Quilting Party. From Godey's Lady's Book, September 1849.
Communal quilting events have been variously described as "parties", "frolics", and "bees", the latter only from the second half of the 19th century presumably to describe the busy, communal activity as similar to that of a beehive. As early as 1799, Quaker Elizabeth Drinker mentioned such a gathering in her diary: "Sally Downing is gone to Tommy Downings next door to a quilting match where I was invited, but did not suit me to go . . ." (Crane, 214.) One wonders what she meant by the word "match".
Margaret Elizabeth Chandler's published letters mention three occasions of attending a "quilting". One in the summer of 1832 was attended by "about twenty girls besides myself" who were joined in the evening by "about the same number of young men". (Mason, 121.) She goes on to discuss the dress of those attending, assuring her aunt that they were as well attired as Philadelphians. The second quilting, in the fall of 1833, was where Elizabeth ate peaches. "We had a prodigious variety of cakes at tea--and there were two tables full sat down--first the girls and then the young men--though the party was not so large as the first one I attended after we came here. I was at another a few weeks ago, but twas not so large nor so pleasant a one as this." (Mason, 196.) Accounts from other women's journals and letters indicate that some gatherings such as these also included, at day's end, dancing to music provided by one or more attendees who played instruments such as "fiddles".
Although Elizabeth was a Michigan pioneer, the community around her seems more settled and sophisticated than that of Anna Briggs Bentley, a Quaker from Maryland who settled on the Ohio frontier in 1826. In a letter home dated 3rd mo 2nd 1828, Anna described a "chopping frolic and sewing party" which included twenty-two women and twenty-men. With the help of neighbor women, Anna provided this crowd with a sumptious repast that included both a midday meal and supper. "For dinner [the midday meal] we had a turkey, 3 fowls, 3 quarters of a small fat veal, a nice piece of corned beef, potatoes, turnips, cold slaw, parsnips, pickled cucumbers and beets for supper and excellent green apple pies, peach and green apple sauce, real coffee, tea, rolls, light bread, pickles, fruits stewed, and relishes of the cold meat left at dinner, etc." (Foster, 41.) All of these delights (except for the coffee and tea) came from livestock, poultry, and gardens raised by the Bentleys and their neighbors. There was no mention of dancing. Hopefully a lot of wood got chopped that day because Anna noted afterward that she was totally exhausted and that not much sewing was done.
Women sewing together. From Women, A Pictorial Archive from
Nineteeth-Century Sources, copyright free illustrations selected by Jim Harter.
Not all women on America's frontier in the 19th century were lucky enough to have contact with neighbors or a community nearby. Many of them pieced and quilted in solitude, sometimes taking many years to complete a quilt in the small amount of time allotted between chores and other family obligations. They lacked not only the help to finish quilting tasks but also the companionship of other women, so important to sustaining their lives on the frontier. When Ella-Elizabeth Spaulding from Ludlow, Vermont, married Joseph Willard Reed on September 5, 1854, Willard immediately migrated west taking Ellen, as she was known by her family, far from home to the frontier of Wisconsin. Here she lived in virtual isolation and poverty until her early death from tuberculosis in 1858.
Ellen's letters to her family repeatedly revealed her loneliness and longing to see her family and friends back in Vermont. Her parents were encouraged when they finally received a letter describing Ellen's attendance at a quilting party. "I have been and helped her [a Mrs. Cady] quilt two afternoons she had a great quilting there was a lot of the neighbors there and some of them spoke to me and some went home without as much as saying why do you so (as Uncle Alden said) I expect they were afraid they should get bit." (Lipsett, 80.) This was reportedly Ellen's only social event in Wisconsin. Mrs. Cady and her family moved farther west shortly thereafter.
Throughout 19th century America, in metropolitan areas and on the western frontiers, quilting parties seemed a preferred way to finish a quilt project. These parties not only helped to complete quilts, they provided women with some things that were much more important: companionship, social interaction, good food and, frequently, a roaring good time.
Crane, Elaine Forman (ed.). The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, The Life Cycle of an Eighteenth Century Woman. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.
Foster, Emily (ed.). American Grit, A Woman's Letters from the Ohio Frontier. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
Fox, Sandi. For Purpose and Pleasure, Quilting Together in Nineteenth-Century America. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1995.
Lipsett, Linda Otto. Remember Me, Women & Their Friendship Quilts. Lincolnwood, IL: The Quilt Digest Press, 1997.
Mason, Marcia J. Heringa. Remember the Distance that Divides Us, The Family Letters of Philadelphia Quaker Abolitionist and Michigan Pioneer Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, 1830-1842. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004.
Reich, Sue. Quiltings, Frolicks & Bees, 100 Years of Signature Quilts. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2012.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2013.