June 13, 2012

Penmanship and 19th Century Quilts

The style of handwriting on 19th century signature quilts varies significantly but quilts signed from the late 1840s through the end of the century often display Spencerian script, a style of penmanship developed by Platt Rogers Spencer.

Platt Rogers Spencer, 1800-1864.  Photograph courtesy of
Wikipedia images.

Platt Rogers Spencer was born in East Fishkill, New York, in 1800 or, by some accounts, in 1801.  He became intensely fond of writing as a child and, his family being unable to find or afford paper for him to pursue his childhood interest, he is said to have practiced his penmanship by writing in the snow and in sand, on birch-bark, on the leaves of his mother's Bible, and on leather scraps provided by a friendly cobbler.  When Platt enrolled in school at age 12, ample paper was finally available for his use. 

When old enough, Spencer took several jobs with businesses and as a clerk in local stores where he had daily opportunities to practice his penmanship.  He studied law, Latin, English literature, and penmanship from 1821-1824 and taught in a common school while continuing to provide bookkeeping services to merchants.  He considered entering college to pursue a degree that would lead to the ministry but by then suffered from alcoholism, a family malady that prevented him from doing so. This he rectified by practicing total abstinence, a principle he actively promoted for the rest of his life.

Spencer continued to teach in New York and then Ohio, instructing his students in, among other subjects, the style of penmanship he had formally developed.  In 1848, working closely with Victor M. Rice, he published Spencer and Rice's System of Business and Ladies' Penmanship.  This was followed by Spencerian or Semi-Angular Penmanship and several additional penmanship publications issued through 1886 by Spencer and by members of his family after his death in 1864.

A reproduction of Theory of Spencerian Penmanship in Nine Easy Lessons
first published in 1874.  This reproduction was published by Mott Media in 1985.

Facsimile edition of Number 1 of Spencerian System of Practical Penmanship in
12 Numbers, Four Distinct Series [workbooks] originally published in 1864.  This
facsimile edition by Mott Media, 1985.

Examples of Spencerian script are shown on the face of the foregoing publications.  Platt Rogers Spencer's own signature provides an ideal example of the style.

Platt Rogers Spencer's signature.  Courtesy of Wikipedia images.

Spencer's penmanship style was taught in schools throughout America in the 19th century and into the early 20th.  In addition, the availability of his publications gave women who lacked formal schooling the means to develop his penmanship style at home.

Philena Cooper Hambleton, recipient of a Quaker quilt in 1853, was at minimum home-schooled by her father, Whitson Cooper, and by her step-father, Reuben Clempson.  Based on an example of her signature, and the understanding that handwriting tends to change somewhat over time, she seems to have learned the Spencerian style of penmanship as a young woman.

The signature of Philena Cooper Hambleton, late in her life, as it appears on her husband's
probate records.  Note the capital P, the capital E, and Capital H.  Scan of signature
 by Lynda Salter Chenoweth.

The sole inscriber of Philena's quilt may also have been trained in Spencerian penmanship and may, in fact, have been Philena herself.  Unfortunately, the writing on the quilt is so faint that a convincing comparison of multiple inscriptions to Philena's penmanship is not possible.  Only the writing on one block of the quilt is clear enough for comparison.  The capital E and P written on George E. Hall's quilt block appear to be identical to those inscribed by Philena on the probate records.  The capital Hs differ slightly, the earlier one (on the quilt) being more florid than that written years later on the probate records.  The Hs are similar enough, however, for the old H to be the result of changes in Philena's hand over time.  This is not enough evidence to make a definitive case that Philena was the inscriber of her quilt, but when combined with circumstantial evidence, Philena becomes a candidate as the inscriber.

The name of George E. Hall inscribed on a block in Philena's quilt.  Below the name
is written "Phil Co. Pa 1853".  Scan of block by Lynda Salter Chenoweth. 

Anyone who has examined a number of signature quilts will attest to the variation in writing to be found on them.  Some of the signatures are almost illegible, even if well-preserved and absent of smears and fading.  (Even with today's technological advances of manipulating digital images for brightness and sharpness, old-fashion handwriting can be hard to interpret.)  Others are well-written but are not necessarily in the style developed by Spencer.  Nonetheless, Platt Rogers Spencer had a major impact on penmanship in the 19th century.  His style became the standard for all business transactions and bookkeeping records until the advent of the typewriter.  It was also extremely popular among women, both old and young, in a time when the exchange of letters and the signing of autograph albums prevailed as personal means of communication.  It's not surprising, then, to find a touch of Platt Rogers Spencer in some of the signatures that appear on 19th century quilts.


Chenoweth, Lynda Salter.  Philena's Friendship Quilt: A Quaker Farewell to Ohio.  Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2009.



Spencer, Platt Rogers.  Theory of the Sopencerian Penmanship in Nine Easy Lessons.  Fenton, MI: Mott Media, 1985.

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2012

June 2, 2012

Nineteenth-Century Signature Quilts

This is the first in a series of postings about 19th-century signature quilts and the names that appear on them.

Quilts that display people's names are generally referred to as "signature quilts".  The names appearing on these quilts were often signed by the people who made the quilt's blocks and, therefore, the blocks display their actual signatures.  Names were also inscribed on quilts by only one hand--usually that of someone with good penmanship and experience writing on fabric.  During the mid-19th century, names were also stenciled and stamped on quilts in ink, using commercial products sold for this purpose.  Embroidery was used in the early to mid-19th century to initial or "sign" quilts and was frequently used into the 20th century, especially on fund-raising quilts.

Signed 19th century block of a Modified Bear Paw pattern.  Other blocks in this
quilt display the date 1869.  Collection of Lynda Salter Chenoweth.  Photograph by
Lynda Salter Chenoweth.

Mid-19th century quilt block of the Chimney Sweep or Christian Cross
pattern with the name to be inscribed on it basted to its center.  The names to be
written on individual blocks by someone other than the maker were indicated in
this manner.  Collection of Lynda Salter Chenoweth.  Photograph by Lynda
Salter Chenoweth.

Chimney Sweep or Christian Cross block of Turkey red with an ink stamped
decoration awaiting signature within it.  Collection of Lynda Salter Chenoweth.
Photograph by Lynda Salter Chenoweth.

Stamped or stenciled name appearing on a Nine Patch Diamond block made ca.
1875 in Bethlehem, NH.  Quilt now in the collection of Pamela Weeks of Durham, NH.
Photograph by Lynda Salter Chenoweth.

Detail of initials embroidered on a block of the Pidgeon Family Quilt, 1850.  Collection of the
 Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Photograph by Mary Holton Robare.

Signature quilts, whether sampler-album quilts or single-pattern friendship quilts, and whether Quaker or not, began appearing on the American scene in the 1840s as a way to document family, friendship, and community.  These quilts were inspired by the popularity of autograph albums and many verses, commonly used in these albums, made their way onto the surface of quilts along with the name of the person or persons offering the sentiment.  As time went by, the use of elaborate and long verses declined and, by the mid-19th century, signature quilts most often displayed simply the names of those who contributed blocks to the quilt and the names of others important in the life of the quilt maker or the quilt recipient.  Important friends and family could even include the deceased, still loved and remembered.

Modified Bear Paw block with simple sentiment ("Think of me") and the signature
of Maltilda Brandenburg, 1869.  Collection of Lynda Salter Chenoweth.  Photograph
by Lynda Salter Chenoweth.

Watercolor of a block (too faded to photograph or scan) in Philena Cooper
Hambleton's quilt, 1853.  Whitson Cooper, who died in 1835, was Philena's
father. One other person named on Philena's quilt, Peter Ward, was also deceased
before 1853 but is named on the quilt. Watercolor by Marlene McLoughlin.

Signature quilts are special treasures because the names on them represent real, once-living communities of the family and friends of the quilt maker or recipient.  These communities can be identified by research that uses census and other public records to "flesh out" the people and their relationships to one another. If the quilt is a Quaker quilt, information about those named on it can be enhanced and magnified by the data so assiduously recorded by the Meetings these people attended.  (Refer to tabs above concerning Monthly Meetings, Hinshaw's Records, and Archives.)  Signature quilts enable quilt lovers and researchers to recreate the past through the clues left by the names they display.


Chenoweth, Lynda Salter.  Philena's Friendship Quilt: A Quaker Farewell to Ohio.  Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2009.

Fox, Sandi.  For Purpose and Pleasure: Quilting Together in Nineteenth-Century America.  Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1995.

McNeil, W.K.  "From Advice to Laments: New York Autograph Album Verse, 1820-1850."  New York Folklore Quarterly 25, no. 3 (September 1969): 175-94.

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2012