November 5, 2011

Quaker Date Notations

How do you know whether or not a signature quilt was made and/or inscribed by a member of the Religious Society of Friends?  If you are lucky enough to know the provenance of the quilt, its Quaker origin may have been revealed by its history or as part of a family tradition associated with the quilt.  Without the benefit of such information, however, your only clue may be the date(s) inscribed on the quilt.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century Quakers did not use the names of the months and the days of the week when recording dates.  Instead, they substituted the numbers that represented the numeric placement of months within the year and days within the week.  For example, April 23, 1845 could be recorded as 23rd of 4th mo. 1845, or as 23rd day 4th mo. 1845, or as 23rd of 4th 1845.  The same date might also appear as 4th mo. 23rd or fourth mo. 23.  There were many variations of this dating method used in correspondence, on legal documents, in Quaker records, and as inscriptions on quilts.

Block from the Cather-Robinson quilt, 1848.  Collection of the
Willa Cather Institute of Shenandoah  University.

Detail of Cather-Robinson quilt showing signature and date
 interpreted as Margaret Ann Johnson  8th mo. 4  1848.

The appearance of a Quaker-style date on a quilt is not proof that an inscribed identity was Quaker.  Some individuals retained this style of dating long after their families left the religion, but a Quaker-style date provides a good clue for further investigation.

The Quakers used numbers instead of the proper names to designate months and days because they felt it was sacriligious to use names derived from those of pagan gods and goddesses or from deified rulers of the Roman Empire.  In the latter case, the months of July and August were named after Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus, adding two additional months to the Roman year which was originally comprised of only ten months.  The names of pagan gods and goddesses provided the origins for January (the Roman god Janus), March (the Roman god Mars), May (the Roman goddess Maia), June (the Roman goddess Juno), and Saturday (the Roman god Saturn).  Monday is related to the moon and special Roman sacrifices offered on that day, Wednesday derives from the Old English for Woden's Day, and Thursday is from the Old English for Thor, the god of thunder.

John Pitts Launey, in his book First Families of Chester County, Pennsylvania (Vol. 1), pages iv and v, points out that the Religious Society of Friends used both the Julian and the Gregorian calendars.  "The Julian Calendar was used for dates before and including October 31, 1751.  During this period, the 1st month was March and the 2nd was April and so on.  On the day following October 31, 1751, the Gregorian Calendar went into affect [sic] and January became the first month as it is today."

Should you be fortunate enough to be researching a dated Quaker quilt made before November 1, 1751, keep this in mind!

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2011


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