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

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