Introduction to a Pole Screen
This past summer, as a fresh and unknowing Winterthur student, I took the introductory tour of the museum’s collections with my parents. At the beginning of the tour, my mom informed the tour guide, to my slight horror, of my acceptance into the Winterthur Program for Material Culture. For the rest of the tour I was occasionally met by our guide with a knowing eye. In the Empire Parlor my mom’s pride led to my embarrassment when my tour group was asked to identify an odd furniture form by the fireplace. As someone with an identified interest in Early American Material Culture, I felt obligated to venture a guess, but with the whole tour looking expectantly at me, I could only shrug my shoulders at the foreign form.
Pole screen, 1815 to 1825. Mahogany, brass, gilt, gesso, paper, silk. Winterthur Museum 1957.0747.001 A, B.
After admitting defeat, I was informed that the odd object was a pole screen, believed to be used to prevent ladies’ makeup from melting as they lounged by the fireside. As fate would have it, my first assignment at Winterthur would lead me to pursue the true functions of the pole screen through an examination of another specimen (below). Likely made in New York between 1760 and 1775, this lavish example occupied a place in the center of the home and social life of a well-to-do 18th century family.
Pole screen, New York, 1760-1775. Mahogany, wool, paper, silk, linen, and canvas. 1958.1788 A, B.
As part of my research, I spent time communing with my pole screen in the heart of the museum collection. As I sat near it, the imagery on the screen began to sing to me. Unlike the painted screen in the Empire Parlor, this screen was lovingly hand embroidered using crewel yarn and silk thread on a plain-woven linen canvas. What was most striking, however, was the content of the embroidery. The screen depicts a romantic encounter between a shepherdess and a shepherd in a pastoral setting. This human drama is unusual for screens in the collection, which more frequently exhibit geometric patterns, animals, and flowers. Crafted during a historical period in which women were expected to be passive, the pole screen presents the shepherdess as a highly active subject. The narrative of the scene rests on her and what she will do. The shepherd kneels before her, hand to heart, hat removed. Will she accept or reject his advance?
Detail of pole screen 1958.1788 A, B.
As female creations placed in the social center of the home, pole screens served not only as fire screens (aiding in warmth and comfort) but also as status symbols and creations that demonstrated feminine skill and control. Its quality construction (requiring discipline, education, patience, and precision) exhibited what would have been considered the makings of a good and genteel woman.
After my first few months at Winterthur, I now believe I could provide a, perhaps excessively detailed, response to the innocent question, “Does anyone know what that form by the fireplace was used for?”
By Tess Frydman, WPAMC Class of 2017