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Mercers 1

Today, I listened to a design story from a colleague about a lady who was concerned with finding the right fabrics for her antique American furniture seating in a beautiful historic home in Charleston, South Carolina. She was not satisfied with any of the local designer’s ability to select the correct document fabrics for her chairs and sofas because she was shown many fabrics which had origins in France. I must say that I never encountered this person while living in Charleston or I would have taken great pleasure educating her. With Historic Charleston Foundation right under her nose, she reached out to Colonial Williamsburg and their specialists who introduced her to a fabric line called Waverly. Now, this is a nice line of less expensive open stock fabrics that sells to the public and suits most all budgets. A budget was not the issue in this case but “period” authenticity of the fabric for this most formal collection of seating. This collector seemed to have the idea that American furniture was born with all American made fabrics in the 18th and early 19th century and she was entirely Franco phobic. What on earth would Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams have to say to this poor lady?


Mercers 2

This brings me back to the discussion of my previous article about the “mercer’s” role with the distribution of luxury goods in France. In the first half of the 18th century both the Lyonnais and the Parisians were involved in the designs and distribution of silks. The newest and most expensive were sold to the court. Adaptations of older designs were made for other groups in Paris, the provinces, foreign cities, and the colonies. The “Mercers” set the price to the appropriate market and as long as they judged their market correctly and made good “deals” with their suppliers they were successful selling both the old and new designs. The mercers sold to a range of clients which included men and women, for various uses which also meant selling to commercial clients such as the tapissiers (upholsterers), tailleurs (tailors) and the Marchand (es) de modes (milliners). Choice of fabrics was seen in terms of the pattern, quality and of course the price. The value of a fabric was always subject to devaluation after the first season it came onto the market. The inventories in trouble or “anciennes marchandises” were rarely written off but loaded onto ships to be sold in both North and South America for half their Paris market price.


Mercers 3

In modern terms I may say to the Charlestonian lady that the French in Lyon were wonderful fabric designers who turned these designs into beautiful fabrics for a large clientele which included the depreciated fabrics sold to the Americans. The statement is only part true because there was a big problem with design theft. Once the sample books were sent to Paris, the provinces and abroad then placed in the hands of a “commissionaire” and potential clients, the design was subject to be stolen, copied and produced by others from places such as Germany, London, Holland, Flanders and even the Parisians. Legislation was eventually put in place to protect the designs. The point is that the Charlestonian’s furniture could have been “born” with a French fabric or a French style copy made in another country.

Mercers 4

The mercer’s role was to communicate the Parisian demand and the pulse of the market. They were not acting as designers but constantly pushing for novelty which was the most important ingredient for a successful design to the Parisians. The mercers provided information about what was fashionable to the supplier and the client who in turn provided them with huge profits. The mercers were dealing in premium goods with the Parisians and were also finding markets to distribute the goods the Parisians would not accept which included the Americas.


It is unfortunate that the Charlestonian lady did not have the little bit of information presented here or had an understanding of how we are all affected by the arts, designs and cultures of other countries. We are all joined together by common threads bound by history and the excursion of life is but a pathway where those of us with open eyes absorb small specks of these cultures and their influence each and every day.




About the Author

Mary Helen McCoy

Mary Helen McCoy

Mary Helen McCoy is a woman with a mission – that is, to deliver to her clients the ultimate in period furniture and decorative arts. Her firm is considered one of the nation’s premier sou...