Before Captain Kidd turned pirate he set up housekeeping in New York with his wife, Sarah, in 1692, and among the sixty items of their household furnishings were three quilts, probably part of Mrs. Kidd's wedding dower.
The patchwork quilt was really a product of the early American woman's spare time and her piece bag, where reposed every scrap of cloth left over from the making of garments as well as pieces salvaged from clothing too worn for further use. North, South, and West, in cabins and mansions, bits of linen, cotton, silk, and wool were saved and so utilized. The first quilts were probably of wool, with that oldest of designs, the "crazy" patchwork. They were essential to comfort in those poorly heated houses of colonial days and were doubtless more for warmth than ornament. Then, as conditions grew easier in a rapidly developing country, the quilt became elaborate of design and ornamental of purpose. It was now used principally as a counterpane and several of them were part of the dower of every well-equipped bride.
There were various types of quilts and their designs were legion but basically there was only one way to make them. Each one consisted of a top with the design put on by patchwork or appliqué, or both, an interlining of cotton or wool, and a back of plain material. The piecing of the top was done by the women of the family in their spare time and when completed was folded away until such time as was convenient for a quilting bee.
As not more than eight women could work conveniently on a quilt at a time, the hostess of those days usually waited until at least two quilts were ready for the quilting frames; then she issued her invitations to the women in the neighbourhood to come and make a day of it. The occasion might even coincide with a corn husking or barn raising, to which the men of the neighbourhood would be invited as well. Mrs. John A. Logan, wife of General Logan of Civil War fame, gives a clear description of such a social function in southern Illinois about 1840 in her Reminiscences of a Soldier's Wife:
A patchwork quilt was generally prepared
thus for quilting: the lining was first laced in frames made for the purpose,
the cotton laid smoothly over the lining, then the patchwork spread over
and basted closely all around the edges. Then, with chalk and a line,
the women marked out the designs for the quilting, fan-shaped figures
being the most popular. After quilting one or two rows of fans, according
to the size, the side frames were loosened, the quilted part rolled up,
and the frame again fastened by placing a peg through the holes in the
frames, thus allowing the quilters to reach another row nearer the centre,
repeating the process until the whole of the quilt was quilted.
From such a party may have come the inspiration of Stephen Foster's lilting lines, written in the 1850's:
In the sky the bright stars glittered,
This American folk-song genius was born near Pittsburgh in 1826 and doubtless knew this pleasing social custom at first hand. Incidentally, if Nellie said "yes," a party for the quilting of the traditional bride's quilt was in order. This was always an elaborate piece of needlework. The top might have been made years before and folded away in the dower chest, but invitations to a quilting where the heart design was employed was tantamount to an engagement announcement. For hearts were the insignia of a bride, and up to 1840 such a design used in any quilt other than that of a bride was considered most unlucky and presaged that dire disaster, a broken engagement.
In Harriet Beecher Stowe's seldom read novel,
The Minister's Wooing, there is a detailed account of such a quilting
Madame de Frontignac had entered with hearty abandon into the spirit of the day. At the quilting she would have a seat and soon won the respect of the party by the dexterity with which she used her needle; though, when it was whispered that she learned to quilt among the nuns, some of the elderly ladies exhibited a slight uneasiness, as being rather doubtful whether they might not be encouraging papistical opinions by allowing her an equal share in the work of getting up their minister's bed quilt.
According to Mrs. Stowe, the conversation never flagged, ranging from theology to recipes for corn fritters, and from sly allusions to the future "lady of the parish" to the doctrine of free will and predestination, until the whole company were summoned to the kitchen where "a long table stood exhibiting all that plenitude of provision which it is unnecessary to recapitulate in detail. The husbands, brothers, and lovers had come in and the scene was redolent of gayety. Groups of young men and maidens chatted together, and all the gallantries of the times were enacted. Serious matrons commented on the cake and told each other high and particular secrets in the culinary art which they drew from remote family archives. Gradually the company broke up; the matrons mounted soberly on horseback behind their spouses; the doctor returned to his study for nightly devotions; and sleep settled down on the brown cottage."
Perhaps the rarest quilts today are those of all-white linen or cotton, bearing no design of patchwork or appliqué but depending for design solely on the quilting pattern. They had a thin interlining and the special quilting design usually consisted of a large central panel or pattern with smaller ones in harmony for the corners. Literally, every inch of the material was quilted, even to the background, which resembled a woven fabric. After the quilt was removed from the frames, the main design was often brought into further relief by stuffing the most prominent features. This was accomplished by tiny holes made on the wrong side and cotton pushed in with a large needle until every detail so treated stood out in bold relief.
The finest specimens of this type were made during the latter part of the eighteenth, and the beginning of the nineteenth, century. Unfortunately, the fashion of dressing beds all in white caused their owners to use the quilts so constantly that the majority were worn out long before the present-day era of antique collecting. In fact, I know of one good example that ingloriously finished its days as a mattress cover!
Owing to hard usage the quilt made prior to 1800 is comparatively rare, but as the high point in this art was reached in the first half of the nineteenth century, there are many beautiful examples extant. They are to be found in the North, South, and Middle West. Some authorities hold that some of the finest work was done in the West. Certainly many intricate and original patterns were evolved there.
As has already been stated, the designs were so numerous from colonial days down to the 1870's, when quilt making as a craft perished except in isolated sections, that they can be touched on in only the most superficial manner here. Like other bits of folk art, they mirrored political, economic, and social conditions. Three patchwork examples stand forth as typical of a political period: "Queen Charlotte's Crown," named for the wife of George III, and still popular in the mountains of Kentucky and Virginia under the name "Indian Meadow," "Dolly Madison's Star," reminiscent of the days of a young and struggling republic; and "Mrs. Cleveland's Choice." The last-named bears the distinction of being the very last of the quilt designs. Other descriptive and suggestive names for both appliquéd and pieced quilts were "The Whig Rose," "The President's Wreath," "Basket of Tulips," "The Pine Tree," "The Tree of Life," "Indian Hatchet," and so on ad infinitum.
Then there were the quilts made for a special purpose or occasion. In this category belongs that ancestor of the modern guest book, the Autograph Quilt. It was usually of the simple nine-patch design and the general rule was that each block should be made by the person who signed it from material owned by that person. While the result might fall a little short, artistically, such a quilt was obviously much cherished by its owner. Closely related was the Friendship Quilt, literally one of many colours, since the maker begged from each of her friends material for a block. Sometimes the blocks were all of one design, but often several patterns would be found gaily consorting together. This, again, made for more interest than artistic merit but, as it called for two parties-one for piecing and one for quilting-it ranked high from a social point of view. And occasionally a really beautiful quilt resulted. I know of one, made in Baltimore, Maryland, about 1851. Against an elaborately quilted background of white are appliqued twenty-five blocks ranging in design from a samplerlike house and garden scene to a simple floral arrangement. The woman who fashioned them not only had a good eye for colour but chose to introduce a patriotic note in the three stripes of red, white, and blue that form the border and in the central block which has an American eagle and a slightly inaccurate but effective American flag. Another block depicts a ship with sails set and flags flying. This emphasis of the patriotic motif may quite definitely reflect the Mexican War of 1848.
All the blocks except two are signed. Nor is it entirely a feminine affair, since nine of the squares bear men's names. Further, the surname Bush is much in evidence indicating that the maker of the quilt was a member of that family or on exceedingly friendly terms with it. As is all too often the case, the name of the actual maker is unknown. Out of the Friendship Quilt doubtless grew the idea of one especially made for men. This was a Freedom Quilt made and presented to a young man on the occasion of his twenty-first birthday by the girls of his acquaintance. It was then laid away until the time when he added it to the dowry of his bride. The term "freedom" was derived from the special emphasis laid in the early days on a man's legal coming of age. After that time neither his parents nor his guardian could take his wages, apprentice him, or legally restrict him. In a word, he was free. After 1825 this emphasis was less marked and with it passed both the freedom suit and the Freedom Quilt. As the nineteenth century drew into its last quarter the general decadence of the era, artistically, took its toll of the quilts. The whir of the sewing machine was loud in the land and less and less time was spent bending over the quilting frame.