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J.B. Moore: More than One Way to Sell a Rug

Variant on J.B. Moore’s Plate XXX Rug, c. 1920
Navajo; Crystal, San Juan County, New Mexico
Wool and pigment; 69 1/2 × 54 in.
2016.12.4
Gift of Dennis Aigner
            Variant on J.B. Moore’s Plate XXX Rug, 1910-1920
            Navajo; Crystal, San Juan County, New Mexico
            Churro wool and pigment; 98 x 82 in.
            2017.9.2
            Gift of Dennis Aigner
Made in Crystal
J. B. Moore was relatively unknown before coming to the remote Narbona Pass in the Navajo Nation in 1896. There is evidence he had previously served as a Mayor in Wyoming and already having picked up and moved from his birthplace in Texas this perhaps indicates a degree of restlessness. Whatever his rationale, upon arriving he purchased the trading post and renamed it Crystal. The locale was isolated. His intention has been to trade goods to the Navajo and make his real money off selling Navajo textiles, but without any real traffic he needed to bring a unique edge to selling Navajo textiles. And so Moore set to work finding the best area weavers, and having them design plates for a catalogue he could sell back east. In 1903 and 1911 Moore published mail order catalogs featuring plates of the rugs, 31 in total. This post focuses on two variations of Moore’s plate XXX.
A rare photograph of Moore standing with an unidentified Navajo weaver. From Moore's 1911 catalogue.
Wool & What’s Weft
The first item to cover is Moore’s process. Like any good business, Moore had different packages with the premium option being the must buy for all but the hoi palloi. His two separate grades of Navajo textile both began with local wool, but only his finest ER-20 grade wool was sent to mills back east for cleaning and dyed by his wife with aniline dyes in their kitchen. This grade escapes the color variance and discoloration seen in many Navajo textiles due to the weavers dying the wool themselves in small batches with inferior mordants. By looking closely 2016.12.4 we can see that there is a significant striation, especially among the reds and browns. Relative to this, even the red-dyed sections of 2017.9.2 have maintained their vibrancy and chromatic uniformity.
 'Bi-leen Al-pai-Bi-zha-ahd,' c. 1911
Better Be-weaver
Moore also capitalized on featuring his weavers in publications. Every catalogue had a section describing the weavers and individual plates often mentioned the original designer’s name. Despite publicly hailing the individuality of his weavers and the originality of their designs, he likely hoped to streamline designs for his customers—a feat he never quite managed. In his 1911 catalogue he unhappily wrote that the weaver of plate XXX, Bi-leen Al-pai-Bi-zha-ahd—a phonetic spelling of the weaver’s name created by Moore—will “never weave after a pattern designed by another nor can she be induced to duplicate one worn by herself once she has done it.”  Instead, when customers ordered Moore’s rugs, they chose a pattern, size and color scheme. He then issued his superior yarn to the best weavers on the condition that they wove only slight variations of his standardized patterns. These slight differences are as grand as what we in the comparison of 2016.12.4 and 2017.9.2. A different color scheme was likely selected, but buyers would not have been aware of the changes to the borders and minutely affected changes to form until after they had received the textile.
Navajo and Moore-ish Motifs

As said before it was Bi-leen Al-pai-Bi-zha-ahd who ostensibly designed this rug, and some of the elements do have important antecedents in Navajo weaving. The central diamond is one of the two features immediately seen in plate XXX and as a motif it symbolizes the Navajo homeland. The geometric shapes and aesthetics certainly indicated to potential buyers that these rugs were Navajo. However, Moore also had a hand in these designs. Like many of the Navajo traders he realized that by selling exactly what buyers on the East Coast wanted he could greatly increase demand. The two T-shaped bracketing elements seen on each rug likely do not originate from the Navajo, but we see in this example that they come from the pile woven carpets of the Caucus mountains. J.B. Moore was particularly well-known for introducing 'Oriental' elements to Navajo rugs. Interestingly the swastikas seen here fall right in the middle of this cultural divide. The importance of the symbol as the Navajo ‘whirling logs’—a motif from the sand paintings of their Night Chant—did not come to light until 1917 when the Navajo medicine man Hosteen Klah began to weave and paint Navajo sand paintings for the first time. It was not until the 1920s that this connection between the whirling logs and the swastika was made, by which time the Asian motif had already been introduced and used for at least 40 years. Despite the façade published in Moore’s catalogues the weavers were really given very little freedom in their creations. The slight variations seen between these two rugs were one of the primary ways Navajo weavers made crafting the same designs over and over palatable.

Antique Kazak prayer rugs from the Caucus mountains, late 19th Century
Possibly inspiration for Moore's plate XXX.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.

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Wednesday, 23 October 2019

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