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.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?
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.
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.