Behind the Scenes: a Cataloger Unravels a Surprise

The following is an interview with Woody Woodis, Senior Cataloger in the Prints and Photographs Division, about discovering and cataloging a woven “print” memorializing Joseph-Marie Jacquard, inventor of the programmable Jacquard loom.

Melissa: What can you tell us about this woven “print” depicting inventor-weaver Joseph-Marie Jacquard?

Woody: During his lifetime Jacquard developed a loom attachment that enabled more efficient weaving of complex textile patterns using punch cards. We don’t often think of portraits in textile form, but this one was created using a Jacquard loom. Jacquard died in 1834, and in 1839 this woven image— based on a painting by Jean-Claude Bonnefond— was created to commemorate the inventor.

This particular image alone was said to require about 24,000 punch cards. Just imagine that. Early programmable machines like Jacquard’s loom are said by some to be a key development in the history of computing.

À la mémoire de J.M. Jacquard / d’après le tableau de C. Bonnefond ; exécuté par Didier Petit et Cie. . After a painting by Jean-Claude Bonnefond. Woven by Franc╠žois Michel-Marie Carquillat, [1839]. //

For an image like this, the artist would draw a design, which would be transferred to punch cards, and the punch cards in turn would be fed into the machine. The end result is approximately 1 ½ x 2 feet of fabric. That’s the beauty of the scans available through the catalog record—they are of such high quality that if you zoom in you can really get into the nitty gritty of the fabric.

Back view of À la mémoire de J.M. Jacquard / d’après le tableau de C. Bonnefond ; exécuté par Didier Petit et Cie. 1839. After a painting by Jean-Claude Bonnefond, and woven by Franc╠žois Michel-Marie Carquillat. //

Detail from back of À la mémoire de J.M. Jacquard / d’après le tableau de C. Bonnefond ; exécuté par Didier Petit et Cie,1839.

There is also a companion piece showing the Duke D’Aumale in 1841 coming to see the woven portrait of Jacquard and the loom that was used to create it, though we don’t have a copy of that item in P&P’s collections.

Popular Graphic Arts shelflist card for À la mémoire de J.M. Jacquard / d’après le tableau de C. Bonnefond ; exécuté par Didier Petit et Cie. with minimal description. Photo by Melissa Lindberg, October 2017.

Melissa: How did you originally discover the image À la mémoire de J.M. Jacquard?

Woody I have been involved in a project to update catalog records for items in P&P’s Popular Graphic Arts Collection. I had a list of problem items/records and was going through a box looking for a different item when the folder containing this image caught my attention. When I cannot see an item, curiosity occasionally prompts me to take a peek.

Like others who had previously seen copies of this item, I made the same mistake of thinking it was a fine mezzotint and thought, “wow, this is a nice print on fabric.” At the time the only information available on the associated Popular Graphic Arts shelflist card was the title and various identification numbers.

Upon closer examination I realized that the image was not a print at all, but woven. Looking at the back of the item really blew me away—it looks like a photographic negative; I just wanted to figure out what was going on. Over the years, I’ve seen some fascinating pieces of 19th-century popular graphic art, but this item resonated in ways that made it seem particularly worthy of notice.

Melissa: What details stand out in the image?

Woody: All the tools related to weaving, the punch cards and their role in the development of computers, a drafting compass, which I took to be an artistic prop in the painter’s repertoire, other woodworking equipment, and such detail as the dovetail joints in the drawer. I especially like the incongruity of the upholstered chair in which he is sitting, in a workshop—it is most likely upholstered with fabric produced on his loom.

Other people often call attention to the “musket-ball hole” in the window. I don’t give it a lot of thought, but there is one plausible explanation: Jacquard had put a lot of people out of work by mechanizing the loom in this fashion, so there may have been enough resentment for some to resort to violence.

Melissa: What can you tell us about your cataloging philosophy, and what information you decided to include when updating the catalog record?

Cataloger Woody Woodis surrounded by the tools of his trade. Photo by Melissa Lindberg, October 2017.

Woody: My philosophy is that you should capture all the information you can while you have the item in front of you. Ideally, we are better able to protect the item by reducing the need to retrieve it for subsequent record updates. These days the quality of scans is so good that you are able to examine an item in greater detail by zooming in on the scan.

It often pays to talk to other people. At first I didn’t know who this Jacquard guy was, but when I realized the item was fabric, I showed it to colleagues who like to knit, including one who also has a loom of her own, to get their impressions. Everyone was so excited. Then I learned about who Jacquard was and what he did. Often when cataloging an interesting or unusual object, I’ll look it up online or consult printed resources to see if I can learn more about it.

For this record, in addition to Jacquard’s name I added some index terms, such as “Inventors–1800-1840,” borrowing some terms from the Art & Architecture Thesaurus, such as “Jacquard looms–1830-1840.” As a form/genre heading I added “Jacquard–1830-1840.” Based on this picture and a few others from the American Colony collection I will propose “Jacquard looms” for the Library of Congress Thesaurus for Graphic Materials, the thesaurus we use most heavily for describing pictures.

To complete the catalog record I also included details like the upholstered chair, the instruments in Jacquard’s hand and others strewn about the room, the musket-ball hole in the window— information that I considered noteworthy.

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