African-American folk artist Harriet Powers External, nationally recognized for her quilts, was born in rural Georgia on October 29, 1837. Using a traditional appliqué technique, Powers recorded local legends, Bible stories, and astronomical events on her quilts. Considered among the finest examples of nineteenth-century Southern quilting, Powers’ work is on display at the Smithsonian Institution and is featured in the online exhibition Seven Southern Quilters External.
In 1938, one hundred years after Powers’ birth, Mayme Reese shared her own memories of quilting in turn-of-the-century South Carolina with a Federal Writers’ Project interviewer. Just as the beauty of Powers’ work transcended race and class, Reese’s recollections suggest fine quilting was a skill that Southern women of all classes appreciated. Reese remembered:
Sometimes rich white women would hear that such and such a person had won the prize for pretty quilts, they’d come and ask that person to make them a quilt…Sometimes they’d make it and sometimes they wouldn’t…If they did make it, they’d get around five dollars…Sometimes they’d furnish the scraps and sometimes they wouldn’t. Most of the time, though, they’d buy pieces of goods and give it to the person who was making the quilt to cut up.
“Mrs. Mayme Reese,” New York City, September 21, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940. Manuscript Division.
Although prized for their beauty, quilts were necessities of life for pioneer families. Quilts not only adorned beds, but also served as makeshift doors, windows, and cloaks. Patching quilts to keep large pioneer families warm was one of many housewifely duties. Writing about newly wed Anne Janette Kellogg, Gerald Carson characterized the lot of the early Michigan wife:
Thus began another woman’s life in pioneer Michigan—the hanging of the almanac from the clock shelf, the childbearing, the round of baking, sewing, washing, canning, threading dried apples on strings, the interminable making of carpet rags; quilts and comforters; filling bed ticks with oat straw; of ironing, patching and mending.
Gerald Carson, Cornflake Crusade, pages 85-86. Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910. General Collections and Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
During the Depression, the handcrafting of quilts from scraps and surplus materials helped rural Southerners survive hard times. Photographers of the Farm Security Administration documented quilting activities in small towns throughout the United States. These photographs also reveal the social and intergenerational nature of the pastime.
Sharing the work of quilting with friends and neighbors lightened the burden and created an occasion for fun and conversation. New Englander Ella Bartlett recalled the quilting bees of her youth for a WPA interviewer in 1938:
We would think we’d got everybody quilted up, when some mornin’ there’d be a knock at the front door and some boy or girl would be there to say that ‘Ma sent her compliments’ and would I come to her quiltin’ bee, and then we’d know another of the girls had got engaged.
“Ella Bartlett,” Brookfield, Massachusetts, December 19, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940. Manuscript Division.
Contemporary quilters continue to carry on this American craft tradition, creating quilts in the classic patterns and developing innovations as well. The online collection Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978-1996 contains materials from American Folklife Center field projects documenting quiltmaking as it is practiced in the United States today. The collection includes 181 sound recordings of quilters talking about their work and their quilting methods.
- Search the collection Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978-1996 on quilt patternssuch as star, flower basket, and log cabin. The special presentation The Lands’ End All-American Quilt Contest highlights the work of contemporary quilters. Also featured are biographies of quilters from the Blue Ridge and a Gallery of Photographs.
- Additional pictorial Digital Collections with photographs of quilts and quilters include:
- Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives
- Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-1982
- Digital Horizons: Life on the Northern Plains External
- Search the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 – 1940 on the word quilt for a variety of references to quilting as a social activity. See especially the narratives of Addie Patterson, Ella Bartlett, and Sarah Bonds. Read “Customs and Traditions” for reminisces of quilting “frolics” in South Carolina.
- The Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910 collection examines the experience of settling this region in the nineteenth century. The collection’s 138 volumes contain many references to the importance of quilts as a staple of the pioneer household. Search the full text on quilt or quilting bee to read about the place of quilts in everyday life and the opportunity for socializing quilting provided.
- Read “Staff Favorites: Beauty and the Quilt” from the blog, Teaching with the Library of Congress.