So What the Heck are ‘Holland Covers’, anyway??

One of my most favorite scenes in a movie is the opening of the 1995 Persuasion  and the slow-motion laying on of the “holland covers” to protect all the Kellynch furniture as the Elliots retrench to Bath.  One can read just about any book of historical fiction and see this term used to refer to furniture coverings:  “shrouded in holland covers” or some such reference [just google ”holland covers” and you will see what I mean – even Balzac used the term!]  It is such a common reference in today’s historical fiction writings, and one reads along, knowing what it means, but where does the term come from? and most important of all, did Jane Austen ever use the term? 

 I have a book titled Regency Furniture, by Clifford Musgrave [any relation to The Watson’s Tom?], and there is much on Henry Holland, and I recall when I first bought this book that I thought perhaps this is where the term originated – Holland designed furniture, so coverings for said furniture could be called ‘holland covers’ – no?  Holland was the architect appointed by the Prince Regent [then the Prince of Wales] to rebuild and refurbish Carlton House, the Prince’s London establishment since 1783.  Carlton House was subjected to an endless series of alterations to the building and the furnishings for the next forty years, all to end in demolition in 1827.  But Mr. Holland is a topic for another post [he was the pupil and assistant of the landscape architect ‘Capability’ Brown and married his daughter Bridget, designed the PR’s Marine Pavilion in Brighton, laid out parts of the development of the fashionable Knightsbridge and Chelsea areas of London [including Sloane Square where Austen’s brother Henry lived] – so he will make a most interesting topic in his own right…] – but indeed he has nothing to do with ‘holland covers’ ….  But it is this thought that got me to wonder at its meaning…

Now,  if you search “Holland covers” on the ever-reliable, all-knowing, all-seeing internet, barely anything comes up, and certainly not an image in sight –  to whit: 

*There is a link to a description of the above-mentioned Persuasion

At the begining, we see Anne Elliot (Sally Hawkins) going through the rooms of her home, Kellynch Hall, as harried servants are trying to pack up, and placing holland covers on the furniture. She is marking items on lists and trying to direct the servants.

*A link to an online Google book  from 1909, Mrs. Wilfrid Ward’s Great Possessions, with chapter 33 titled “Brown Holland Covers”  [the full text is here in the event you cannot resist the whole book…]

*And Edith Nesbit makes mention of them here in her The Enchanted Castle.  

*There is a short advertisement in an 1856 edition of Punch, that is quite funny: 


 We beg leave to call the attention of ProFessor Owen to the very contradictory animal referred to in an extraordinary advertisement, relating to a Bath chair, which we are told “may be drawn by either a man or pony, painted maroon, lined with drab cloth and holland covers.” We can understand the possibility of painting either a man or a pony “maroon,” though we shonld question the good taste or the utility of applying such a mode of external decoration to either animal ; but that either of t them should be “lined with drab cloth and holland covers ” is a phenomenon we at once pro! nounce incredible. It is true that a man’s stomach has a coat, and so we presume has a pony’s, which may account in some degree for the very whimsical notion of a man or pony ” lined with cloth ;” and we hâve a faint glimmering of an idea suggestive of ” holland covers ” arising out of the tendency of an inveterate gin drinker to cover his inside with Hollands. Nevertheless, the advertisement is so odd, that if the advertiser were to take it into his head to poison half his relations, make away with himself, or steal a pound of pork sausages, we 1 dare say that no intelligent British jury would find any difficulty in pronouncing him ” Not Guilty,” on the ground of insanity.

*And from a book on Textiles in America, describing the proper way to make slipcovers, where we are told that these covers are removed for company, but that Holland, though the most durable, looks cold and chintz is thus much preferred…

*And a 1919 article in The Independent on “Summer Clothes for the House”.

[This dates me terribly I’m afraid to say, but my grandmother and mother always covered every piece of upholstered furniture in the summer with beautifully made slipcovers, holland covers being their precursor – they also rolled up all the rugs and put down lighter summer carpets and changed all the curtains to summer sheers and changed all the bedlinens [well, I still do that] and washed down all the walls – yikes!]

Now as for Austen:  I find no mention in the novels; indeed, the only reference comes up in a short tale found in the RoP’s “Bits of Ivory” section called The Key:   

He looked around at the furniture which has not seen any use for over five years, it was draped with Holland covers to keep off the dust–even though Mrs. Reynolds, being a conscientious housekeeper, regularly cleaned and dusted the room. Darcy was unaware that she often thought what a pity it was that the Master’s suite was not being used.

I can find no references in the letters, and wonder about the Juvenilia, where one would think Austen would have her heroines fainting on sofas that might be so covered…

So for me, back to the books:  A Dictionary of Costume and Fashion by Mary Brooks Picken [Dover, 1999] says the following under “Holland”: 

Closely woven linen fabric originally made in Holland.  The first Hollands were made of this fabric [i.e. a form-fitting foundation made by big establishments for special customers and used as a size guide in cutting and draping to save fittings] – a linen or fine cotton in plain weave, sized and often glazed [p. 175];

and under “Linens”:  firm, course, plain-woven, linen, unbleached or partly bleached, glazed and unglazed; originally from Holland.  Used for aprons, furniture covers, window shades, dress-form covers, etc. [p. 213]

And in Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic life in Victorian England, by Judith Flanders [Norton, 2004]:  

As the second half of the century progressed, hygiene became the overriding concern.  Mrs. Panton, still distressed about bedroom carpets, remembered a carpet that had spent twenty years on the dining room floor, “covered in Holland in the summer,” and preserved from winter wear by the most appallingly frightful printed red and green ‘felt square’ I ever saw.” [with a note:  Holland was a hard-wearing linen fabric, usually left undyed.  It was much used in middle- and upper-class households to cover and protect delicate fabrics and furniture.”  [p.  43] 

[quoting Mrs. Jane Ellen Panton, 1848-1923, author of many books on home decorations and home economics, her From Kitchen to Garret, published in eleven editions in ten years!]

And now I see that searching ‘holland linen’ and ‘holland cloth’ is more productive: 

*Here being the whole history of Dutch linen at A Fabric Collector’s Diary

*And at, a definition and a picture of plain old linen: 

Holland linen is a plain-woven linen fabric that is treated with oil and starch, making it opaque and hard for the sunlight to penetrate. This quality makes it well-suited for use in making window shades and lampshades.

*And even at British History Online, we find history of the import of holland linen:   

Holland and its neighbours were major producers of LINEN of all grades, the finest of which was usually designated simply as HOLLAND or HOLLAND CLOTH. It was much used for making the highest quality of NAPERY and BED LINEN above those made of DIAPER, HUCKABACK, FLAXEN CLOTH, HEMPEN CLOTH and TOW.

OED earliest date of use: 1617

Found described as PLAIN

[From: ‘Hobnail – Holliwortle’, Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities, 1550-1820 (2007)]

*And on this side of the pond at the MFA in Boston – their CAMEO site on materials: 

Material Name: holland cloth : 

Originally, the name for any fine, plain-weave, linen cloth manufactured in the Netherlands. Holland cloth now refers to a plain-weave cotton or linen fabric made opaque by fillers, sizing, and/or glazing. It is typically sized with starch, then glazed with a filled oil. Holland cloth is used for window shades, lamp shades, bookbinding, upholstery, labels, and gummed tapes.

 And so it goes – this search, much like my previous short post on the Steventon Rectory that started from a real estate ad and resulted in two posts and is still to be updated with new and amazing information – has just opened a huge can of worms – I just want to find an IMAGE of a piece of furniture in “holland covers” – if anyone has such, and there MUST be one out there somewhere, please email me the link – I will be forever grateful, and can thus bring this post to a close… and lacking holland covers, I am having this awful feeling of the need to vacuum and dust…