Coverlets, Christmas cards from 1800s tell of holidays past

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For those who have wondered how people in the United States celebrated Christmas in the 19th century, a walk through the Foster and Muriel McCarl Coverlet Gallery at Saint Vincent College will provide some answers.

The gallery, on the lower floor of the Fred Rogers Center, is displaying 24 of the more than 400 coverlets in the gallery collection, donated by Foster and Muriel McCarl in 2004.

The coverlets, or bed covers, in the exhibit are grouped according to four different themes: floral, evergreen, Christmas dinner and mummering, the custom of house visitation during the Christmas season that dates to the Middle Ages and involves food, drink and often rowdiness.

"There were some fun things from the 19th century, like mummering, that are no longer practiced today," Lauren Churilla, gallery curator, said. "I find these fascinating and hope others will as well."

To augment the coverlet display, the exhibit also spotlights reproductions of Victorian era Christmas cards and vintage-inspired decorations.

"The first Christmas cards circulated in London in the early 1800s and had floral images to remind people of spring," Ms. Churilla said. "The first commercially produced card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 and shows a family sitting around a Christmas dinner table. The original card is now housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London."

For the exhibit, the  gallery is decorated with live and artificial greenery and two Christmas trees, one of which is adorned with reproductions of Victorian era Christmas cards. Labels and text describe the history of Christmas in America from the late 1700s through the Victorian era.

The late Foster and Muriel McCarl were from Beaver Falls, and their coverlet collection is regarded as one of the premier collections of its kind in the nation.

The couple were antique collectors and bought their first two coverlets in 1959 in Ephrata, Pa. Three months later, they bought five more and the collection was begun. While the coverlets in the collection span 1820 to 1860, the bulk are from the 1830s.

Mr. McCarl once wrote "Someone asked me, ‘Why coverlets?’ My response was ‘Where else can you find an item that has the name of the weaver who created it by hand, the name of the person it was woven for, the date and the community where the work was completed? When you have a coverlet with all this information, you have found an indisputable piece of American history.’ "

Mr. McCarl founded McCarl’s Plumbing and Heating Co. in 1946, which was later renamed McCarl’s Inc. In 1999, he sold the company to PPL Corp.

Eventually, the couple looked  for a permanent repository for their collection. A friend, the Rev. Joseph Lemp, a priest with Queen of Heaven parish in Koppel, introduced them to St. Vincent Archabbot and Chancellor Douglas Nowicki. Aware that St. Vincent College has a reputation for historic stewardship, the McCarls thought the college would be a good place to permanently house their collection and donated it and a $1 million endowment for its care and preservation.

Mr. McCarl died in 2005 and his wife died in 2012. One of their four sons, Brian, who lives in Beaver Falls, continues their passion for coverlet collecting.

"This is the first time we’ve staged an exhibit on this particular topic, although we did have one in 2011 titled ‘The Winter Blues,’ " Ms. Churilla, of Murrysville, said. "It featured weavers and Christmas traditions from Ireland, Scotland and England, who worked in a two-color style. The title took its name from the blue-and-white-colored coverlets we chose for the exhibit."

She explained the difference between a coverlet and a quilt: "A coverlet is woven in a single piece on a loom, whereas a quilt is sewn and pieced together. Both serve the same function as bed covers, and both come in all sorts of sizes."

"To my knowledge, the only contemporary manufacturer of coverlets is Stanley Heirloom Weavers of York, Pennsylvania," she said.

Admission is free to the "Christmas in America" exhibit, which will be on display through Jan. 10 at the Foster and Muriel McCarl Gallery is on the campus of St. Vincent College, 300 Fraser Purchase Road, Unity. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays. It is open on weekends and other times by appointment only. The gallery will be closed Dec. 24-26 and Dec 31- Jan. 1. Information: 724-805-2569.

Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer:

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