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


  1. Thanks. You know I love signature/inscribed quilts and all the different methods (esp. teeny cross stitch and backstitching) I especially like those with drawings and sentiments.

  2. I've just started my research journey of my 1852 signature quilt. So nice to find your blog!