across his breast, made allusions to both one of the traditional colors of Whigs, the British political party with which American Revolutionaries identified, and the aristocratic decorations of Europe. At first, he wore the ribbon regularly, and then only on ceremonial occasions and in battles, until he phased the decoration out in 1779, replacing it with stars on his epaulettes. Examples of Washington’s epaulettes have survived and appeared in several publications, but his silk ribbon has remained largely obscure among students of Washington objects and the American Revolution.

A recently re-examined silk moiré ribbon in the collections of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology may well be the very ribbon depicted in the Washington portrait paintings by the Revolutionary artist Charles Willson Peale. It may even have been the one worn by Washington from 1775 to 1779 as referenced in various writings during the war. It may also be the ribbon displayed at Peale’s museum in the nineteenth century.
Harvard received the artifact in 1899 and immediately loaned it to the Old South Meeting-House, one of Boston’s historic sites most associated with the Revolutionary War. It stayed there until shortly after the Bicentennial. When it came back to Harvard, the cloth no longer had its label from Peale’s museum, and, more importantly, the cultural climate had changed since its first arrival. Both museum curation and historiography had become more professionalized, a process that encourages skepticism about the claims of tradition and enthusiastic amateurs. So was this artifact genuinely the general’s?

Mead’s investigation includes the process of making “watered” silk, how this riband compared to what Peale painted in the 1770s, why Washington stopped wearing the sash midway through the war, and how such an artifact does and doesn’t fit into the mission of the museums where it has appeared.

Now if this sash belonged to the Harvard Art Museums, it might be possible to request a personal examination through Harvard’s Art Study Center. But it came to the Peabody Museum. So I don’t know how it might be seen.


R.T. said...

I am very intrigued by the information you have provided for Washington. It dovetails nicely with my current reading of Chernow's biography.

BTW, I am new to the history blogging field -- see my next blog (Following Herodotus) -- and I am now seeking out interesting blogs to follow; your blog is my first splendid discovery, and I invite your recommendations about other first-rate history blogs.

All the best from a fellow Bostonian (but with the caveat that my Boston is in a different state).

J. L. Bell said...

I'm glad you enjoy this blog, R.T. Be aware that one of Ron Chernow's lines on Washington's sartorial choices is based on a dubious source.