Embroidery Patents

April 10, 1790: The U.S. patent system is established

Here’s the needlework connection to this date:

Intrigue. Depositions. Embroidery. Yes! Three embroiderers working in New York City in the 1880s, including the well-known mother of the Society of Decorative Art, Candace Wheeler, filed for patents to protect embroidery stitches each had devised. The other two applicants, Mary Elizabeth Tillinghast and Kate Tarbox, were employed at Candace’s workshop at the very time they filed.

Pillow cover by Candace Wheeler. Wool twill embroidered with wool and silk thread, silk velvet border. Circa 1876–1877. Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; gift of Candace Pullman Wheeler, 2002. (2002.355.1) Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Pillow cover by Candace Wheeler. Wool twill embroidered with wool and silk thread, silk velvet border. Circa 1876–1877. Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; gift of Candace Pullman Wheeler, 2002. (2002.355.1)
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Marilynn Cowgill covers all of the drama in her article, “A Case of Three Patents: Women and the Decorative Arts,” in the July/August 2016 issue of PieceWork:

  • “Candace Wheeler provided embroidered tapestries, curtains, and other room decorations for the Associated Artists clients. In 1883, her partnership with Louis Comfort Tiffany ended when Candace Wheeler decided to maintain the needlework business herself, and it existed as Associated Artists until 1907. She continued to create embroidered tapestries and curtains, even asking the Cheney Brothers Silk Factory, located in Connecticut, to design a fabric specifically for her needle-weaving designs. She received a patent for this fabric in 1883 (Patent #271,174), but that patent was not one of the three in the dispute.”
  • “Less well known was Mary Tillinghast. During testimony at her patent interference trial against Candace Wheeler, Mary Tillinghast said she had spent time before she was employed by Candace Wheeler, living in Boston, working as a nanny, and during her off-work hours, developing a stitch that she used when she worked for Candace Wheeler. After that, she testified, she and her sister went to Europe, where they visited the Gobelins tapestry factory in Paris. Mary Tillinghast stated that she got her more detailed ideas about needle-weaving at Gobelins. Whether the statement was true, we don’t know.”
  • “We also don’t know why Candace Wheeler hired Mary Tillinghast in February 1881 as her chief of the tapestry department for Associated Artists—and gave her the credit for the works she supervised, including the Kemp house (Louis Tiffany and Candace Wheeler’s first commission).
  • “Kate Tarbox, who had worked with Mary Tillinghast in Candace Wheeler’s workshop, testified in the dispute. After Mary Tillinghast left Associated Artists, Kate Tarbox also left to work with her. Kate Tarbox also received a patent.”

Marilynn summarizes the events in this table:

pantent chart

Candace Wheeler is well known for her needlework and for her role in organizing the Society of Decorative Art. Mary Tillinghast is known for her work as a stained-glass artist. Kate Tarbox remains a mystery.

Who knew patents could be so fascinating?

—Jeane

Read more about these three embroiderers and their patents in Marilynn Cowgill’s article, “A Case of Three Patents: Woman and the Decorative Arts,” in the July/August 2016 issue of PieceWork.

Mary Polityka Bush includes additional information on Candace Wheeler and the Society of Decorative Art in her article, “Discover the Beauty of Art Silk Embroidery,” in the November/December 2016 issue of PieceWork.

“Candace Wheeler: Champion of Decorative Arts” by May Sue Hannan is in the March/April 1999 issue of PieceWork.


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