LEWISTON, Maine — At first glance, the film footage looks like just another quaint clip of post-war-era advertising.
A pair of women in dainty dresses chat over cups of tea. Standing above them in this small but tastily decorated room, a man in a suit beams down as a narrator describes the elegance and durability of the drapes and curtains.
Look more closely, though, and that beaming fellow begins to look familiar. Could it be a former president in his younger years?
Turns out, that’s exactly right. More than six decades ago, George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush, appeared in film — and print — to promote the Victoria curtains and bedspreads manufactured by Bates Mill of Lewiston, Maine.
The hook? The fine fabrics of Bates are just right for the discriminating college student looking for style and versatility.
“Victoria. Chosen by Barbara and George ‘Poppy’ Bush of Yale, and admired by Joan Walls of Bennington,” says the caption above the photo. “Joan and Barbara wear easy-to-sew campus fashions in Bates cotton. Young marrieds on campus make Bates the beautiful basis of a long-range decorating plan. Indispensable at college, these bedspreads and matching draperies stay fresh and bright through four years of wear and washing. After graduation, they are ready to grace a future bedroom or living room.”
The 1948 advertising material was found in a far corner of the dusty basement at Bates Mill No. 5. It could be considered a quaint relic from mill history, but no. The film has risen up out of the dust to great prominence in a regal setting: the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas.
“It’s really something historic,” said Susan Beane, archivist for Museum L-A. “It’s an important part of the Bushes’ lives.”
And for decades, no one knew it was there, forgotten in the depths of the old mill basement.
In April 2007, Beane said, museum workers were digging through old cabinets and crawl spaces, taking inventory and updating their archives. They came across the movie reel tucked inside a protective metal shell. It was bound up with strapping and there were indications that the reels had traveled around at one time.
“It looked like something special,” Beane said.
As special as a future president hawking drapery?
To find out what they had, the museum sent the film to Northeast Historic Film, a company based in Belfast. Experts analyzed the film and took a look at its footage. As it turned out, the find was a big one and it had been pulled out of the basement just in time.
“They told us that another six months to a year in there,” said Museum L-A Executive Director Rachel Desgrosseilliers, “and it would have been gone.”
The footage is roughly 15 minutes long and involves Bates Mill board members explaining their advertising process. The Bush segment appears roughly midway through.
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s people helped museum workers get in touch with the Bush Library. When the library folks in Texas realized what was being offered, they were thrilled.
“We are honored,” Bush Library Director Warren L. Finch wrote at the time, “to have this historical film to add to our audiovisual collection.”
The museum was not compensated for its donation, but it does have a copy of the Bush “Back to School” film in digital format. The museum plans to post that on its website, along with the print version of the ad that appeared in the popular magazines of the day.
In the meantime, there is no mystery about why a future president was plugging Bates fabric at a time when he was also charting the course of an illustrious future. According to Museum L-A:
“Married Yale University students George ‘Poppy’ and Barbara Bush appear as themselves on the film as members of the Bates College Board, an advisory panel comprised of representative students from the nation’s leading colleges and universities.
“Board members would provide feedback to Bates designers and participate in fashion shows and product promotions on film and in print. In the film, the Bushes introduce themselves, are seen participating in group sessions, and filming a vignette promoting the Bates Victoria bedspread and curtains, which was also photographed for an advertisement that ran in American Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines.”