This superbly designed and executed bed rug has descended through the Fairbanks family of New Hampshire. According to oral history, it was made by the mother of Reverend Drury Fairbanks of Holliston. Based on a recently discovered complete family genealogy, Fairbanks's mother has been identified as Deborah Leland Fairbanks (1739–1791) and his father as a fifth-generation descendant of Jonathan Fairbanks, who emigrated from England to Boston and settled in Dedham, Massachusetts, in 1636. Drury, the fifth of their eight children, graduated from Brown University in 1797 and served the New Hampshire church community for thirty-six years, as pastor of the Littleton Congregational Church from 1800 to 1818 and of the Plymouth Congregational Church from 1820 to 1836.
This bed rug is dated 1803, but this dating is less than definitive, for Deborah Leland Fairbanks died in 1791. It is possible that she started the bed rug at an earlier date and another family member, possibly Drury's first wife, Lucretia Rockwood Fairbanks, completed it in 1803. Lucretia gave birth to the couple's first daughter, Amanda, on March 3, 1803–and this certainly would have been a fitting occasion for the presentation of a bed rug.
Bed rugs, an American phenomenon, were made during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Most surviving examples are from the Connecticut River Valley, but bed rugs also have been located in other parts of New England. Highly valued by their makers, these textiles were often signed or initialed and dated. It has been suggested that they were passed down to a selected daughter or other close relative while the maker or owner was alive, which would explain why few were listed in colonial inventories of the deceased.
New research has brought to light the immediate origin of the rug's predominant carnation motif, which is similarly incorporated in a significant group of about a dozen other bed rugs. The motif relates to stylized sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English and other European floral designs. Designs of this kind were brought to America in the form of embroidery pattern books printed in England; in some cases, these were translated from German, French, and Italian sources dating to the sixteenth century. The carnation surrounded by a foliate arabesque appears on a page in Richard Shorleyker's pattern book, A Schole-house for the Needle (1632).
Like the rose, the pink carnation–or dianthus–is often emblematic of earthly and divine love; for this reason, it is often associated with brides, bridegrooms, and newly married couples. This motif, which has biblical origins, can be found in Persian designs dating to more than two thousand years ago. Furthermore, the carnation was once the flower of the royal Stuart family in Britain. This flower has persisted in needlework design patterns for centuries and is ubiquitous in English and American embroidered sampler border patterns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Varieties of the flower are found in the needlework of other European countries as well.
In the Fairbanks bed rug, the central carnation bouquet rises symmetrically from a graceful double-handled oval urn. The composition's similarity to that of numerous other textiles of the era, and especially the presence of the oft-featured urn, strongly suggest a common design source for the overall pattern. Surrounding the central motif are graceful arcaded and meandering leaves and vines. Tulips and other blossoms fill the ground space between the central pattern and the prominent four-sided surround, adding rhythmic movement and strong patterning to the surface design. The few colors–a palette of browns, gold, and some related red tones–vibrate dramatically on the black background.
Lee Kogan, "Bed Rug," in Stacy C. Hollander, American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with American Folk Art Museum, 2001), 298–299.