Monday, November 18, 2019

New Data Point: Bird Panel Dated 1812


Christopher Wilson Tate at the Antique Textiles Company in London showed this British bedcover last year at the Houston Quilt Market.

It is dated and signed Mary Gibbs, 1812, quite an important quilt
in the database of panel quilts.

That central octagon certainly looks like a panel, although it
might be a regular repeat chintz carefully cut and framed.

Much like this central image in a similar quilt in the collection
of the Quilters Guild in York. The label notes the floral is cut and
framed: "pieced to emulate a block printed panel and then framed with a green sprigged strip."


In both an elongated hexagon shape creates an octagonal design with a light square in the center. Little information came with this quilt.

But Tate has examined the bird fabric and he believes it's
 a panel "not seen on an antique quilt before," We will
have to agree with him.

Do note the oak-style leaves shaded from yellow to green. Very much
in the style of Bannister Hall.


The quilt is important not only for its unusual panel but also for it's date.



The bad news is another date-inscribed quilt means we have to re-do the analysis. We now have 8 British quilts ranging from 1810 to 1834.



The good news is that it doesn't skew the data older or newer. The British dated quilts still range from 1810 to 1834, which means even though we have a small sample the sample seems to be representative.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Conclusions 3: Who Made These Panel Quilts?

Similar panel medallions featuring the central Trophy of Arms panel 
from families in the Charleston, South Carolina area

When we began looking at Southern chintz quilts and panel quilts in particular we looked for family and neighborhood connections, figuring women who were related or were neighbors might have worked together to make similar quilts with the same fabrics. What connected the two quilts above?

Wallace Nutting staged photo "Birthday Flowers" about 1915
Nostalgia as history

The Alston and Read bedcovers are examples of pieces handed down in families who lived near each other in both their Charleston and rural plantation homes.

The Alston's town house still stands on King Street

Both families had a city home and a plantation home; both were extremely wealthy before the Civil War when the quilts were made. Both were members of the plantation aristocracy with fortunes based on rice and cotton produced by hundreds of slaves.

The Read's plantation house Rice Hope also survives.
The quilts' centers

How did the quilts come to look so much alike in style and fabric?

Perhaps the makers sewed together socially, perhaps they attended needlework classes together,
perhaps....

1850 French fashion plate

Date? Late 19th-century depiction of early-19th-century quilting party

It's hard to unlearn our views on 19th-century quiltmaking.

Almost identical centers from North Carolina and South Carolina.

But we often found similar quilts with no plausible link between families or locations.

 Mary Jones Jones (1809-1869), Liberty County, Georgia
Special Collections at Tulane University
Mary mentioned quilts in her letters
 collected in the book Children of Pride.

We read a good deal about the planter aristocracy in town and country, their social life, household effects, interconnected genealogies, economic framework, household slaves and their needlework accomplishments.

Illustration by Beulah Strong from Aunt Jane of Kentucky, 1907

We came to see that we were basing our understanding of how sewing fit into the lives of the antebellum Southern aristocracy on the wrong model, the familiar model of sewing and quiltmaking as a social event, which we see in our own lives and in accounts going back for generations in much of the U.S. But not in plantation society along the southern Atlantic coast. 

Mary Boykin Chesnut & Molly,  still Mary's slave when these South Carolina
 studio portraits were taken in the early 1860s.

These women lived very different lives from their Northern peers.


A better model would be the one sketched by William Dunton in the 1940s when he encountered a group of similar quilts made in slave-holding antebellum Baltimore. He attributed them all to one woman Achsah Goodwin Wilkins. Rather than stitching all the quilts Achsah is thought to have been the designer. Recent research by Ronda Harrell McAllen draws the conclusion that Achsah's extended family and servants probably generated this body of medallion bedcovers.


We can view the Baltimore chintz bedcovers as made by professional seamstresses to formula constructions in connection with stores selling fabric (the Wilkinses were in the dry good business). We propose the same business model for the chintz quilts from the deep South. Someone (more than one someone) had a good deal of chintz panel fabric, a fashionable design sense and a crew of skillful needlewomen.

We see in these quilts found in private collections and museums a general Southern style of applique medallion, characterized by an economical use of fabric: large pieces of floral chintz, stripes and panels. (Small pieces require more seams and proportionately more fabric.)


They are also economical in the sense of an economy of handwork, requiring little stitching time. Placement and composition of the elegant chintzes in a good deal of white space is the signature style in these bedcovers. The more we looked the more we saw a professional hand.

MacMillan Family, North Carolina project
North Carolina Museum of History Collection

Charleston Museum


We also noticed how cleverly the seamstresses made use of every scrap and what a lot of scraps some of them had. So much "cabbage"---left overs---from various panels and chintzes implies that the stitchers had access to a lot of surplus parts---the type of fabric use one might see in a workshop producing numerous related pieces rather than in one individual hobbyist's sewing basket.

Quilt attributed to Catherine Barnwell Barnwell
Charleston Museum

Catherine's quilt is one of the exceptions to the general look of Carolina chintz quilts. Her panel quilt was possibly made as hobby needlework. A workshop would have a hard time stitching profitable bedcovers from labor-intensive hexagon patchwork.

How a Workshop Might Distribute Bedcovers

There are many ways that the once-wealthy women who passed these southern-style quilts down might have come to own them.

Detail of the Barnwell quilt

1) The general assumption by families and many museums is that ancestors stitched the bedcovers as a pastime. This is a possibility for some such as Catherine Barnwell's but in many families the  formula bedcover is the only example of fine needlework handed down that can be attributed to the woman. Sewing such a fine piece would seem to require a repertoire of needlework skills and a collection of other heirlooms that are missing.

2) We now believe many were purchased as finished quilts or finished unquilted bedspreads. The plantation families bought them as luxury items in Southern commercial centers, most likely Charleston and Savannah, perhaps Columbia and Augusta. Like their silver, china and furniture, expensive bedding reflected an elite, elegant lifestyle. Workshops and importers catering to the planters provided a substantial commercial base in the southern cities, which had a large class of tradespeople free and slave.

George Stacy photo, Library of Congress
Charleston metalworker's eye-catching sign
Charleston's mechanics --- the people who produced the goods---
were a combination of free whites, free blacks and slaves hired out by their owners.

3) Some bedcovers were a combination of workshop and plantation family needlework.

Philoclea Earl Eve's quilt at the Atlanta History Center is quilted
in a cross hatch of diagonal and straight lines.

For example, one might purchase an appliqued top and quilt it at home. Much evidence exists of slaves doing quilting and the simple quilting here is the kind of finishing one might expect to see done by women who spent most of their time at other duties. A few of the chintz pieces are elaborately quilted, which might reflect a skilled quilt marker and needlewoman (free or slave). 
"For Sale: A finished seamstress....cuts and fits with 
unequaled elegance and precision."

We'd guess that a workshop might also offer quilting in the utilitarian grid quilting often seen in these.

 Basted center, unfinished piece
Historic Columbia Foundation

4) Workshops may have provided what we'd call kits, pieces with basted chintz designs for hobbyists to finish. We've seen a few examples of unfinished patchwork, including the above basket design featuring a floral panel from South Carolina.


Similar in design to a finished basket piece in a nearby museum. 

The idea of a basted center adds much to our hypothesis that some of the bedcovers were designed, cut and basted by professional seamstresses and purchased by hobbyists who finished the applique and had them quilted.,

Unknown maker, location, Arizona project and the Quilt Index.
Lenna DeMarco's collection
Style indicates coastal southern origins.

If workshops existed there must be evidence beyond the style and techniques obvious in the quilts. 

Sewing workshop depicted in 1862
Hundreds of women are listed as dressmakers,
mantua makers, milliners and plain seamstresses, but quiltmakers....

We still are looking for evidence of these seamstresses----the designers who supervised quiltmaking workshops and the women who stitched. After years of reading advertisements, fair records, diaries and letters we have yet to find mention of such places.

Colonial Williamsbburg Collection

One exception: A panel quilt passed on with the attribution that
it was made by professional quiltmakers the Boyle sisters in
Petersburg, Virginia.

 How could there be a class of invisible women?

Perhaps this woman could have told us.
Next post:
Two panels we forgot to index.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Conclusions 2: Style & Fabric

Attributed to Anna Legare O'Hear, Charleston, South Carolina
Winterthur Museum Collection

We're summarizing our blog posts, here discussing a few conclusions we've reached on style and fabric sources after expanding Merikay's original database of panel quilts. In this post we discuss our  observations about style and fabric sources.

Regional Style

Several historians looking at American panel quilts over the years have noted the abundance of Southern examples with distinct regional styles. These are not quilts one would typically see in Boston or Ohio.

Attributed to Ann Adeline Orr Parks, North Carolina

The largest group is found in museums and families in the Carolinas, with South Carolina having the most. Similar quilts are seen in Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi and Virginia.

Quilt made for Georgia Butt, dated 1834 
Museum of Mississippi History. Georgia was born in 1834 near 
Columbus, Georgia. The quilt is in their long term display.

The Southern quilts tend to follow a few structural formats, a pattern with variations. In one the central panel is on point; in the other on the square.


Panels are cut into parts with corners pulled out to enlarge the central area.

Center of a quilt in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts,
thought to be Southern. The triangles in the corners
were cut from around the circular panel and moved out.

Smaller panels and other florals are appliqued in borders with chintz strip borders common. Pieced patchwork is not common.

Another large group of panel bedcovers was made in Baltimore, many of them attributed in the 1940s  by William Dunton to the workshop of Achsah Goodwin Wilkins. 


Again there is a standardized format to these appliqued quilts. 


Atlanta History Center
Philoclea Edgeworth Eve lived in Augusta, Georgia, quite
close to South Carolina. 

Other quilts are reliably attributed to cities and rural areas north and south and many are of unknown origins. 
Indianapolis Museum of Art. Nothing known about its origins.

While most Southern quilts tend to follow distinctive styles; some of those found north or west of Maryland look as if the seamstress was following her own muse. 

Seen in the Massachusetts project, dated 1830, attributed to Mary Green,
Vermont. British or New-England-style???

American Style Change

We have enough visual images to see a definite style change in American quilts about 1840.


As we've noted, date-inscribed British quilts range from 1810 to 1836 while
American quilts lag about 20 years behind, ranging from 1828 to 1855.


British frame quilt style, generally uncut panels framed by piecework, was fashionable for about 25 years. American style lasted about the same span but saw a style change that revitalized patchwork fashion. Of the ten American quilts dated before 1840 all are medallion format, based on a central focus. After 1840 only 1 of 7 is true medallion-format. The rest are block-style albums. Americans continued to cut up panels for patchwork but the images were secondary to the block-style look.


Eliza S. Howell's 1848-1849 quilt. 
Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Eliza inked a self-portrait in the center using trimmed pieces of the morning glory wreath (Panel #3). The central focus lingers but one wouldn't classify this as a medallion. 

These findings reinforce the view that American quilts underwent an important style change in 1840 as block format quilts became dominant, a change that helps us date unknown quilts using style.

Fabric Sources

Edgefield Advertiser
"Furniture Prints" advertised in 1853 in South Carolina
"Some Striped for bordering Quilts."

Information about how quiltmakers purchased panel fabric has been difficult to find. Searching for ads with the words panel, Sheraton or similar ideas, has been futile. Panels must have been sold in America's retail dry goods shops, described as furniture prints or furniture chintz, terms often seen in newspaper advertising such as the above. But patterns of use (why so much of the fruit basket panel in the U.S.?) make us wonder if  goods were typically wholesaled rather than retailed.


1842 "Cheap Store:" Direct from New York and Philadelphia:
"furniture, Chintz' [,] copperplate patterns"

A ship owner or wholesaler might buy a quantity in England and deliver to ports like Charleston and Baltimore where customers could negotiate for a lot, a quantity of chintz.

"Sheraton-style" chairs were  upholstered in these "Sheraton panels"

Upholsterers and seamstresses would be smart to buy in quantity, fabric they might use themselves or retail to customers, a system that would explain why a few of the English panels are seen so often in  bedcovers in one city like Baltimore.

The fruit basket panel has been found in 59 quilts,
more than any other.

We would hope to find some business or personal correspondence mentioning the panels, but until we do, we must base ideas on visual evidence and the meager published information.

Sets or Companion Prints

In the 1940s William Dunton noticed that some fruit basket panels
were bordered with "fruit borders," a separate but related stripe.
The color border above is from Merikay’s 1833 quilt with Panel 2 at the Center.

In her 2018 AQSG paper Ronda Harrell McAllen cited an 1819 ad offering "a few sets of very elegant printed moreens, chintz patterns, a new article...sold in sets to private families." As we have viewed more bedcovers we suspect more "sets" or "suites" were printed as companion fabrics and sold together. 


In the Winterthur Museum's latest catalog Printed Textiles Linda Eaton quotes furniture designer and taste maker Thomas Sheraton who showed this picture of a chair. "The covering of the seat is of printed chintz which may now be had on purpose for chair seats, together with borders to suit them." Sheraton, who published several books on furniture, died in 1806, before the panels in question seem to have been printed but his decorating ideas endured.

Smaller panels used in several quilts with larger panels similar in style may have been printed by the same English mill at the same time and perhaps sold together (marketed to upholsterers?) as part of a suite of prints.


From a South Carolina estate, Collection of Glorian Sipman



Large trimmed panel #2 in the center circled by smaller ovals
in similar style.

British quilt in the collection of the International Quilt Museum
with a cornucopia panel in the center and a cornucopia stripe as border--- a set?

Next Conclusions #3: The quiltmakers

See Ronda's paper on the Baltimore quilts here:
Uncoverings 2018, "The Chintz Gardens of Achsah Goodwin Wilkins, a Baltimore Quilter," Ronda Harrell McAllen