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Lady Violette

The Romantic Lifestyle

Two Antique Manton de Manila Embroidered Silk Shawls From The San Francisco Gold Rush – 1850

January 28th, 2024 by violette

Part One in a Series on Antique Mantons de Manila, Antique Embroidered Shawls from Canton, Antique Embroidered Silk Piano Shawls, Embroidered Spanish Shawls and Spanish Flamenco Shawls ……..


During the Gold Rush, San Francisco was a frontier boomtown, a slice of the Wild West that was rapidly civilizing with the influx of money from the mining activities. In the early 1850s, two sisters attended the traveling opera in San Francisco, in a makeshift music hall with wooden chairs for seats. They wore their status on their persons, in the form of two dramatic, embroidered silk shawls, imported all the way from the exotic Far East by rickshaw, rail and sail. As they made their way up the steps, the shawls flowed around them, adding a sense of glamor and drama to the evening before the opera even began.

These women wore Cantonese, via Manila, Mantons – exotic heavy silk shawls hand embroidered in Canton for the export market, originally produced for well to do fashionable women in the Americas.  These two shawls were acquired by a ship captain in Canton and brought by ship to Manila, the capitol of the Spanish Colony in the Philippines. Then they traveled on the Manila Galleons from the Philippines to San Francisco where they were purchased by a gentleman gold miner who had struck it rich from the sea captain in 1850 during the heart the San Francisco Gold Rush (1848 – 1855.) It was socially and economically important for this businessman to exhibit his success by dressing the women in his family in the most expensive and fashionable attire of the times. In those days the opera was the place to see and be seen as well as the place all manner of social and business transactions were conducted. It was the perfect venue in which to exhibit these exquisite and expensive shawls and show off his beautiful wife and sister…

Provenance: His niece wrote, 

“This Spanish Shawl was bought in California ($150) in the years of the Gold Rush  – 1849 by my father’s Uncle, Nathanial S. Harold, for his sister my grandmother, Margaret Case, who gave it to me about February 1881. My uncle bought these two shawls from the captain of a ship that came from a far country for his wife and my mother and these two ladies wore them to the Opera in San Francisco.” Estylle M. Davis.

 Incidentally $150 in the years of the San Francisco Gold Rush (1850) is equal to $6,090.24 today! (January 28, 2024.) These shawls are now 176 years old!

The black and white shawl covered with camellias is one of those two shawls worn to the opera so long ago. It is wonderful and unusual that I know the provenance of this beautiful shawl. I acquired it 45 years ago from an antique dealer friend of mine who purchased it directly from the elderly niece of the original owners described above. I have both shawls from this transaction. The niece wrote the above statement on a card that accompanies the shawls in her own handwriting. I expressed interest in meeting Estylle M. Davis herself and my friend was able to arrange it! We visited her in her family home on Clay Street in San Francisco and she was so kind and lovely! She was happy that the person who acquired her shawls appreciated them and her family history. She showed us photos of her family from the Gold Rush days up to the present period which was 1986. She was in her late 90s when we met! I later learned that she passed away at the age of 103! She explained that the shawls were left to her by her female relatives when she was very very young – too young and small to wear them. She was the only female relative in the family to leave them to and they wanted to be sure that she would have them, as part of her history when she grew up.

Her motivation in selling her shawls was that she wanted to find them a home in which they would be treasured and cared for. She only had sons and they were not at all interested in the shawls. My antique dealer friend assured her that they would only be sold to an appropriate person. She was actually delighted to meet me and fortunately I was approved and passed inspection! Here is the note Estelle wrote:

Ideally, Estelle Davis wanted these two shawls to remain together as they had been purchased by Nathaniel Hawthorne from the sea captain and worn by his wife and sister, Estelle’s grandmother, Margaret Case. I promised to do so and so far have managed to keep them together……

The second shawl is ivory silk covered in a profusion of brightly colored birds, butterflies and exotic flowers skillfully hand embroidered in silk thread. A large peacock with its tail spread open occupies the center of this shawl, while colorful pheasants, flamingos and other exotic birds fill out the four corners. It is finished with a heavy white silk macrame lattice and long ivory fringe. I call this one The Birds of Paradise Manton. Manton is, simply, the word for shawl in Spanish.

These exquisite shawls were among the most treasured possessions of these two early San Fransisco women and were passed down to the niece who kept them carefully until she was an elderly woman in her 90’s, wearing them only on special holidays. These shawls were beautifully made and properly cared for and, as antiques, will continue to increase in value. They are both in excellent condition for their age – clean and free of damage. The embroidery is perfect. The hand macrame lattice is exceptionally elaborate and heavy and the silk fringe is dense and long. 

The embroidery on the Birds of Paradise shawl is unique in its imagery and imagination especially in the realistic depiction of birds from pheasants, to flamingos and peacocks – other atypical details include fanciful flowers and vines and plant pods insects and butterflies. Much of the embroidery is executed in satin stitch but the tails and wings of the peacocks and other birds are done in a fine herringbone stitch that imitates the texture of feathers. I do think some of the birds were fantastical combinations of different birds made by the designer embroiderer and I love this about it! The one below, in my opinion, is a kind of flamingo/ peacock combination!

When I discovered and acquired these two San Francisco Gold Rush Shawls I fell in love with them. I was fascinated by the highly skilled embroidery and the incredible designs as well as the history surrounding them. I began to investigate Manton’s de Manila and visit them in museums and textile collections whenever I could. And I began to assemble my own collection. I have now been collecting Manton’s de Manila for 45 years. In the process I have learned a lot about them and the women who originally owned and wore them. I have learned how these shawls were made and the history of the silk and fine embroidery trade between China, the Americas and Europe. I love learning the background history of the shawls as well as their beauty and especially value knowing about the women who originally owned them.

In future posts I will discuss the interesting history of the Mantons de Manila and share beautiful examples from my own collection and others. I am a dancer and I of course become interested in how the shawls have been incorporated into Flamenco and Spanish folk dance. I will show examples of their use in dance and how each art form has enhanced the other. Isadora Duncan, the famous modern dance pioneer, also initially from San Francisco, famously wore such shawls in performance and daily life with her famous Delphos gowns.

I will also explain how to care for these shawls properly, how to restore them, how to evaluate the originality, authenticity and quality of an antique Manton de Manila, and how to locate one if you want to acquire one for yourself. Because there is a lot of information to share I am choosing to do it in a series of Manton de Manila related blog posts.

The embroidery on the Black and White Shawl is executed in satin stitch. Both shawls are double embroidered on both the front and back in the same images making them completely reversible.

These shawls are large. The Black and White one is 60 inches square before adding the measurement of the fringe which is another 5 inches of macramé lattice work plus 13″ of long silk fringe. Thus another 18 inches of fringe all the way around the shawl.

When these shawls were made in the 1840s Western ladies were wearing enormous voluminous skirts that steadily grew in size through the decade! The large skirts were supported underneath by multiple petticoats, sometimes as many as seven at once. At least one of these petticoats would be a crinoline – a type of petticoat stiffened by horsehair. The steel cage crinoline was introduced in 1856. It provided immense relief from multiple heavy and cumbersome petticoats and allowed skirts to reach even larger new proportions especially between 1858 and 1862, relatively inexpensive, the cage crinoline was worn at all levels of society. The shawls were required to cover the lady and her crinoline skirt – thus the size! Today this size can adequately cover a queen or king sized bed as a coverlet or be used on a grand piano as a piano shawl or as a glamorous coverlet on a chaise lounge.

Shawls and beautiful historic dresses and other clothing and accessories are for sale in my online shops. 

Ebay: ladyviolettedecourcy

Etsy: LadyVioletteBoutiqe

Poshmark: cocoviolette 

Fashion Conservator: Lady Violette Boutique


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