Kindness in Real Life: Charley Moss donation boosts Maritime Society collection
It’s not often a museum gift can be called transformative, but Charley Moss’s donation of 22 Victorian sailors’ embroideries or “woolies” to the New London Maritime Society is just that. The collection has given the Custom House something that is not only rare but also full of charm, and which provide an authentic glimpse into the minds and hearts of the 19th century sailor.
Charles B. Moss, Jr. is the third of a four-generation entertainment business founded in New York City in 1900 called Bow Tie Cinemas. A modest man, in 2015 Charley Moss was the recipient of ShowEast’s Salah M. Hassanein Humanitarian Award.
About that award an industry website states “Bow Tie Cinemas, B.S. Moss Enterprises and Bow Tie Partners represent four generations of industry leaders and entertainment entrepreneurs that encountered every single up and down this business has ever seen.”
Bucking the trends and believing there remains value in the movie experience, Moss develops new movie theaters, among them a new line of Bow Tie Ultimate theaters featuring luxury amenities.
A belief in the value of the shared experience is key to many of Charley Moss’s efforts. Moss served for more than a decade as president and chairman of Variety: The Children’s Charity. “During that time we changed the focus of Variety from its traditional direction to a more grass-roots approach... I felt very strongly about refocusing Variety on helping children through the arts,” he said.
Moss took a similar approach to the woolies collection he inherited from his parents. He wanted to give the works to a Connecticut maritime museum where it might make a difference.
In December 2017, the Custom House Maritime Museum received a call offering us the collection. The exhibition Victorian Woolies: Sailors’ Stitchery and Other Pastimes: The Charles B. Moss Sr. & Paula Moss Collection, opened at the Custom House in mid-March.
The 22 woolie works were collected in London in the early 1960s and 1970s by Charles B. Moss Sr. and Paula Moss, the second generation of Moss theatrical impresarios, who traveled abroad for business and pleasure.
For many decades the pieces hung in the Moss’s dining room. In 1986, several works were loaned to the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Museum of Design for an exhibition, “Embroidered Ship Portraits,” the first major exhibition of this seafarers’ art presented in the United States.
Much like scrimshaw, woolies were a result of sailors applying their skills to a craft during downtime at sea. In the days of the great sailing ships, sailors were required to repair canvas sails and make their own uniforms; they already had stitchery skills.
When Berlin Woolworks — embroidery kits with brightly colored yarns — became a fashion in western Europe and North America in the mid-19th century, sailors followed suit. They purchased their wool yarns on shore and scavenged the canvas backings on deck. Most of the embroideries are British. Dates range from about 1840 up to the first World War coinciding with a period of relative calm for the Royal Navy, the opening of the Orient and an exposure to Asian needleworks, and the last hurrah of the great sailing ship.
With the advent of steam-propelled vessels, sewing skills and a large crew to handle the sails became unnecessary.
Only up to a few thousand woolies are thought to have been made, and sailor embroidery collections are rare. At the Custom House, we’ve been surprised at how many die-hard salts have never even heard of a woolie before. Everyone who sees them is captivated.
We met Ben Moss, the fourth Moss generation, when we picked up the collection in February. Ben said “All of the charitable and humanitarian work that [Charley] does is really very much under the radar. He has never been the kind of guy who does those things just so that he can be recognized. Charley will only reluctantly tell you about it.”
Susan Tamulevich is executive director of the New London Maritime Society.
Victorian Woolies: Sailors’ Stitchery and Other Pastimes: The Charles B. Moss Sr. & Paula Moss Collection, will remain on view at the Custom House through June 10.
A special two-part workshop, Stitch Your Own Wooly, taught by Christina Corcoran, will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 5 and 11. A $50 fee includes materials.