July 1, 2014

Silk Quilts in the Archives of Westtown School

Westtown School, founded in 1799 by members of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, houses a number of archives that include papers, letters, samplers, quilts, art work, and other material relevant to the School's history.  Among these holdings are three silk quilts we would like to share with you.

The first, and the topic of this post, was made by Elizabeth Dunn who was a student at the School from May of 1859 until her graduation in 1865.

The Elizabeth Dunn Quilt.  Photograph courtesy of the Westtown School Archives,
West Chester, Pennsylvania.
This beautiful quilt is comprised of both silk and cotton fabrics and features six vertical strips in the Tumbling Blocks pattern about 6 inches wide each, separated by five 8 inch wide strips of sage green silk.  An 8 inch wide border of darker silk surrounds the main body of the quilt and displays a one-half inch edging.  Visible on one corner of the quilt is an inscription in cross stitch that reads: "Commenced 1860 / Completed 1867 / E. Dunn."

Elizabeth Dunn Quilt, detail.  Photograph courtesy of the Westtown School Archives,
West Chester Pennsylvania.
Elizabeth was born April 23, 1846 in Trenton, Mercer County, New Jersey, the daughter of Phillip Palmer Dunn and Sarah Ellis Decou.  When they enrolled their daughter at Westtown School, Elizabeth was thirteen years old.
Westtown was established not only to educate Quaker children but also to provide a "guarded" environment for teaching and passing on the values and precepts of the Religious Society of Friends. It was located about twenty-five miles from Philadelphia in West Chester County on 600 acres of wooded land away from big city influences.  In fact, the School was a full day's coach ride from Philadelphia and its many distractions.
View of the woods surrounding Westtown School today.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The year after Elizabeth enrolled at Westtown she began work on her silk and cotton quilt.  One can imagine the tranquility of the environment, when not pursuing the rigorous study expected of Westtown students, and how the environment may have lent itself to the quiet pleasure of quilt making.  The quilt probably occupied Elizabeth's free time off and on throughout her stay at Westtown - time that may have been hard to come by given her studies and her role as an assistant teacher during 1865.  She finally completed the quilt in 1867, two years after leaving the School.
Elizabeth may have been inspired to complete the quilt in anticipation of her marriage to Thomas Alsop Bell on September 17, 1868 at Chesterfield Monthly Meeting in Burlington County, New Jersey.  Whatever provided the impetus to finish the project she began as a young girl, the quilt survived these many years and is back at Westtown where Elizabeth was when she began making it.  We would like to believe that the quilt provided fond memories of Westtown School throughout Elizabeth's life.  She passed away in 1898, one year before the death of her husband.
Accession records, Westtown School Archives, West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Ancestry.com census, family tree, and U.S. Quaker Meeting Records, accessed 6/25/14.
Dewees, Watson W., Sarah B. Dewees and Sarah Lovett.  Centennial History of Westtown Boarding School, 1799-1899.  Philadelphia: Sherman & Co., 1899.
Personal email correspondence between Mary Holton Robare and Mary Brooks, Westtown School Archives, West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Smedley, Susanna Assisted by Anna Hartshorne Brown.  Westtown Through the Years: Catalog 1799-1945. Westtown, PA: Westtown Alumni Association, 1945.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2014.



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