Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Quilt Blocks Through the Mail


Many of us interested in quilt patterns have collections of blocks---lone blocks.

There was a time when we thought these "orphan blocks" needed to be set, quilted and bound.
Wilene Smith addressed this issue thirty years ago in an AQSG Paper. She writes: "Gradually I realized that these were not left over quilt blocks, or stray quilt blocks, but quilt pattern collections."
Her paper  "Quilt Blocks? -- or -- Quilt Patterns?" gave us some insight into the origins and use of many of these lone blocks.


Until the explosion of printed patterns in the late 1920s quiltmakers kept pattern blocks just as we keep digital files on Pinterest pages. We can guess their reasons for saving single blocks: Quilts they intend to make; quilts they might make again; patterns to share with friends. And some people just love to collect patterns.

Pattern collector Mary Pemble Barton (1917-2003) collected many vintage single blocks, organizing them by color and tacking them to backgrounds. Her collection is now in the Iowa State Historical Society. Her panels are pictured in the Quilt Index.


Carrie Hackett Hall (1866-1955) was another pattern collector. She donated her collection of over 800 blocks to the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. Hall made a few quilts and a lot of blocks in the 1920s and '30s, hoping to make one in every pattern she could find.

California Star

She also collected older blocks which are scattered throughout
the collection.

Block with a note attached from an online auction.
The date may be 1881

When we look at these blocks today we think about women stitching them and perhaps trading them. Here's one origin story that hasn't occurred to me until recently.

1898 Ladies' Art Company catalog

The Ladies' Art Company in St. Louis is well-known as a source of quilt patterns from about 1890 through the 1930s.

For a dime "we will send you...paper patterns" and a colored diagram.

The colored diagram was printed on a small card

But when you notice the fine print in some of the catalogs you also see they would send you a Finished Block.

"We will make up finished blocks to order from any diagram in this catalogue, of any size....It will be impossible to quote any prices here....some...are simple and require little labor, while again others are very complicated....They will be worked in the neatest and most artistic manner....we can make them any size desired."

Has anyone ever identified an "orphan block" as a Ladies Art Company product?



Double Z - Ladies Art Company 192



Later catalogs listed prices for blocks. Here: 35 cents to 60 cents.


Capital T - Ladies Art Company 84

$1.25 for an appliqued wreath.

I'd buy 9 of the pineapple #93, thank you.

The purchased blocks may be the source of some of these
circa 1900 samplers of different sized squares.


Dated 1905, the Macy Family
from a Laura Fisher ad in The Clarion

And here's another question? Who stitched those blocks in "the neatest and most artistic manner?" 
Ladies Art authority Connie Chunn finds the company had 30 employees in the 1930s.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Pair of Panel Quilts

"Quilt given to Rosa Benson Snoddy by her 
mother & father when she married" in 1853,
Spartanburg, South Carolina


Laurel Horton has studied the quilts of the Snoddy/Black family and published a book and several online articles about Mary Black's inherited quilts. This one seems to be the oldest in the family collection.


It's also the only one attributed to Mary Black's grandmother
Nancy Miller Benson (1809-1879) who lived her life in Spartanburg.

Spartanburg about the turn of the last century

Yardage, Collection of the Winterthur Museum,
which has several pieces. Curator Florence Montgomery
identified it as 1840-50, England. Curator Linda Eaton
describes it as 25-1/2" wide.

The fabric features a repeat of rose wreaths, circular panels
in two sizes and a rose sprig on the left and right.


The family was uncertain who made the quilt but the information passed with it indicated it was a wedding present for Rosa who married Samuel Snoddy.

Laurel Horton has summarized the family history:
"The Bensons could have purchased the chintz locally but it is quite possible that they demonstrated the importance of their eldest daughter's marriage by making a shopping excursion to Charleston to buy special items such as fabric for a wedding quilt.The information handed down by Mary Black is not specific about who made this chintz quilt; it is probable that Rosa's mother made it, alone or with help from family members or household slaves."
The assumption here is that this was a gift especially for Rosa and that her parents gave it to her. Therefore, her mother must have made the quilt or supervised its making in their home, using fabric specially purchased for this quilt.

I am questioning that assumption. My main evidence is a nearly identical quilt in the collection of the Los Angeles Museum of Art.

Whole-Cloth Quilt,  1850, 97 x 97 1/2 inches. 
Gift of Louise Bloom (M.90.144)

Both  are quilted in a diagonal grid.

Rosa Benson Snoddy's quilt: 
"She quilted the three layers in a simple, overall diagonal crosshatch. The chalk-like material she used to mark the quilting lines remains visible, an indication that the quilt has never been washed....The simple crosshatch quilting design could have been accomplished in a relatively short time, suggesting that Nancy Miller Benson chose not to take this as an opportunity to display fine handwork."
The major difference is in size with the LACMA quilt being a wider square with a full strip on the right here. Both have a length of about 6 wreaths.  Rosa's quilt looks to be a redder colorway than the LACMA quilt, which is the greenish shade usually seen in this wreath panel. (Color difference may just be a color accuracy problem in the photos.) The LACMA quilt seems to have an added red binding while Rosa's quilt has the back brought over the front for an edging.

Single wreath in an album quilt dated 1843,
unknown source

My interpretation of this pair of quilts: They were made by professional quiltmakers in South Carolina about 1850. The Benson family bought the quilt readymade for Rosa's wedding.

It seems that someone stripped whole-cloth quilt tops of the wreath yardage and quilted them with a simple grid. How many others were made and sold? 

When we hear the words wedding and quilt our conventional wisdom about quilts makes us assume a few things:

Wedding Quilt---Made by Mother
Two identical quilts---Mother made one for each child?

Why not Wedding Quilt---Bought by Mother?

I think it is time to think differently about women's work.

See one of Laurel Horton's posts about the Black family quilts.
https://southernspaces.org/content/whole-cloth-chintz-wedding-quilt-ca-1850

Monday, May 14, 2018

Selling Fabric: Making a Fortune

Dry goods shop in the 1860s

In 1846 a directory of Philadelphia's wealthy citizens listed Jane Lang as worth $50,000. "An industrious, persevering lady, who has made a fortune in the retail dry goods business; having been established for a series of years, in north Eighth street, and keeping always a choice and well selected stock of fancy and staple articles."

Jane Lang never married. Her tombstone indicates she lived from 1789 to 1867 into her late 70s. She was in her early forties when she was listed as wealthy.

Her marker in Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery
 includes three other women, perhaps a sister and two nieces.

Looking towards 5th Street on Chestnut when the Langs kept dry good stores.
Library Company of Philadelphia
Philadelphia's large shopping district included Chestnut and Market Streets.

The city's commercial directories list Jane Lang's business from 1839 until after the Civil War. Her dry goods stores were located at various spots,  35, 37 & 41 N 8th and 733 Filbert Street. At one point she lived at 37 N 8th in 1839, probably above the shop.

North side of Chestnut Street.

733 Filbert Street about 1960 from the Library of Congress

Dry goods seem to have been a family business. George S. Lang also owned a business in the same building. He is probably Jane's brother, both children of John Lang, who was a clerk in the United States Bank, family history tell us.


George Shortread Lang (1799-1877) was an "engraver of considerable reputation; he afterwards went into the dry goods business on Eighth Street, from which he retired about ten years ago," according to his 1877 obituary.

Lang's engraving of Washington after a Sully painting is his most famous work.


Album quilt dated 1841, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 
Bequest of Natalie K. Rowland, 1941



Is he the same George S. Lang who signed this album quilt in 
the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art?

We can wonder where all those chintz squares cut exactly alike in
the alternate blocks came from.

In 1864 both George and Jane Lang paid income tax to support
 Union war efforts. Each paid over $8,000,
 higher than most of the Philadelphians listed.

George's son James Traquair Lang (1858-1920) went into the family dry goods business after leaving Swarthmore College in the late 1870s. He became a lawyer after his father died and that seems to have been the end of the Lang's retailing businesses.

I can find very little about Jane Lang's personal life. Leaving no children means no descendants to find you in their genealogy. Being a successful woman business owner means you are ignored in much of the commerce boosting publications of the time---unless of course you are singled out as an oddity. "Woman Earns Money!"

Mrs. Treen's card for an end-of-the-century Philadelphia shop

But Jane was not an an oddity. Running a dry goods store specializing in fabrics was a common occupation for women.

Mrs. J. Benson
Fancy Dry Goods, Freeport, Illinois

Mrs. S.J. Thompson, Marengo, Iowa
Most of the trade cards for woman-owned dry goods stores are
from the end of the 19th century when color lithography was new.

Except for the remarkable early version below.

Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Mrs. Holt commissioned William Hogarth to make her
a trade card about 1710. Her London fabric shop sold silks, damasks
and Italian wines.

Portrait in Black
 Philadelphia Museum of Art 

We can follow the Langs into the 20th century. George's best known descendant was his granddaughter artist Annie Traquair Lang (1885-1918) who died at 33 in the 1918 influenza epidemic. She was quite close to William Merritt Chase who painted the above portrait in 1911

Annie Lang is getting her just due these days:

See Jane's tombstone here:

And do note that the chintz in the Philadelphia album quilt is the same as one the Boyle sisters used in Petersburg, Virginia. See the last post.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Boyle Sisters: Professional Quiltmakers


In 1844 a fire swept through a neighborhood in Petersburg,Virginia,
burning the home of James Boyle. The fire hose was too short to save the house 
and outbuildings according to a newspaper account in the Richmond Enquirer.

This sounds like a disaster and if this is the James Boyle who had four seamstress daughters living at home quilt lovers can shudder at what was lost. Quilts? Chintz?

Quilt attributed to the Boyle Sisters of Petersburg #1991.644
Collection of Colonial Williamsburg

The Boyle sisters were professional seamstresses. One of their specialties was chintz appliqued quilts. There must have been many Southern women who made a living stitching chintz quilts but the Boyles are a rare example of professional quiltmakers whose story was handed down with the handwork. The account is in the cataloging data for a pair of quilts at Colonial Williamsburg.

The second of two Boyle Sisters' quilts, #1991.645,
Detail showing an inner border.
"According to family tradition, this quilt was made by the Misses Boyles for D'Arcy and Elizabeth Scrosby Cooke Paul of Petersburg, Virginia. The Boyles were unmarried sisters living on Pine Street who made their living making quilts and sewing.... Family tradition states that D’Arcy commissioned the quilts from two unmarried sisters named Boyle who made their living stitching and selling quilts."
#1991.645 is 116  x 115 inches, a large quilt.
The centerpiece is the popular fruit panel.

#1991.644 is another large quilt of unusual shape,
67 x 107 inches,
and features a different floral panel in the center.

Notice the large bouquet blocks are the same as the
 border bouquets in the other quilt.

The quilts descended in the Paul/Gilman/Roper family until 1991 when Colonial Williamsburg acquired them.


In the years 1830-1845 when the quilts were made Petersburg was a thriving town on the Appomattox River about 20 miles from Richmond.

Petersburg Courthouse
Mid-19th-century

The Paul family who commisioned the quilts was wealthy. A biography of D'Arcy Paul's great-grandson described them:
"old Anglo-Irish ... magnates and civic leaders in Northern Ireland, whose American branch had come to Virginia in the person of his great grandfather, D'Arcy Paul, founder of a bank and of notable charities in Petersburg."
The Boyles, a family of craftspeople, were not wealthy. They left few records but information at Colonial Williamsburg and other internet sites gives us a view. James and Jane Harding Boyle had six children, five girls and a boy, none of whom married. They appeared to live together supported at first by father James who was a candle and soap maker. He died in October, 1845 and is buried in Blandford Cemetery with the rest of the family. 

Burying ground at the Blandford Episcopal Church. No markers
are currently listed for the Boyles but several are listed in the records.

Brother Joseph John Boyle was a carpenter and also must have contributed to the family accounts. Five sisters lived at home: Hannah (about 37 when her father died), Emily (35), Melvina (31), Rosina (27) and Jane (about 22) 

From Colonial Williamsburg:
"Family tradition states that D’Arcy commissioned the quilts from two unmarried sisters named Boyle who made their living stitching and selling quilts."
 Which two sisters?
"Emily, Melvina, Rosina, and Jane were, at least at one point, mantua-makers, or dressmakers. Their oldest sister, Hannah, kept house." 
The quilts themselves give us no clue. Each is inked on the back:

“B. Roper / from her grandmother / E. S. Paul.” 

Bettie Roper (1846-1912) was probably named for her grandmother Elizabeth Cooke Paul (1794–1865) who commissioned the quilts.

Detail of #91.645 showing the beautiful buttonhole stitch that
secures the applique


"No other quilts have been identified as the work of the sisters, but the skill in the design and execution of these quilts strongly suggests that there must be more."


I visited Colonial Williamsburg several years ago and took detail photos of the Boyle quilts. I will be looking for more quilts in their style. The small floral bouquet is a clue, something I might be able to see in photographs.

UPDATE: I found two other quilts with the same floral as in the bouquet, both Philadelphia made and both in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Here's one dated 1841: 
The white flowers look like dahlias and in the uncut version it's an arborescent print.
The Boyle Sisters' method of working seems obvious in this pair. They used a standard applique block cut from chintz plus showy imported furniture fabrics like the border on the square quilt.

From #1991.645
The Victoria and Albert Museum has a piece of the same print,

which they attribute to 1824 or 1830.

One could imagine a Boyle business model in which British chintzes were stockpiled and spare time spent appliqueing blocks that could be incorporated into various designs. Customers might choose size, fabrics and perhaps a favorite panel. 

If the story of the quilts' commissioning had not been handed down we would assume from the label that Elizabeth Paul made them.

 “B. Roper / from her grandmother / E. S. Paul.”

How many other women bought quilts from professional seamstresses and left them to their children and grandchildren with similar accurate yet quite confusing labels?