September 26, 2012

Quaker Aesthetics and the Album Quilt Made by Charlotte Gillingham

"That does not look like a Quaker quilt!"  This is often heard when encountering quilts made by members of the Religious Society of Friends because there is an expectation that Quakers only made quilts that were plain, using the palette of dove-gray, black, and brown associated with their style of dress.

Detail of "Album Quilt, #1945-35-1".  Collection of the Philadelphia Museum
of Art.  Photograph by Mary Holton Robare.
Many historical Quaker quilts are "plain", and this block of the "Album Quilt" attributed to Charlotte Gillingham does contain colors we expect to find in a Quaker quilt of the period 1842-1843.  However, the embellishments barely hint at the decorativeness of this quilt.
A visit to the Costume & Textile Study Room, Dorrance H. Hamilton Center for Costume and Textiles, Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2011 was a wonderful experience.  Although the facility is not open to the general public, access is occasionally granted upon submission of a detailed application.  Accompanied by research assistant Barbara Garrett and researcher Wallace Fullerton, Mary's visit was conducted as part of an ongoing study project.  In addition to a few photographs we included in the immediately preceding post about initials, we wanted to share some further images from this special occasion.
Charlotte Gillingham's "Album Quilt" is one of the most spectacular historical Quaker quilts known to exist.  You can learn details about it by searching the "Collections" data base on the Philadephia Museum of Art's web site at You might also recognize the quilt as the Hancock Album Quilt, 1842-1843 or The Charlotte Gillingham Album Quilt.  (Nicoll, 20 and Fox, 45.)
Philadelphia Museum of Art's Le Vine Associate Curator, H. Kristina Haugland, and Mary
Holton Robare examine a portion of the "Album Quilt, #1945-35-1".  Collection of
the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Photograph from the collection of Mary Holton Robare.
Charlotte Gillingham was a Hicksite Quaker, as was her fiancee Samuel Padgett Hancock for whom she made the quilt.  According to the museum web site mentioned above:  "The theological turmoil of the Hicksite-Orthodox separation of 1827 had lessened the asesthetic simplicity or 'plainness' that had been somewhat characteristic of Quaker decorative arts in the eighteenth century."  The Hicksite community involved in making and inscribing the blocks of Charlotte's quilt were probably not as strict about plainness as they had been in the past.  We must also consider the prevailing tastes of these city-dwellers compared with their rural counterparts.
"Album Quilt, #1945-35-1", detail.  Collection of the Philadelphia Museum
of Art.  Photograph by Mary Holton Robare.
The Friends who were involved with the "Album Quilt" were wealthy.  Many came from merchant families.  They had the means and the ability to acquire the finest materials.  They also had the leisure time to use these materials at the highest levels of technical accomplishment, creating quilt blocks by piecing, the use of applique and chintz-work, and with lots of embroidery as seen in the following images.
"Album Quilt, #1945-35-1", details.  Collection of the Philadephia Museum of Art.
Photographs by Mary Holton Robare.
We are grateful to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for allowing us to share some highlights of Mary's visit in 2011.
Fox, Sandi.  For Purpose and Pleasure: Quilting Together in Nineteenth Century America.  Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1995.
Nicoll, Jessica F.  Quilted for Friends: Delaware Valley Signature Quilts, 1840-1855.  Winterthur, DE: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1986.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2012

September 9, 2012

A Look at Initials

We wrote an introductory posting about signature quilts on June 2, 2012.  These quilts are tremendously gratifying for researchers seeking to understand quilts in historical context.  As signatures on quilt blocks are deciphered and interpreted, indentifications of individuals and entire communities become possible.

Sometimes, though, an identity is represented simply by a set of initials.  In addition to signatures, Quakers (like everyone else) embroidered, stamped, and inked initials onto quilts and other household items.  When we find initials on a quilt -- particularly on a corner or the back -- they might be a laundry mark.  More often, we see them on blocks of signature quilts, denoting a block's maker or conferring sentiment toward a quilt recipient.  In either case, they deserve a closer look.

There were practical reasons for initialing textiles.  In the days when laundry was sent out for washing, numbers and initials helped ensure items were returned to their proper owners.  The initialing of one's textile items was integral to the running of a proper household.

Bear in mind that married women combined their initials with those of their husbands in different orders.  Susan Talbott was a Quaker weaver who lived in Waterford, Virginia, following her 1812 marriage to Isaac Walker.  She marked her linens "ISW", listing her husband's given name initial first, followed by the initial of her own given name, using their shared surname for the last initial.

Susan Talbott Walker (1792-1872).  Photograph from a private collection.
Linen attributed to Susan Talbott Walker.  Private collection. Photograph
by Mary Holton Robare.
 Other sources suggest different orders were used for linens and other items such as silver (woman's given name, shared surname, man's given name).  In that case, Susan's mark would have been "SWI".  Some items were marked with both maiden and married names or with the man's given name first.  For example, Susan's initials might appear as "ST", "SW", and/or "IWS".
In addition to being an organizational aid, marking possessions with initials was a powerful declaration of a female's existence.  In a custom dating back to medieval times, a woman's legal identify was lost when she married.  A married couple became one entity (male) in the eyes of the law.  There were so few items a woman could own outright and bequeath that marking them to denote ownership was crucial.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century girls (and occasionally boys) learned to stitch letters and numbers at a young age.  The sampler seen below was made by eleven-year-old Catharine Frame (1793-1872) of Chester County, Pennsylvania.  In addition to several motifs recognized as Quaker, Catharine stitched several sets of initials.  Research reveals that those stitched with black thread represented relatives of Catharine's who were dead prior to completion of her sampler.
Catharine Frame sampler, 1804.  Private collection.  Photograph by Mary Holton Robare.
 Knowing that signature quilts made by Friends sometimes contain the names of deceased individuals, it would be interesting to consider if those inscriptions were differentiated by thread color or in some other way, although this has not been observed by the present writer.
Not all sets of initials are difficult to indentify.  In a Quaker Album Quilt owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one block was signed in ink "Eliz th W. Parrish".  Another block of identical design was signed "E.W.P. for her son Dillwyn Parrish Jr.".  In this case, it is reasonable to assume both inscriptions denote the same person, but it is important to consider all possible combinations when encountering initials on historical items, including quilts.
Quaker Album Quilt #1991-36-1, detail.  Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 
Photograph by Mary Holton Robare.  This block is signed" Eliz th W. Parrish".

Quaker Album Quilt #1991-36-1, detail.  Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Photograph by Mary Holton Robare.  This block is signed "E.W.P. for her son Dillwyn Parrish Jr.".

Mary Holton Robare examining the Quaker Album Quilt at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
(#1991-36-1).  Permission to include photographs of this quilt courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
 Grundy, Martha Paxson.  Personal correspondence via e-mail 13 August 2012.
Pidgeon, Mary Elizabeth.  "A Saga of Old Waterford . . ." in Blue Ridge Herald, Purcellville, Virginia.  Blue Ridge Herald, Inc., 5 October 1946.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2012