The “Politics at Home” Exhibit: An Origin Story


By Professor Marina Moskowitz (she/her), Lynn and Gary Mecklenburg Chair in Textiles, Design, and Material Culture

In September of 2019, I visited the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection with three graduate students who had recently arrived on campus: Samantha Comerford, pursuing her MA in Art History;

pillow case with fringe with am American flag and eagle that reads "America First"
pillow case, ca. 1918, United States, printed silk with applied fringe, purchased by the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. P.R.US.0892

Nora Renick-Rinehart, embarking on an MFA in Design Studies; and Natalie Wright, beginning her PhD in Design History. These students were taking an independent study course on the theme of textiles and American politics, a Collection-Intensive Course, facilitated by the Center for Design and Material Culture.  Together, we examined an object that was at once intriguing, provocative, and downright odd: a silk pillow cover, with an elaborate fringe, printed with military imagery of crossed swords, soldiers in a desert, an eagle with an American flag in its claws, and the slogan “America First.” Former HLATC curator Otto Thieme purchased this textile (P.R.US.0892) for the Collection in 1974 from Harry Kies, who had recently established an antique store on East Johnson Street in Madison. It is one of several textiles with overtly political or historical imagery of the United States that were acquired in the years around the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976. Collection records date the pillow cover to the United States’ entry into World War I.

two American themed pillow cases in a vitrine
Installation view of the “America First” pillow case, P.R.US.0892.

The four of us had a lot of questions about this textile, while we tried to disentangle its historical meanings from the present day implications of its message . But the question that kept coming up in our conversation was not the historical context for this object, but the material one. With the high sheen of the silk, knotted fringe, and washes of muted colors (apart from the American flag!), this certainly appeared to be a domestic object. But those features seemed at odds with the otherwise martial imagery on the surface of the pillow. Who had this pillow in their home? What sort of home was it? And was the pillow “on display” in a more public setting of a living room, or a form of military memorial revered in the privacy of a bedroom? While we do not have the provenance to answer these questions definitively, asking them led us to wonder how domestic textiles may reveal, and even inculcate, political values. From that single object analysis in the early days of the 2019-2020 academic year, Sam, Nora, Natalie and I continued to work together, exploring the HLATC to locate other textiles that spoke to the ways that Americans used textiles to declare their political beliefs while also decorating their homes or adorning their bodies.

Two years later, the “America First” pillow cover is one of over 100 objects from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection in the new exhibition, Politics at Home: Textiles as American History, opening on 1 September 2021 in the Ruth Davis Design Gallery in Nancy Nicholas Hall, the School of Human Ecology. This exhibit demonstrates the blurring of private space and public expressions by focusing on the politics acts that can be incorporated into the making and display of “everyday” artifacts such as coverlets, quilts, and pillows; handkerchiefs and bandannas; and furnishing fabrics and wall hangings. Within American homes, these objects were used to promote presidential candidates, support the military, and evoke particular histories of the United States, as well as advocating for change in the political status quo. Over the next few weeks, we will be sharing more stories from the exhibition, and we hope you will join us in the Ruth Davis Design Gallery between 1 September and 7 November.

Politics at Home: Textiles as American Politics is on view in the Ruth Davis Design Gallery starting September 1 through November 7, 2021.