December 14, 2015

Christmas Trees and Their Anti-Slavery Symbolism

Decorating evergreen trees as part of the celebration of Christmas was a long-standing tradition in European countries well before the practice was adopted by Americans.  This European tradition was introduced to America by a number of means including the influx of German immigrants into Pennsylvania during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and drawings of decorated trees at Queen Victoria's Windsor Palace and other royal residences that were featured in newspapers and magazines in the 1840s and 1850s.

Osborne House Christmas tree as illustrated in Godey's Lady's Book, December 1850.
Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
Decorated Christmas trees in America were further inspired by a published account of a tree in the home of Charles Follen in 1835, written by the British author Harriet Martineau.  Follen, a professor of literature at Harvard University, a children's rights advocate, and an outspoken abolitionist, had erected the traditional Christmas tree of his German homeland for his son's holiday delight and to be shared by Christmas visitors, including Harriet Martineau.
Charles Follen.  Frontispiece of Collection Works (1841)  published by his wife, Eliza Follen, after
his death in 1839.  Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
Harriet Martineau by Richard Evans (died 1871).  Collection of the National Portrait Gallery,
London, England.  Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
Charles Follen's abolitionist zeal and incendiary rhetoric on the topic of slavery partially cost him his position at Harvard, which he lost in 1835, and later resulted in his dismissal as an ordained clergyman at a Unitarian church in New York City.  On his way to another clerical position in 1839, the steamboat on which he was traveling sunk during a storm and he never reached his destination.
Follen's dedication to the anti-slavery cause was echoed by many men and women, black and white, who formed anti-slavery societies in the early 19th century and worked vigorously to bring to national attention the plight of the enslaved in America.  In 1834, members of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society founded by William Lloyd Garrison began holding Christmas fairs in Boston to raise money for the abolitionist cause and to use these fairs as a means to promote their anti-slavery sentiments.  Soon, anti-slavery societies in Philadelphia, New York, and other cities engaged in fund raising and messaging through the sale of donated items at Christmas fairs, many of which displayed mottoes and slogans promoting the cause.  In the January 2, 1837 issue of Garrison's paper, The Liberator, the following slogans were cited as some of those appearing on sales items:  "Twenty five Weapons for Abolitionists" (on bunches of quills); "The doom of Slavery is sealed" (on wafer boxes); "Wipe out the blot of Slavery" (on pen wipers);  "Trample not on the Oppressed" (on needle books made in the form of small shoes); and, "May the use of our needles prick the consciences of slaveholders" (on needle books, many of which were made by members of the society holding the fair).
Depiction of a female slave and motto often applied to articles sold at anti-slavery Christmas
fairs.  Based on an engraving by Josiah Wedgewood of a male slave which read "Am I Not
a Man and a Brother?"  Source of image:  From George Bourne, Slavery Illustrated in Its Effects
 upon Women (1837), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
The women of the anti-slavery societies, in particular, promoted the idea that slaves had fewer rights than children and that they deserved a right to the caring consideration of Christians, as did children and all human beings.  These women worked publically to expose the brutality of the institution of slavery, adopting an evergreen bough or shrub as a symbol of the freedom they sought for the enslaved.  When this symbol was replaced at anti-slavery fairs by the decorated Christmas tree at the end of the 1830s, the Christmas tree became the seasonal anti-slavery symbol for freedom.  It also promoted a new image of Christmas - a holiday characterized in the 18th and early 19th centuries in America as an occasion for raucous behavior and drunkenness.  (Refer to our post of December 29, 2013 and the diary entries of Quaker Elizabeth Drinker for first-hand accounts of Christmas behavior in Philadelphia during this period of time.)  The Christmas tree became a symbol of gift-giving to and the care of children who, themselves, came to symbolize the victims of slavery.
The Christmas Tree.  Wood engraving by Winslow Homer (1836-1910).
Published in Harper's Weekly, Volume II, 25 December 1858, p. 820.
Source of image: Wikimedia Commons.
Many of the women who co-founded and participated in the activities of the anti-slavery societies were members of the Religious Society of Friends.  The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society was one of the most active and influential female societies in the country, boasting a membership that read like a "who's who" of both Quaker and non-Quaker female abolitionists.  This society began holding Christmas fairs to raise money for the abolitionist cause in 1835.  It continued to do so until 1861 and the end of the Civil War.
When it was first proposed to hold Philadelphia fairs as a fund-raising activity, there was active and vociferous discussion about whether or not members of the Religious Society of Friends should participate.  Such events were regarded with suspicion and "disapprobation" by some, especially if they occurred during a week in which Monthly Meetings were held.  It was finally agreed to call these events sales, rather than fairs (which implied frivolity and entertainment rather than a serious endeavor).  Their first sales were small in scope and featured simple articles for purchase.  As time went on, the name of the events changed to "fairs" and they became more and more elaborate with donations from wealthy families in England as well as America, raising more and more money for the cause.
Portrait of Lucretia Mott by Joseph Kyle (1815-1863).  Painted in 1842 when she was 49 years old. 
 Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
In 1842 there were still some members of the Religious Society of Friends who did not approve of Quakers participating in the fairs.  That year, some of the sale items from England and elsewhere arrived too late to be included in the fair and a leading member of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, Lucretia Mott, volunteered to use her home as a venue for selling the items.  Venerable as Lucretia was as an internationally known voice for the freedom and equality of all men and women, this generous offer resulted in a visit from Quaker elders who let her know that they strongly disapproved of the "light-hearted proceeding" these sales represented and of her vanity in letting an engraved image of herself be included in the sale. Nonetheless, the Philadelphia Christmas fairs continued and so did Lucretia until her death in 1880!
Hansen, Thomas S.  "Charles Follen, Brief life of a vigorous reformer: 1796-1840."  In Harvard Magazine, September-October, 2002.
Rush, N. Orwin.  "Lucretia Mott and the Philadelphia Antislavery Fairs."  In Bulletin of Friends Historical Association, Vol. 36, No 2 (Autumn 1946), pp. 69-75.
"The Christmas Tree as an Anti-Slavery Liberation Symbol" accessed at on 12/5/2015.
"The History of the Christmas Tree" accessed at on 12/5/2015.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2015.

December 1, 2015

Dot's Circus Quilts

Dorothy "Dot" Everett (Pidgeon) Berry (1899-1987) was a birthright member of Hopewell Meeting, Virginia.  She was known in her later years as a prolific knitter, making up patterns as she went along while rocking in a chair with a cat on her lap and a drink at her side.  She was born into a many-generations family of Religious Society of Friends members and grew up on the Pidgeon family farm, "Circle Hill, that spanned Frederick and Clarke Counties, Virginia.  Dot was Mary Holton Robare's grandmother-in-law and Mary had the great pleasure of knowing her for seven years.

Circle Hill farm house built ca. 1800.  Photograph taken about 1900.  Courtesy of
Ellen Berry.
In addition to her knitting, Dot made quilts for family members and, as far as we know, they were all variations of the same pattern.
Dot's earliest known surviving quilt was made for her first cousin-once-removed, Cynthia Evans, around the time of her birth in 1926.  Cynthia's mother had grown up on Circle Hill farm as a member of Dot's family.  She was one of four children living on the farm that included Dot, her sister, Cynthia's mother Hannah Williams, and (for a while) James Williams, so baby Cynthia was more like a niece than a cousin to Dot.
Circus Quilt, detail.  Made ca. 1926 by Dot Berry for Cynthia Evans.  The quilt was photographed
in an exhibit of Quaker Quilts held at the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society, June 2014.
It is shown folded into the Society's "falcon head" or "hooded" cradle along with a doll that Dot
knitted as a toy for Cynthia ca. 1926.  Collection of Mary Holton Robare.
There is interest from quilt history scholars in the pattern Dot used to make the quilt.  Each block may have had its own name, and multiple names have been recorded for similar quilts.  Marin F. Hanson discussed this in 2006 in the publication Textile.  A very similar quilt appeared on the cover of Uncoverings 2010, the annual journal of the American Quilt Study Group.  In this journal, Virginia Gunn's research cites the Spring 1926 issue of McCall Needlework and Decorative Arts for publishing the pattern (no. 1633) as a "Picture Patchwork Quilt."  Interestingly, Dot's family always referred to it as a Circus Quilt, depicting scenes in cars of a circus train.
Cynthia's quilt.  Collection of Mary Holton Robare.
Around the time Dot made Cynthia's quilt she was either living in (or just returning from) Peru.  She had left the rural Virginia farm of her upbringing to travel the world with her husband, Edward Willard Berry.  As a geologist, he took his wife on around-the-world tours three times.  While in Peru, she gave birth to her first child, Mary-Susan Berry (born 1928).
Edward Willard, Dorothy, and Mary-Susan Berry.
There was a history of needlework and quilt-making in Dorothy (Pidgeon) Berry's family.  Her grandmother was Sarah (Chandlee) Pidgeon, maker of the Pidgeon Family Quilt that is in the collection of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Pidgeon Family Quilt, ca. 1850.  Photography by Barbara Tricarico.  Collection of
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Dot made "Circus Quilts" for her grandchildren decades after she made Cynthia's quilt, adapting the pattern each time.  While Cynthia's quilt contained a top, bottom, and batting, Dot's subsequent pieced works were constructed in various ways.  For her grandson, Christopher Robare, she backed a pieced top for the then three-year-old with a cozy red plaid wool. She also added a strip of cotton for tucking under at the feet and labeled this piece with embroidery on a corner.

Dot's Circus Quilt for Chris and detail of labeling.  Collection of Christopher
and Mary Holton Robare.
When Dot made a quilt for her grandson, George Berry (born 1960), she chose different colors.  She also used nine-patch blocks as corner blocks within the sashing which she further embellished with embroidered numbers and letters.  This quilt was a gift to Mary from George's widow.  It holds special memories of George who was a member of the Urban Search and Rescue Teams that went to Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center to help following the tragedies experienced there.  Despite all he had witnessed, George maintained a cheery outlook on life.
Dot's Circus Quilt for George.  Collection of Mary Holton Robare.
Three of Dot's Circus Quilts on display in the Abram's Delight house museum of the Winchester-Frederick
County Historical Society, June 2014.
Something about these "Circus" or "Picture Patchwork" block patterns captured Dot's attention enough to make bedcoverings for children in her family over the span of many decades.
Selected Sources:
Baumgarten, Linda and Kimberly Smith Ivey.  Four Centuries of Quilts.  Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2014.
Gunn, Virginia.  "McCall's Role in the Early Twentieth-Century Quilt Revival."  In Uncoverings 2010 edited by Laurel Horton.  Lincoln NE: American Quilt Study Group, 2010.
Hanson, Marin F.  "Exotic Quilt Patterns and Pattern Names in the 1920s and 1930s".  In Textile, Volume 4, Issue 2, 2006.
Robare, Mary Holton.  Quaker Quilts: Snapshots from an Exhibition, Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society, June 13-15, 2014.  Winchester, VA: Hillside Studios, 2014.
Virginia Consortium of Quilters.  Quilts of Virginia: The Birth of America Through the Eye of a Needle.  Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2006.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2015.