August 4, 2012

Autograph Books and 19th Century Signature Quilts

American signature quilts began to appear in the early 1840s and peaked in popularity at mid-century.  After the 1850s, their popularity declined but quilt makers continued to produce signature quilts into the 1870s and beyond.

The appearance of signature quilts is generally attributed to the influence of the autograph book which became popular in this country in the 1820s as a means of recording sentiments, artistic sketches and, most importantly, relationships with friends and family members.  By the 1840s, the concept of the autograph book was applied to quilts when their makers began signing quilt blocks, often adding a sentiment reflective of the quilt's purpose.  This new trend was especially appealing to Quaker quilt makers who, through this means, documented community and family relationships to be carried away by members leaving their Meetings to move elsewhere, to acknowledge a marriage, or to be passed down to later generations as a reminder of those who came before.

Modified Bear Paw signature quilt dated 1869.  Made in Belmont County,
Ohio; maker unknown.  This quilt was made for a family or person departing
the area as evidenced by the sentiment "Remember Me" inscribed on the
quilt.  Collection of Lynda Salter Chenoweth.  Photograph by Peter Macchia,
Oakland, CA.

The history of autograph books goes back at least to the mid-sixteenth century when students at universities in Germany began to keep albums containing the signatures of friends and acquaintances, including their professors.  Since most students in those days attended more than one institution of higher learning, the books served to record the names of those a student wanted to remember as he traveled from one university to another.  These books were called Album amicorum in Latin and often included wise statements inscribed by faculty acquaintances--statements that provided guidance and encouragement to the students as they pursued their academic studies.

A page from the autograph book of Simon Haendel featuring a personal
greeting written in Latin.  The album was compiled in the 1590s. 
Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Three centuries later the autograph book appeared in America.  The popularity of this "new" means of expression prompted the composition and publication of sentimental verses that could be used by book inscribers to express their feelings, give advice, and demonstrate their friendship.  Such verses appeared in the 1830s and 1840s in The Lady's Book, later known as Godey's Ladies Book and Magazine.  This publication, with a circulation of 150,000 by the time of the Civil War, also provided women with patterns and ideas for making quilts, clothing, and decorative accessories for the home.  Many of the autograph book verses that appeared in Godey's and elsewhere were also adopted for inscriptions on quilts.

Photograph of the cover and an interior page of a 19th century autograph
book.  The verse reads: "Live for those that love you, For those whose
hearts are true, For the heaven that smiles above you, And the good that you may do."
Photographs courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, author Playingwithbrushes.

If you have a signature quilt inscribed with a verse, it is fun to research the early publications of verse to try to find the dates and evidence of its usage.  One useful source is provided by W.K. McNeil who published "From Advice to Lament: New York Autograph Album Verse, 1820-1850." New York Folklore Quarterly 25, no. 3 (September 1969): 175-94.  Our copy of this article was obtained from the Internet. You can download a PDF file of the article for $3.00.  Search on New York Folklore Quarterly, click on the contents notation for xxv, September 1969, click on the article name, and follow the instructions for receiving a PDF file.


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

Nickson, M.A.E.  Early Autograph Albums in the British Museum.  London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1970.

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2012

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the intereting info on the verses. Just found a 1852 copy of Godey's Ladies Book. It is so much fun to read. There are instruction on braiding hair also.