Hearing a Piece of Her Mind: DAR Museum Hosts a Quilt Symposium

Written by: Alden O'Brien, DAR Museum Curator of Costumes and Textiles
December 13, 2019

The DAR Museum has hosted a symposium on the theme of our museum gallery exhibit. This year, more than 100 quilt history experts and enthusiasts descended on NSDAR headquarters for a symposium held in conjunction with our current exhibit.

In “A Piece of Her Mind: Culture and Technology in American Quilts,” on exhibit through December 31, we explore how 19th and early 20th century women created quilts that reflected their interest and involvement in the world around them. Politics, scientific and botanical developments, and popular culture all appear on many quilts of that time.

We received many replies to our Call for Papers, letting us choose a series of five lectures which both fit the theme and dovetailed each other nicely, spanning the early 19th century through the Depression Era. We were also honored that several historians at the top of their fields offered to present their research. Added to the DAR Museum’s reputation for an excellent quilt collection and for putting on worthwhile symposia, this meant our event would be a big draw, and in fact, the symposium sold out within a few weeks of tickets going on sale.

The symposium began with Lynne Zacek Bassett, curator of numerous exhibits and editor of exhibit catalogs including “Pieces of American History: Connecticut Quilts” currently on view at the Connecticut Historical Society “Homefront and Battlefield: Quilts and Context in the Civil War.” Lynne discussed friendship quilts, a major 19th-century quilt trend, in the context of the Romantic era’s emphasis on sentiment, and women’s culture of friendship. She also debunked the popular notion that these quilts’ use of inked inscriptions grew out of technological developments in better quality inks and new steel nib pens. For example, a generation before inscribing quilts became popular, women had been decorating and inscribing purses, such as the one shown here in the Museum collection, a gift of friendship from Caroline Odlin to “F. Rogers,” complete with Gothic castle ruin on the opposite side of the inscription.

The next lecture, “Mind-Reading: Improving our Understanding of the Floral Literacy of Quiltmakers in the First Half of the 19th Century,” was presented by a pair of speakers. Terry Terrell is a horticulturist as well as a textile historian, and Deborah Kraak is a textile historian who has written extensively on many aspects of European and American textile and costume history. Looking at printed cotton chintzes, Terrell noted that it can be easy to misidentify flowers because hybridization has greatly changed how many flowers look. Close examination of flowers and leaves, and comparison with 19th-century botanical illustrations (often copied by chintz designers!) to see how the flowers looked at the time, are critical steps to identifying flowers in chintz. Terry also reported that a study of more than 70 dated chintz quilts revealed a leap in the number of different flowers seen on chintzes after about 1830. Deborah Kraak explored how 19th-century women were botanically literate and often involved in gardening, so that these floral designs on quilts reflect not just aesthetic choices but may also reflect women’s specific interest in botany.

The next presenter was Barbara Brackman, author of several books on quilt history and patterning, who now maintains several quilt history blogs. In “Star Spangl’d: Patriotic Quilts of the 1850s” Brackman argued eagle quilts in this period, rather than being generic expressions of patriotism, may be using versions of eagles used by political parties active at the time, including the nativist Know-Nothing Party. Eagle quilts are often assumed to be related to the 1876 Centennial, but Brackman has found some with much earlier dates, and she suggested we should reexamine what political messages might be embedded in some of these quilts.

After a delicious lunch in the O’Byrne Gallery, which allowed participants to chat about what we had just heard, we reconvened to hear Hallie Bond, a historian who has been curator at the Adirondack Museum, talk about women in the Adirondack area of New York in the late 19th century in her talk “Quiltmaking in the Culture of Home Sewing: Northern New York, 1850-1920.” Bond has explored numerous diaries of women of this area (the far northeastern part of the state near Vermont and the Canadian border) to find many mentions of quilts and quilting. She also has tracked down photos of many of the quilters and diarists and their homes and has also completed biographical and genealogical research. All this put together a rich picture of women in a rural community, quilting alone and together.

The last talk of the day was from Janneken Smucker, professor of history at West Chester University and a specialist in Amish quilts. Her talk, “A New Deal for Quilts,” looked at quilts in the Depression Era as documented by federal programs. As Janneken notes, “By the time the Roosevelt Administration began combatting the Great Depression, the quilt had become an emblem of how to lift one’s family out of poverty, piece by piece.” Janneken discussed how images of quiltmaking from federal programs such as The Farm Security Administration, WPA and Tennessee Valley Authority used quilts as political tools, using nostalgia for a mythologized Colonial era to convey messages of fortitude and self-sufficiency. This, Smucker suggested, was the kind of boosterism and encouragement that people needed during this stressful period of our history.

After all this, we offered time for more browsing in the quilt exhibit and the Study Gallery. I was on hand to answer questions and engage in conversations with the attendees. As many of them are dedicated quilt history researchers and experts in their own rights, this made for lively discussions. Many of those present expressed their enthusiasm for a great symposium, and I think we all went home with minds buzzing with new information, new ideas connected and new questions to ask as we examine quilts in future.

All the objects in the exhibition, both quilts and the related objects which help put them in context, as well as all the exhibit labels and graphics, are visible in our online exhibit.

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