It is a beautiful, unbelievably intricate pattern titled "Mrs. Coolidge's Great-Grandmother's Counterpane". Now, Calvin Coolidge served as president almost 100 years ago. And this is allegedly from his wife's great-grandmother, so that is some seriously old knowledge. Just how old, I had to find out.
I quickly discovered that Mrs. Coolidge (nee Grace Goodhue) was a knitter, so chances were good that she obtained it from a family member. I started with Mrs. Coolidge's family tree. There are no birth and death dates listed for Mehitable Knight Goodhue, her paternal great-grandmother, but she had to have been alive in 1818 when Grace's grandfather was born. That would make this pattern about 200 years old. Turns out that may or may not be true -- it may even be a little older -- but the family tree was a red herring, because this wasn't actually a pattern that came from her family.
Nope, more interesting than that.
The pattern was one that she discovered while her husband was in office. Mrs. Coolidge was a popular and lively First Lady, in marked contrast to Silent Cal. She was also a dedicated needleworker. An article from the Detroit News, dated November 21, 1926, gives this background information:
Handiwork she loves. Back in their struggling days, she knitted primarily from necessity; now that the White House offers release from economic strain, she may indulge in creative artistry to her heart's content. Mrs. Coolidge knits as an artist paints and is constantly on the lookout for some lovely old patterns or inventing new designs of her own.
Wow, someone actually recognized -- and at that time, no less -- that knitting could rise to the level of creative artistry?
It seems her tendency to look for old patterns led her to this particular one. The article she wrote, titled "Directions for Knitting Counterpane Given by First Lady of the Land" and also published on November 21, 1926, gives the back story. The wife of a Virginia congressman of that time was involved with a home for Confederate war widows in Richmond. The congressman's wife saw a counterpane on the bed of one of the war widows, and learned the pattern. She subsequently taught the First Lady; other Washington wives saw Grace working on it and wanted to borrow the directions for themselves. I have to wonder if this is one of the first documented examples of a viral pattern.
Mrs. Coolidge was eventually asked to write out the directions to share with the world at large. She was not allowed to speak out on political issues, and she hated any intrusion into her family's personal life. Though she had refused all interviews with the press to that date, she relented for the sake of fellow knitters. She explained in her article:
I so keenly enjoyed its mysteries that I wanted to share my pleasant pastime with other knitters, and for that reason, I have written the directions during some of my leisure minutes this summer, hoping to touch the spring which would set us all at work to make Great-Grandmother's Counterpane.*
It seems that it was Mrs. Coolidge who titled and dated the pattern, not because it actually came from her great-grandmother, but because she had some reason to think it was a pre-Revolutionary War pattern. Without an advanced degree in textiles and/or a heck of a lot of research that I don't have time for tonight, I can't verify if that's true or not. I'll just have to take Grace's word for it.
Her appearance in print represented a long-standing break in White House tradition. Even something as innocuous as her sharing a knitting pattern was a news-worthy item. The St. Petersburg Evening Independent explained on November 22, 1926:
For a president's wife to appear in print directs attention to her views and many naturally assume that the president has shared them either originally or through his wife's persuasion. No president wants any suspicion of petticoat influence to be fastened to him.
No fear of that if she's just sharing a knitting pattern, which the president presumably cares nothing about.The Evening Independent agreed.
Though technically the tradition has been broken by Mrs. Coolidge, she has not violated it in reality as her article is only a bit of household lore.
Well, that opinion hasn't changed much in the intervening years. But thank goodness that Mrs. Coolidge -- a First Lady who carried her knitting bag "when she is seeing friends, dictating to her secretary, or resting on the summer vacation trips" (I am honored to have such a precedent!) -- recognized the significance, and risked censure to preserve it for us.
* The article stated her intention of leaving the counterpane she made behind in the White House, but a Google search (hey, I don't have time to travel down to DC and properly track this thing) didn't turn up any record of the piece. The closest I could find was a press release from Calvin Coolidge's birthplace museum in Vermont, noting that in 2002 they received a knitted counterpane from a Virginia congressman's grand-daughter. Unfortunately no picture accompanied the article so I couldn't ascertain if it was the same work, but the connection to the Virginia congressman leads me to think it may be related.