February 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 1
They told stories and pictured everyday events, and yet they were useful; they required a great deal of work over a long period of time, but they were to be found in almost every household.
Because most bedrooms were unheated, quilts were obviously essential, the best way to keep warm on a winter’s night; but then, plain blankets would have done that almost as well. More than just a useful object, the quilt was also an indigenous art form, an expression of the yearning for beauty combined with utility that was so typical of the United States in the nineteenth century.
Moreover, because quilts were often made by a group of women, they served as a pretext for a gathering, a time to exchange gossip, as well as developing a feeling for the life of the community. The quilting bee was not exactly a party, but it was a lot better than isolated sewing. It probably was one woman, though, who shaped the appliqué and embroidered the Constitution quilt on the opposite page. Most probably made in the 1870s, it is a virtual repository of all its anonymous maker held dear, from the latest fashion to biblical themes, all, of course, centered around the frigate Constitution itself, used both as a decorative element and as the emblem of America’s destiny at sea.
Adam and Eve can be seen here, and the expulsion from the Garden, and Noah’s Ark, but also a proper wedding with the bride in white, and a mother holding her baby, and a little girl with her cat. Patriotic symbols abound: eagles, George Washington, crossed flags, but also flowers and fruit, meant to denote abundance. We may deduce that the maker’s husband belonged to at least two fraternal societies—their emblems are present, too, and the multicolored border tells us that she was fond of birds.
This blend of the religious, the patriotic, and the practical is, in fact, the direct expression of the way America saw itself then. To celebrate on a quilt the ever-growing wave of prosperity was nothing new: in the 1840s a quilt maker in upper New York State created a vast and complex composition (now at the Cooperstown Museum) hailing all the manifestations of commerce. It was, after all, part of a certain Protestant ethic to believe that the Lord rewards those who strive, especially if they are also virtuous; and the United States—so vast, so richly endowed, so free—was the very place for His children to prosper, an attitude neatly symbolized by the beehive at the upper left corner of the Constitution .
At the same time, quilts also performed an essential aesthetic function. Artworks as such were rare, and illustrated publications were largely confined to black and white; so, across the country, in cities and on isolated farms, the women set to creating beauty on their own. To an amazing degree, they succeeded: clear color, convincing form, pleasing diversity, richness of invention—quilts have them all.
Achieving this required not only an immense amount of work but also great technical know-how. The individual elements had to be cut out of the cloth of the appropriate color and combined so as to produce convincing renditions. The portrait in the lower right, for instance, possibly of Grant in his Civil War uniform, required two tones of brown, plus blue and white; then came the embroidery—the details of the face, the buttons on the tunic—and, finally, the whole motif had to be sewed on so evenly and so delicately that the stitches would not show.
There were also nonrepresentational quilts, but they required no less work: intricate geometric patterns creating surprising perspectives, colors used as part of the compositional structure—all this needed talent, inventiveness, and highly elaborate planning. In such works, although their makers were not aware of it, was an early, and successful, form of abstract art, and that seems just right for what was then the most modern country in the world.
Still, geometric quilts cannot tell us as much about nineteenth-century America as compositions like the Constitution . It is not just that they show us what dresses women wore, or what a house looked like: they give us a feeling for what mattered at a specific time in a specific place—in this case, clearly, one of the Northeastern states. They put us in touch with an imagination, with a mind, and, of course, they show us what Americans could do before they settled for the mass-produced.
Indeed, the quilt is also an affirmation of individuality: you could buy a stove, a lamp, or a whole houseful of furniture from a catalog, and you would know that many other people owned identical objects; but no two quilts are alike. As the United States entered the era that was to make it the greatest economic power on earth, the quilt was an affirmation of the individual, and it had the abundance, the vitality, and the sense of the personal that so struck foreign visitors. Of course, quilts were also sex-defined: it was chiefly women who made them. That, however, was no sign of inferiority: in our liberated eighties, quilt making has revived, and with it one of the earliest of American traditions. Here, indeed, is no drudgery. Now, as in centuries past, quilts remain a direct expression of the American soul.