This section is from the book "Tapestries; Their Origin, History And Renaissance", by George Leland Hunter. Also available from Amazon: Tapestries; Their Origin, History, And Renaissance.
The late William Baumgarten was a man of strong personality and great executive ability. In a lecture held before the Society of Antiquarians at the Art Institute, Chicago, March 25, 1897, he told the story of the founding at Williamsbridge in New York City, of the first tapestry works in America. He said:
"The history of our enterprise is soon told. When the thought first came to me of attempting the introduction of tapestry-making in this country, I was fully aware of the magnitude of the task and of the serious obstacles to be overcome. It was, of course, necessary to bring the artisans over from France, and to build the looms as a first step. This seems simple enough, and yet, had we not had the good fortune of finding M. Foussadier, the former master workman of the Royal Windsor Tapestry Works in England, it might have been very difficult to get other first-class men to come after him. They were all unwilling to leave France, and could only be induced by the promise of higher wages, the guarantee of steady work for at least a year and free passage over and back.
Gothic Hunting Tapestry
Plate no. 207. A Late Gothic Hunting tapestry designed in America, and woven at Williamsbridge. Interesting to compare with it is the hunting scene in the Hoentschel Collection lent by Mr. Morgan to the Metropolitan Museum.
"M. Foussadier, with his family, came over the early part of January, 1893, bringing with him a small loom which was at once set up in one of our rooms at No. 321 Fifth Avenue, and work began. I can here show you the first piece of tapestry produced. It is a small chair seat, and took about two weeks to make. It is a simple and modest production, but is not for sale, and is intended to remain an heirloom in my family as the first piece of tapestry produced in America. The second piece, exactly the same, was soon produced, and this found its way, through the kindly interest of its wide-awake Director, to the Field Museum in Chicago.
"Four more weavers soon followed my new superintendent, one after another, in the first few months. In the meantime we had built more looms, and it had become necessary to find a suitable home for their ateliers, and my choice fell on a house in Williamsbridge, which was in former years a French restaurant and hotel, where I spent many a happy Sunday in the springtime of my Bohemian days, 30 years ago. There is quite a French settlement there, and I thought my men would feel more at home there than elsewhere. As a matter of fact, they have found here a little paradise.
"But we soon made another happy discovery. M. Foussadier, who is as expert a dyer as he is a weaver, soon discovered, at his first experiments, that the water of the Bronx River, which flows at our door, possesses the most excellent qualities for dyeing purposes. This is owing to the dissolved vegetable substances which it contains. I may here mention that this same quality was attributed to the water of the little river La Bièvre in the Faubourg St. Marcel in Paris, where the Gobelins located their dye-works in the XV century, and which became so famous on account of their superiority over all others.
Plate no. 209. Winter, one of a set of tapestry portières designed and made at Williamsbridge for the dining room of a residence in New York City. In the right selvage appears the mark of the maker, a B with shield.
"The next step was to secure apprentices, with the view of making the industry gradually a native one and independent of foreign workmen. This, however, proved more difficult. It is one of the evils of this country that boys, after leaving school, are not permitted or bound to serve a regular apprenticeship for three or four years, as in Europe, to properly learn a trade. They are required by their parents to earn at once $3 or $4 a week, which drives them into the stores and messenger offices, etc. It is evident that for the first year or two little, if anything, is of value to me that can be done by these boys. On the contrary, they require constant tuition and use up material which constitutes an actual loss to me. However, I determined to make the sacrifice in order to make a beginning, and we took on two boys to whom we promised $2 per week the first year, $4 the second year, $6 the third and $8 the fourth. These were followed by two more boys the second year, and again by two more the third. All six are now doing very well, and the first two are already producing quite good work.
"Thus, the first year was employed to get well started and to produce a number of specimens, such as curtains, portières, borders, chair coverings, etc., of various qualities to show what we could do. It was at the end of the first year, in April, 1894, that I had the honour to read before the National Society of Sculpture, New York, a little paper on our tapestry industry, and to submit to their inspection some of our first productions. They were not very pretentious, to be sure, and I said then that my ambition and aim was much higher, that I hoped some day to make wall panels of as high an artistic merit and as excellent in workmanship as the best of the preceding centuries. For such work, however, one must have orders, and in these depressed times they were not easily obtained.
"Shortly after this lecture before the National Sculpture Society, I arranged a little exhibition of the first year's products, in one of our warerooms, and sent out cards. This was in May, 1894. In response to the invitation, among many others a gentleman from Philadelphia walked in on a fine May morning, saying he wished to see the show. He liked to take in shows that cost nothing, he said. After some conversation and a careful inspection of our new productions, he said, 'so you would like to make more ambitious things, wall panels with figure compositions, eh? Do you think you could do as well as those old fellows of a hundred or two hundred years ago?' To which I meekly answered that I would try, if I had the opportunity. 'Well,' he said, 'I will give you the opportunity. Come over to Philadelphia next week and I will show you the room.' The result was that, after making coloured sketches, which took about a month and which were approved, I received my first commission for a complete set of wall panels for a Parlour, 13 in number, all in the genre of Boucher, with what is called 'Pastoral Scenes.' It also included the furniture coverings and two pairs of portières, and the cost amounted to over $20,000. The work was completed by the first of December, 1895, in about 15 months. I had the gratification of having our work pass muster before the critical eyes of many leading artists and connoisseurs, and it has given the greatest pleasure ever since to my courageous and generous client in Philadelphia, Mr. P. A. B. Widener.
"The number of workmen were, of course, immediately increased by fresh importations from Europe. Six of them came in a lot, and were duly stopped by the Immigration Commissioners as contract labourers. Then began my troubles. I was ordered to appear before this august tribunal of wise judges, six in number, mostly Irish and German politicians, who knew absolutely nothing about tapestry, and could not be made to believe that in this, the greatest of all the countries in the world, there were no such beings as tapestry weavers to be found, and that it was absolutely a new industry I was founding, for which the law allows the admission of imported workmen. I gave them a most exhaustive lecture, with historical and statistical data, while my poor Frenchmen sat by like prisoners, not knowing what it was all about. However, to make a long story short, after a few days, they were liberated by an order from the Secretary of the Treasury, and thus escaped the dreadful fate of being returned to their own lovely country, la Belle France".
Of the six large tapestry plants in this world - the Gobelins, Beauvais, three at Aubusson, Williams-bridge - the American one is by no means the least important, as regards either quality or quantity of output. It was awarded a Grand Prize for two panels exhibited at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, and has executed commissions for a large proportion of the leading families of this country. Illustrations nos. 207, 209, 211, 247, 249, 251,253, are of Williams-bridge looms, materials, processes, and product.