December 1, 2014

A Tale of Two Bears. No-Make That Three!

Lynda was sitting in front of her computer a couple of weeks ago watching the status of bidding on a silk quilt top featured on eBay.  The interesting things about this top were its possible Quaker origin and its exposed paper-piecing that included parts of old letters, newspapers, flyers, ledgers, and other material.  It looked like a great research piece.

While waiting for the bidding to end, Lynda started "surfing" eBay for inscribed quilts.  There was nothing of interest there, but up popped a photo of two ratty little bears that had been made using blocks of an extremely worn, mid-nineteenth century, inscribed quilt.  Lynda had no choice but to buy them!

The Bears.  All photographs of the bears by Lynda Salter Chenoweth.

The bears measure 9 inches tall by 4 1/2 inches across.  The fronts of the bears are covered with quilt blocks displaying deteriorating Turkey-red-type fabrics, sturdy shirting, and an inscribed square en pointe.  The batting used in the quilt can be seen where the red fabrics have worn away.

Exposed quilt batting.
The backing of one of the bears is a new, heavy cotton or muslin fabric.  Quilting stitches and the discoloration of the fabric on the back of the other bear indicates it came from the old quilt block used on the front.  (The stitches average 7 per inch.)  Foot pads of an indigo, resist dye fabric appear to have been added to the quilt block fabric when the bears were made.
Quilting stitches on the backing of one of the bears.
One bear is inscribed with the name Jane Biddle followed by the word Philadelphia.  The other is inscribed with the name Abigail R. Clement followed by the word Haddonfield, a borough located in New Jersey not far from Philadelphia.  These nineteenth-century inscriptions have been annotated with "c. 1844".  Much more will be said in our next post about the information these bears have revealed and the quilt from which they were made.  Today's post, however, is concerned with who made them, why they were made, and where they were made.
An ink inscription found along the seam line on the back of both bears gives the critical clue as to their origins and provenance.  It reads: "CNPHS 6/99 BN".  A quick Internet search revealed that CNPHS stands for Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society located in Port Washington on Long Island, New York.  Another search turned up the Society's web site with address, phone number, and information about the Society.
The Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society was founded in 1963 and is located in the historic Sands-Willets House which the Society purchased from Miss Eliza Willets in 1967.  Only two families inhabited this house over a period of 232 years: the Sands family who lived there from 1735 until 1845, and the Willets family who lived there from 1845 until the property was sold in 1967.
Sands-Willets House, 336 Port Washington Blvd., Port Washington, New York.
Photograph courtesy of the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society.
The Society's web site describes the Sands family as "merchants, farmers, and Patriot leaders."  This family was among the early settlers of Sands Point and seven of the members actively participated in the American Revolution against England, including Colonel John Sands II who served with George Washington's army.
Map showing Sands Point and Port Washington, New York.  Source: Wikimedia
Edmund (or Edmond) Willets bought the Sands property and house in 1845.  Edmund was born on April 6, 1800 and his family were prominent members of the Westbury Monthly Meeting. He married Martha Whitson, the daughter of another prominent New York Quaker family, in 1829 and they had eight children between 1830 and 1852.  Like many Quakers of his time, Edmund was imbued with strong anti-slavery sentiments and he went on to become a noted abolitionist and active in the Quaker affairs of New York.
Edmund was also a wealthy farmer and merchant.  The 1870 census lists the value of Edmund's land at $35,000 and his personal property at $150,000.  His wife and three of his daughters were shown with personal property of $5,000 each, his son, Thomas, with $5,000 worth of land and another $5,000 of personal property, and his son, Edmond R., who was in college at the time, with personal property of $4,000.  (The total of these amounts equates to $4,158,176.90 in 2013 dollars.)
Edmund annually spent some of his wealth upgrading and maintaining his house, out-buildings and land.  That burden now falls to the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society, a non-profit, educational organization, which has been refurbishing and renovating the house since its purchase almost fifty years ago.  This has been a slow process for an organization that derives its funds from membership dues, small educational programs for children and the public, exhibitions of the Society's collections, fund-raising events, and up-to-three Fairs a year where books, crafts, and other items are sold.
The mention of the Society's Fairs brings us back to the bears. Joan DeMeo Lager, the Society's Curatorial Administrator, answered the phone when Lynda called to inquire about the bears.  She confirmed that toys were made for some of the Fairs by the "Craft Ladies", a group of generous volunteers who make quilts, aprons, stuffed animals, and other items to be sold in support of the Society.  She did not recall the bears but was willing to distribute a picture of them to the Craft Ladies who would be at the Society the next day.  The following day she sent an email saying that one of these ladies, Peggy Podstupka, had some information about the bears and would call in a couple of days.
Peggy remembered seeing, if not the two bears, a bear like them in the storage area of the Sands-Willets barn. She graciously looked through the storage boxes in the barn and found the bear!  When she called Lynda she offered to send her the third bear to go with its "sister-bears" in California.  She was unable to make out the full name inscribed on this bear but could see that the first name was Harriet.  The word Haddonfield was also inscribed on this bear.  In addition, Peggy knows the identify of the woman whose initials, BN, appear on the backs of the bears with the date 6/99.  She has volunteered to try to contact her so that Lynda may speak to her directly.
Baxter Pond, Port Washington, New York.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.
With help from Joan and Peggy, Lynda was able to discover who made the bears, why they were made, and where they were made.  The discovery of the third bear reveals another block and inscription from the old quilt used in making the bears.  Although it is doubtful that a sufficient number of bears will be discovered to enable us to reconstruct the quilt, we wish we could - bear by bear!  Lynda will try to find out more about the quilt from BN, the bear maker, and will add that information to our next post.
Meanwhile, Jane and Abigail eagerly await a reunion with their sister-bear, Harriet, who is making her way to California through the U.S. Postal system.
Sources: census and Public Member Trees, accessed November, 2014. (Web site of the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society.)
Personal conversations with Joan Lager and Peggy Podstupka, November, 2014.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2014.



  1. I am a silent follower of your blog (not commenting often but always hanging on every word). I had to comment today........what a great story and case of detective work. I can't wait to see the three bears together and find out what BN has to tell you. Thank you for taking your time to share your research with us.

  2. Thanks, Jill, for the kind words. These bears are entirely too much fun!! Our next post will tell the stories of the women named on them.