*****Old Quilts Tell a Story by Florence Peto
Have you a patchwork quilt made by your grandmother, or by her mother? What do you know about it? How many times the writer has heard the expression--"I wish I had asked Mother about this quilt!" For the ones who can tell the story are passing on and the quilts are not everlasting. The magnitude of the patchwork quilt as a work of art may be controversial, but its importance as a family document cannot be questioned.
Look at your Rising Sun or Old Dutch Tulip, not as just another piece of needlework, however amazing its stitchery, but as a relic of the past which, carefully examined, will vitalize the personality of the maker and may reflect the influence, surroundings, and circumstances under which she lived and loved and plied her diligent needle.
For several years the writer has been collecting data and photographs of early American bed coverings--quilts, spreads, and woven coverlets. While beauty was important, they were selected primarily for interest in their historical and biographical backgrounds. It was woman's job to spin and weave, save scraps and sew. Frequently her imagination was stimulated to creative effort: designs were born which often were crude by usually vigorous and vital. A large percentage of the pieced blocks, being divisions of a square of sections of a circle, were geometric in composition and many of them must be as old as geometry itself. It has been said that men, better informed on mathematics, adapted geometrical diagrams to workable patterns for their womenfolk, but in developing patterns, it is known that women could and did employ methods which answered the same purpose. Deftly folded pieces of paper and skillfully wielded scissors were the answer to our quilt-making foremothers' need for triangles, diamonds, and five-, six-, and eight-pointed stars. Scientific-minded or not; she found a way. Also variation in the pieced four-path or nine-patch was fairly easy, but eventually appeared more intricate amnesiacs, composed of diamond, triangle, and hexagonal units, which we have no doubt were the result of many patient hours of extensive experimentation.
Certain traditional units and motifs of design were often employed which obviously have had their origins in antiquity, neither the American quiltmaker nor her presumable more inventive spouse having created them.
It was in the field of appliqué or 'laid-on' work that the greatest opportunity was offered for originality and for practically limitless good and bad effects from an artistic point of view.Sometimes the early quiltmaker achieved beauty through slow, back-breaking, eye-straining toil by taking one incredibly tiny stitch after another, spacing each with mechanical precision until a quilted pattern emerged as delicate and elegant as a piece of rare lace. In style, quilts run the gamut from those all-white quilted or French-knotted examples which show sheer technical perfection and good taste, through those pieces whose dramatic vividness demands the background of massive mahogany four-posters, if they are not to overpower everything else in the room, thence to quilts whose names, such as Liberty Quilt or Slave Chain, project and impassioned patriotism or partisan politics, coming finally to those pieces made so obviously because they were really fun to do!
An Album quilt, which reached a peak in elaborate design while still retaining the elements of good taste, is exemplified in the Baltimore Bride's Quilt, an autographed composition comprised of twenty-five appliquéd blocks, each different, yet with balance maintained, exquisite and even inspired workmanship employed, and brilliant but harmonious coloring used. From graceful baskets and horns of plenty pour forth flowers and fruits in luxurious profusion, while appealing birds and whimsical dogs seem to have been executed with deliberate humor. Instead of the more common use of embroidered stitches to indicate realistic details, India ink has been delicately and artistically applied. In no sense is there a feeling of over-ornamentation--an effect which easily might have resulted from the assembling of so elaborate a piece of needlework. Though each block carries a different signature, it is more than likely they were made by one needleworker; a characteristic technique peculiar to the workmanship points to one pair of hands, since twenty-five different women, however expert, could not have produced such uniformity.
Though the quilt's personal history was not available to us, it was obviously made for a bride. One revealing block showing a liberty blue anchor encircled with voluptuous full-blown roses bears the inscription in elegant handwriting, "In the Port of Bliss," signed "Lizza Reynolds."
Central interest is furnished by a spirited American eagle, the Flag and Shield, inscribed, "E Pluibus Unam" and "Albert Mussa." The good ship Alabama with billowing yellow sails and all flags flying, carries an ecstatically engrossed couple on her forward deck. As this part of the design bears the name "Susan Catz," there is no way of being sure if Susan was the happy girl or whether it was Lizza who was sailing toward the "Port of Bliss"; or, for that matter, whether Albert, holding central interest in the quilt, was the figure of importance to the bride. At the right of the ship there is a tree under whose dense shade an overfed and slightly wooden terrier ogles a not-too-shy dove, with the name "William Parrish." The valentine heart motif enclosing two more hearts and a pair of doves was sponsored by "Mrs. E. Gapes." Next to upper left, there is a house before whose fence a young lady in pantalets, carrying a basket on her arm, walks with her dog; two quite handsome white geese keep carefully ahead; "Jacob Miller's" name adorns the space between the chimneys. Regal and aware of his male grandeur, a gorgeous peacock poses (lower right) in a rose tree; his plumage is ingeniously suggested by the employment of a wavy, iridescent print, but the "eyes" in his tail feather have been produced by applying additional tiny patches of turquoise blue. "John Bush" signed this block. Other legible signature were: Mary Parrish, John Parish, Henry Bush, Prudence Bush, Mary Bush, Eliza Bush, Mary James, Mary Liza Larkin, Charlotte Miller, Sophia Miller, Amelia Cadis, George Boerie, Sallie Mitchell, Joshua Harrington, and Sarah Price. Most of the signatures bear the date 1851. A red, white, and blue border, over which was quilted the shell pattern in triple lines, makes an effective frame for a supremely lovely piece of needlecraft.
Pictures: (Top Left) A Liberty Quilt made by Hannah Childs Wood of Warren, R. I., when Congress adopted the eagle device on the U. S. A. Great Seal in 1782, is one of oldest and most exquisite extant American quilts. Owner, Mrs. A. Lindstrom. (Right center) Union Quilt is typical Pennsylvania-German design of Civil War period. This bold, vivid example was made c. 1861 by Mrs. Charles Burk. Owned and shown by Mrs. C. Knepper. (Lower Right) The Housman Family of Staten Island, whose Dutch ancestors settled there in 1675, inherited this merry quilt. Courtesy of Mrs. Frank Carroll. Major colors are red, green, and orange.
Although little verifiable biography enlightens the genesis of the merry Housman Quilt, the spirit of a locality animates it and it is vibrant with sentiment, symbolism, and the interests of a family. It was made in 1859, which is not old as quilts go. The present owner inherited it from an aunt whom she had seldom seen and she knows only that it was made in the Housman family which had Dutch ancestry; historical records show them to have lived on Staten Island as early as 1675. It is believed that some young son of the Housmans emigrated to Pennsylvania where he married a girl born and bred to German traditions. Being, therefore, well versed in local folklore, her patchwork took on the exuberant quality of a regional document which, at her passing, went to the Staten Island branch of the family.
Occupying central position is the red calico homestead with building-stones, and chimneys embroidered in chain stitches; ornamental stitchery is so often seen superimposed on the appliqué work of Pennsylvania-made quilts, it is tempting to call it characteristic. On both sides of the date have been placed pineapples, domestic symbol of hospitality. One of them, pieced of tiny rectangular patches hardly as large as your own small fingernail, has acquired a remarkable realistic effect. Left of center are two formalized trees of life, a little stark and primitive, but often seen in this form on other pieces of local handiwork. On each side of the house are more naturalistic, fruit-bearing trees under whose branches cocks and hens strut and feed. Baby's hands, scissors, and the baby's cradle over which hovers the dove, in this instance symbol of innocence, suggest woman's occupations. The capacious coffee mug, fancifully inscribed "John Demorest" and the Masonic and Odd Fellows' emblems, indicate masculine tastes and interests. There is speculation in the meaning of the Punch-and-Judy-looking figures; they may be Grandpa and Grandma Horseman; one or both may have had the disconcerting habit of mislaying his or her spectacles. Under the debonair horseman in orange breeches and green coat, "Euphemia" is stitched in outline; there is sad implication in the little riderless pony, who, by the way, carries an English saddle.
Of not so personal but more general interest are the flower forms. Left of the house is seen a conventionalized passion flower. The lute as a motif was often employed by music-loving people, while oak leaves (top row, right of center) bring to mind German songs and stories; it is written that in ancient oak groves Germanic forebears worshiped their gods and held their communal assemblies. In Pennsylvania the double rose, fuchsia, pomegranate, and tulip are constantly recurrent motifs in the adornment of dower chests, household utensils, and needlework.
Your old quilt may be decorated lavishly with hearts or there may be just one tucked away unobtrusively in a corner; the presence of a heart or dove indicated a bride's quilt. In the Housman Quilt a circle of hearts has been arranged in a round patch. The Star and Crescent (upper right-hand corner of the quilt) painted on a barn was a potent talisman to ward off unfriendly spirits from cattle and still other symbols had the property to insure prolific increase. Left of the Star and Crescent is the St. Andrew's Cross; though more often placed in a circle, in this quilt it has been set in a square. The St. Andrew's Cross, sure protection against sorcery, was a favorite hex mark. For instance, a witch, placing her hand on a door-knocker into which the occupant of the house as previously had the foresight to cut a St. Andrew's Cross, would be rendered helpless and impotent. Tools and guns, so marked, never disappeared or behaved badly.
In the Housman quilt a green leaf appliquéd close to the corner of each unit block becomes a group of four leaves when the blocks are set together; leaves cut in three lobes supply a pleasing border finish. this piece is owned and shown by courtesy of Mrs. Frank Carroll.
Here ends the first part of the article The second part will post on January 23, 2016.