Thursday, August 4, 2011

Discovering history via quilts

My grandmother was a quilter. Every year she spent the winter months making a quilt as something to do during those long, grey days when she couldn’t be outside in her garden. I still have two of those quilts—one a wedding ring quilt and the other a bow tie quilt made from fabric of the dresses my mother, sisters and I had back in the 1950s. What a piece of family history!

Since moving to Fort Wayne I’ve gotten to know another quilter. Jan Johnson moved here from the Pacific Northwest to live closer to her grandchildren after the death of her husband. Jan is a quilter AND a history buff!

So this year at the Buffalo Tro, we once again have Jan’s history quilts in our Silent Auction—one of Underground Railroad signs and the other made from the wrappers that went around cigars in the early 1900s, showing the flag of the country where the tobacco was grown and the cigars made.

It seemed only appropriate with Tro coming up that we blog a little about it and more posts will start appearing about the magic of the Chief Richardville House on a warm fall evening. Peace and quiet, a sense of the fabulous parties the Chief hosted at his residence, the taste of buffalo cooked in an open fire and the knowledge that your presence can help school-age children attend the History Center via our Heritage Education Fund are all part of the evening.

But back to the quilts. Last year I mentioned to Jan that we have a hands-on exhibit for kids that features artwork of quilt block patterns that were allegedly used to direct runaway slaves on their path to freedom. Jan hadn’t heard of this use for quilts—but she was intrigued—and so she began her research into historical quilts. As she travels, she looks for fabric—like the tobacco flags—that can be incorporated into quilts or for historic patterns that she can replicate.

We can’t possibly tell you all there is to know about the history of quilts in one blog post—or even multiple posts. The books on this art form are many and varied and take up quite a bit of space at the Allen County Public Library’s main branch. But here are a few quick bits of history to know:

American women in the 19th century regularly made quilts to raffle to raise funds to support political causes. Just because they couldn’t vote didn’t mean they couldn’t express their opinions!

The origins of American quilts extend to Europe, Asia and India.

Quilts were a rare item in the 17th century and were found only in the homes of the well-to-do and merchants. These quilts were not handmade by their owners but imported.

During the Civil War, women on both sides raised money for the cause by making and raffling quilts. One such quilt sold the first time for $100, the next week for $400 and four more times in amounts of $115, $500 and $250. The quilt was entitled “Gunboat” and made in 1860 by Martha Jane Singleton Hatter (1815-1896), of cotton, silk and silk taffeta. It measures 66 x 66 inches and now is a part of the collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art.

There has been much study of African-American quilts but authenticated quilts are often difficult to find because they remained in the possession of slave owners.

Two exceptions are quilts made by Harriet Powers, born into slavery in 1837. Fifty years later she made two quilts, one of which hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the other in the Smithsonian. According to “African American Quilt Making in Michigan”, “Powers used appliqu├ęd silhouettes of human figures, geometric motifs, and other design combinations that resemble the styles found among the people of ancient Dahomey in West Africa.” Quilts made by Elizabeth Keckley, a slave who bought her freedom with her skill in needlework, are thought to contain scraps of garments she made for Mary Todd Lincoln.

Flour and feed sacks were often used to make quilts (and clothing) during the Depression and on into the 1950s in some areas. Booklets were printed giving instructions on how to remove the dye stamps of the logos. It was even suggested that the string be saved to make doilies and tablemats. THAT’S recyling!

When trying to date a quilt, it is suggested that, if there is no documentation as to when it was made, you settle for a 25 to 50 year span.

If you’d like to know more about native quilting, you can visit the Michigan State University Museum or sign onto:

Each of Jan's quilts contains information about the patterns used for the quilt blocks.

The information above comes in large part from the book “The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort, 1750-1950” by Roderick Kiracofe, text with Mary Elizabeth Johnson, copyright 1993.

Other works consulted for this article were:

“Quilts from the Civil War” by Barbara Brackman, copyright 1997

“To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions” edited by Marsha L. MacDowell and C. Kurt Dwhurst, copyright 1997

“African American Quiltmaking in Michigan” Marsha L. MacDowell, editor, copyright 1997

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