On Tuesday, 7 April 2020, Susan Cave and Beverley Bennett wrote:
One of the TRC’s oldest and most beautiful quilts (TRC 2019.2402) was made in the years before the American Civil War (1861-1865). Many people have asked us if it was made by slaves. The answer is probably yes, but under the guidance of the Mistress of the house. How do we know this?
There is a large body of supporting evidence, public records, first-hand accounts and the actual object itself. The quilt had to have been made before 1865 (the end of the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery) and the date of ours is c. 1850. Slaves made quilts for their own beds, usually out of scraps, and few have survived the rigours of the years, but there are reports of much quilting on frames going on in the grand homes of the times.
A seriously fine quilt like this, which probably took many months to make, would become a family treasure. It is extraordinary that it has emerged well over a hundred and fifty years later in such excellent condition. We are sure it came from the affluent pre-war East or Southern State as it is obvious that new cloth was bought to execute the careful colour schemes, the embroidery and the backing fabric. The condition is so good that quilts of this quality might have been one of the few things a household wanted to save during the war.
We know, for example, that a similar quilt spent years in a tin trunk buried under a vegetable patch in an orchard in Lafayette, Missouri. That state was caught in the middle of the fighting with Unionists on one side, Confederates on the other. The family lived through a bloody neighbour-against-neighbour war and while the owner himself was away fighting, soldiers from both sides “would ride up as though they owned the house, take quilts from the beds to put under their saddles, stole anything else they fancied, raided our larder and our crops, chased terrified house girls and sometimes brutalized them”. After the war the trunk was dug up and the quilt stayed in the family until two years ago when the last relative went into care and no-one else wanted it.
We may never know the full story of the TRC quilt but we can re-visit the life and times, look and learn and imagine what it might have been like to live during that era.
The quilt features nine large hand appliqued blocks. Whilst the orientation of the blocks may look odd to us when it is displayed on a wall, when the quilt was laid on a bed, the blocks on each side and the bottom of the bed would have all been the right way up.
We have been unable to find this specific block in our reference books, so it may have been designed by the maker. We have chosen to name it ‘Flowers and Berries’ as we have seen similar designs documented in this way.
Today the flowers are brown, but they were originally red as a colourfast fabric was not used. When the maker bought the red fabric for the flowers and the border (which was probably bought later when the quilt was ready to set and finish) they would have looked the same colour. But one of them was fugitive and on the first wash the red dye in the flowers began to drain away leaving a beigey brown colour. The border however was a true “Turkey” red, (a dye made from the madder plant of the rubia species), a fast colour which will neither fade nor wash out.
The green fabric is interesting too, as its history is the one of death. Arsenic was used as a mordant and after production began in the 1840’s, the green was such a bright emerald, everyone wanted it. Women who wore green dresses and gloves developed ulcers and rashes, sometimes their hair fell out and many developed liver and kidney problems. After quite a long period it was subsequently banned due to health risks, as many people who worked with the dye in the manufacturing process had died. Much to the dismay of quilters who loved this colour, a good green coloured fabric was fugitive until the late 19th century.
The appliqué is very good. It is not easy to stitch the small circles required for the berries, and the centres of the flowers are worked in reverse appliqué (whereby the top, appliqué fabric is cut away to reveal either the background or, as here, another fabric) so that it appears that the yellow centres are behind the flower, which clearly tested the talents of the makers.
It is nicely and evenly quilted in double rows in a hanging diamonds pattern with 8-9 stitches per inch. The yellow binding has been added later. Since it is not as faded as the yellow in the body of the quilt, it may have been a necessary repair as quilts tend to show the most use on the edges and were often re-bound.