History Captured In Painted Curtains

Sep 30, 2015

In the early part of the last century, town halls and Grange halls were the social centers of rural communities. Adorning the stages of many of them were unique painted curtains created by traveling artists. 

The curtains languished for years until a Vermont woman took an interest in restoring them.

Now she’s set about cataloging similar curtains in other parts of the country as part of a project called Curtains Without Borders.

Stand in front of an old painted curtain from the 1930s, like the one at the East Randolph Community Center and you’re carried to another time. 

It features a painting of a lake, but it’s dominated by advertisements for businesses like  a local creamery, a dry goods store, and the flour, feed and coal company. Many of the telephone numbers have just three digits.

“It’s a snapshot of what life was like in rural Vermont in the 1930s. This is how people lived and what they were doing,” says Chris Hadsel, who with her team, has restored nearly two hundred of these painted curtains in Vermont.  

Much less expensive than the draperies of the day, a curtain painted on muslin added a stylish touch to the halls and helped hide cluttered stages.

The scenes painted on them are often fanciful. Some are dramatic mountain views from the far west.

Chris Hadsel's project has restored hundreds of painted curtains in Northern New England, including this one in East Randolph.
Credit VPR/Steve Zind

Ancient scenes are also popular. Roman chariot racing seems to have captured the imagination of more than one artist.

Hadsel says some towns are rich in painted curtains.

“Broad Brook Grange in Guilford has got five wonderful curtains. The front grand drape shows Ben Hur’s chariot race, she says.

Guilford has so many curtains because it was the  home of one of the most prolific of the painted curtain artists.

Charles Henry, who died in 1917, made his living touring the region with his family, performing original plays and painting curtains.

"This is amazing to us that these things can still come out of the woodwork and be so grand and so beautiful." - Chris Hadsel of Curtains Without Borders

Hadsel has removed years of grime and mended the torn muslin of curtains painted by Henry and others.

As word of her works has spread, she’s heard of more curtains – more than she ever imagined.

"Twelve or 15 years ago when we started all this, we thought there might be 25 curtains if we were lucky. We kept finding more and more of them so we kept restoring more and more of them and word started getting out,” she says.

In addition to the Vermont curtains, Hadsel has identified or restored another 300 in New Hampshire and Maine. Photographs of many of them are in her book called Suspended Worlds.

Now Hadsel has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts matching grant to catalog painted curtains in other parts of the country.

“In Texas it turns out, at least all the ones I know of so far, are in former one-room schoolhouses,” she says.

In Vermont, town halls were often adorned with painted curtains. In Maine, Grange halls were favored.

"In Texas it turns out all the ones I know of so far are in former one-room schoolhouses,” says Hadsel.

It will take future grants to carry out the process of restoring the painted curtains, but just as she once thought there were only a handful of them in Vermont, she’s getting an inkling that are many undiscovered treasures in other parts of the country, too.  

“This is amazing to us that these things can still come out of the woodwork and be so grand and so beautiful,” she says. “That’s what’s fun.”

In coming years, Hadsel hopes to make a project that was once unique to Vermont a nationwide effort to restore a preserve a part of the past.