May 16, 2016

Remembering Family and Friends by Name

Friendship quilts bearing inscribed names, verses, and art work appeared in America in the 1840s, peaked in popularity in the 1850s, and then slowly declined as a favored quilt-type through the 1870s.  By that time, the deprivation caused by the Civil War had begun to turn to prosperity and women turned to new fads in quilt making, especially the crazy-quilt that featured richer fabrics than cottons and were often embellished with ribbons, lace, beads, and embroidery.  The cotton friendship quilt did not disappear, however, and is made to this day for special occasions and fund raising purposes.

Single-pattern friendship quilt dated 1869 from Belmont County, Ohio.
The quilt measures 79 1/2 X 89 inches.  Names are inscribed on the cross-bars
of all of the blocks.  "Forget Me Not" is inscribed on a block bearing the name of
Ann Davis from Sulphur Springs, Perry County, Ohio.  Collection of Lynda Salter Chenoweth.
 
Close-up of the block bearing the name Ann Davis.  The sentiment "Forget Me
Not" is inscribed on the lower left and is underlined by the inscriber.
 
The popularity of the inscribed friendship quilt during the nineteenth century was caused, in part, by the sense of community these quilts conveyed.  They provided a way for family and friends to gather together to make something for a loved and respected member of their community - something that documented and commemorated that community and acknowledged significant life events such as marriage or the departure of families from their communities.  Members of the Religious Society of Friends, in particular, documented family and community relationships and events in this way.
 
The inscriptions of names on friendship quilts was accomplished by writing directly on quilt blocks in ink, stamping names or using name stencils applied by ink, or stitching names on blocks using embroidery or cross-stitch.
 
Hand-written name (Hannah Starr) and town (Newfield) on a friendship quilt from upstate
New York, ca. 1840-1850.  Collection of Lynda Salter Chenoweth.
 
Example of the imprint of a metal stamp, first inked and then applied to a friendship
quilt block for later signature within the decorative motif.  Type could also be set in
metal stamps like this, providing the name at the same time the stamp was applied.
Collection of Lynda Salter Chenoweth.
 
Typeset or stenciled name on a signature quilt made about 1875 in Bethlehem,
New Hampshire.  Collection of Pamela Weeks.  Photograph by Lynda Salter Chenoweth.
 
Writing directly on fabric with ink using quill or steel pens was a skill often taught to girls in schools of the early to mid-nineteenth century.  It is difficult to do without smudging or causing the ink to pool or run because of inconsistent ink application and the fabric density of weave.  Not surprisingly, many nineteenth century signature quilts were inscribed by only one trained and experienced hand.  The name or names to be applied to each quilt block were written on paper and basted to the block.  These annotated blocks were then given to the experienced inscriber who added the names.
 
Block with name (Sarah Hoover) written on paper and basted to the block.  Collection of
Lynda Salter Chenoweth.
 
Example of an inexperienced hand.  A block inscribed by Mary Ann Curtis of Newfield, New York.
Hard-to-read inscriptions such as this can often be clarified using photo editing software to lighten
the ink spread, increase the sharpness of the signature image, and remove "fuzziness."
 
Badly smudged or indecipherable signatures cannot be attributed only to those who were inexperienced in writing on fabric with ink.  The inks, themselves, were often to blame.  Up until the 1840s and the advent of indelible carbon and silver nitrate inks, most permanent inks were made from nutgalls, which contain tannic acid, and ferrous sulfate.  These inks were commercially manufactured but could also be made at home and they continued to be homemade products, of inconsistent quality, well into the nineteenth century.
 
Cellulose materials, which include paper, cotton, and linen, undergo a chemical reaction called hydrolysis when they come into contact with acids.  This reaction causes the fibers of linen and cotton to become brittle and break over time, disintegrating the areas on a quilt where a signature or other writing had been placed.  In addition, holes and deterioration in printed fabrics of the nineteenth century, especially those with brown or black design elements, is usually caused by acids in the mordant used in the dyeing process.
 
A striking example of fabric deterioration from the use of acidic ink is provided by a quilt top in the collections of the Litchfield Historical Society in Litchfield, Connecticut.  The quilt top was made in 1857 by Mrs. Ruth Pierce Cogswell (1765-1862) for Mary Pierce.  Mrs. Cogswell was ninety-three years old at the time she inscribed verses from the Old Testament on four of the quilt tops corner blocks using iron gall ink.  Sadly, indelible carbon inks were available commercially at the time and would not have produced the deterioration shown below.
 
Quilt top made by Mrs. Ruth Pierce Cogswell, 1857.  Collection of the Litchfield
Historical Society, Litchfield, Connecticut.  Object number 1920-02-1.  Photograph
courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society.
 
Full photograph of the quilt top made by Mrs. Ruth Pierce Cogswell.  Size of top is
87 1/2 X 87 1/2 inches.  Collection of the Litchfield Historical Society, Litchfield,
Connecticut.  Photograph courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society.
 
We are fortunate that so many inscribed friendship quilts have survived from the nineteenth century.  By remembering people by name, these quilts provide fertile research opportunities for us to gain insight into the relationships and the social and historical context of lives lived over a century ago.  It is always regretful when a life that could have been known through research is "lost" because the ink used to remember that life disintegrated the fabric leaving nothing behind.
 
Sources:
 
Our thanks to Alex Dubois of the Litchfield Historical Society for the photographs of the Cogswell quilt top.
 
Calvalho, David.  Forty Centuries of Ink.  Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2006.
 
Chenoweth, Lynda Salter.  Philena's Friendship Quilt:  A Quaker Farewell to Ohio.  Athens, OH:  Ohio University Press, 2009.
 
Fox, Sandi.  For Purpose and Pleasure, Quilting Together in Nineteenth Century America.  Nashville: The Rutledge Hill Press, 1995.
 
Ordonez, Margaret T.  "Ink Damage on Nineteenth Century Cotton Signature Quilts." In Uncoverings 1992, 148-168.  San Francisco:  American Quilt Study Group, 1993.
 
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2016.
 
 
 
 
 

 
 

 

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