Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Quilting for a Living: Part 3

Quilters, about 1910

As we go into a second year of this Women's Work blog I thought I'd spend the next few posts summarizing what I've learned over the past year---mostly unlearning concepts I've taken for granted since reading my first quilt book in the 1960s.

Today we're well aware that American women earned money by quilting for other people. Quilting for a living is something we do, we hire and we talk about.  Quilters' jargon right now refers to the process as "quilting by checkbook," something that went on for centuries before there were checkbooks.

Professional Quilter Angela Walters

I well recall my first unlearning in the 1980s---I was interviewing women in Emporia, Kansas during the Kansas Quilt Project, daughters of some of the mid-century master applique artists of that town.

Detail of an Indiana Wreath by Emily Bigler, Hartford, Kansas.
Emily did her own applique, according to her family, but she
also was a professional quilter who worked for other Emporia
quiltmakers like Rose Kretsinger.

I asked one daughter if her mother did her own quilting. She looked at me with disdain, as if I'd asked if her socially prominent mother had scrubbed her own floors. As I recall she said, "My dear, no one did their own quilting."

Emily Bigler's quilting patterns.

I was an artist---my concept of making a quilt was that you began by drawing a pattern, then stitched the patchwork, marked the quilting, quilted by hand and bound it. One quilt, one woman. That interview changed my mind and it keeps changing. Every step of the process from drawing the pattern to binding was part of an economic complex.

Doing the quilting is probably the best documented step in the process and a concept we accept easily today.

Mary McElwain and a woman who sewed for her Wisconsin quilt shop.
From Carol Butzke's collection

Historical information about quilting for money is available from several sources:
  • Diary and Letter Accounts
  • Advertisements
  • Indexes to Occupations
  • Photographs and Illustrations
  • Oral Histories: Interviews, family history and personal accounts

Diary and Letter Accounts
Personal records are among our best evidence of a network of professional quilters (and quilt markers) but not always easy to interpret.

In her 1796-1797 journal Phoebe Pierson recorded that she
 "went over to quilt for Mathias Baldwins wife."

The journal is at the Library of the University of Pennsylvania

Was Phoebe quilting as a favor, for fun or for payment? Quilting "for Mathias Baldwins wife" rather than quilting with her indicates Phoebe might have been earning money.

Lynn A. Bonfield in her 1988 Uncoverings study "Diaries of New England Quilters Before 1860" also found it difficult to determine if diarists were quilting for pay.  One exception: In 1845 Persis Sibley Andrews had her hired girl Costella helping with quilting. "Costella quilts well and fast." But could you call Costella a professional quilter or was she just general household help?

A 1908 postcard from Mrs. A.P.N. of Kinglsey, Iowa to her niece:
Tell George his quilt is ready for him any time he comes down."

Front of the postcard
Is Mrs. N. making George a quilt as a gift or a financial transaction?

Note in a scrapbook picturing Esther Searl, Rosepine, Louisiana.
"At the age of eighty she did the fine quilting on all my quilts of which I am so proud."
See the Maude Reid scrapbooks at the Calcasieu Library:


Advertisements are far less ambiguous. This 1897 newspaper ad
indicates M. W. wants "Quilting or plain sewing."

See a post about ads for quilt work here:

"Any one wanting quilting or sewing done see Mrs. Ryan."
Waxahachie Texas, 1910

Those ads go back to Colonial days:
"Quilting work of all kinds performed at the subscriber's house in Annapolis, in the best and newest Manner, as cheap as in London; by a Person from England brought up in the said Business."
Ad from Symon Duff, May 24, 1745, Maryland Gazette 

Indexes to Occupations

I did a post about Colonial ads here:

My sources for much of the early information was from an index to occupations, MESDA's (Museum of Southern Decorative Arts) Craftsman Database, searching for words like quilting and quilter. Indexes like this one are a good source but digitization is not always available.

The occupation of quilter is better documented in the British Isles. I found this statement on line concerning quilting:

"The bed quilt made of patches was the staple product, but other articles such as tea cosies, cushion covers and warm clothing were also traditional. Usually handed down from mother to daughter rather than by an apprenticeship system [Is this true?], the craft has enjoyed a revival for the luxury market through the Women’s Institutes, especially in Durham. Arnold (The Shell Book of Country Crafts. John Baker,1968 and All Made by Hand. John Baker, London, 1970), and Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946) offer descriptions and a quilters index exists. [Where?]
Some indexes look very promising: 
Dorothy Provine, an archivist in the Civil Archives Division of the National Archives in Washington, authored an article “The Economic Position of the Free Blacks in Washington, D.C., 1800-1860” and a District of Columbia Free Negroes Register, 1821-1861, which list occupations.

The R.G. Dun Credit Reports from the 19th century include much information about businesses gathered by local reporters to the agency.

Mennonite women quilting

One enormous index to occupations is U.S. census records---occupations are listed from 1850 but sorting through those records is not easy and unfortunately not too informative so far:

Terry Terrell wrote me a note about a woman she found in the 1860 census with the occupation of quilter. The 1860 Census of Barnesville, Belmont County, Ohio lists Sarah Hanshaw (either 58 or 38 years old---hard to read) living alone with the profession of "quilter."
"Her 'value of estate owned'" was $50, and there was no 'value of real estate' listed. She was financially in the bottom third of the people in her immediate neighborhood."

Barnesville about 1910
"I haven't been able to find her in a later census....Barnesville at that time was a prosperous small town with a mainly farming economy. It had a B&O railroad station, and was just off the Cumberland trail, so not remote or difficult to access, but 25 mi. from Wheeling, WV to the east and Zanesville, OH to the west. Still, I found it odd that there was enough business to support a quilter. Though I know people made a living as quilters in Britain, I haven't seen it listed as an occupation anywhere else in the U.S. census after about 25 years doing genealogy as a hobby."
"In any case, it is interesting that at least one person appears to have been trying to make a living as a quilter in 1860 in a small town fairly far from a major urban area. Perhaps we need to unlearn the idea that 'checkbook quilting' is a new phenomenon."
Nellie's sisters-in-law were "quiltmakers, working out."

Sharon at PatchworkBitsAndPieces wrote a comment on this blog:
"I have census records for Joan and Barbara Sellar, sisters from Scotland. They immigrated with their family to USA in 1907. In 1910 the household of ten were living in Chicago. The men were plasterers, and both Joan and Barbara are listed as "quilt makers; working out". They are listed as wage earners with no weeks out of work. Perhaps they were making up blocks at home for a company like Ladies Art. Their future sister-in-law Nellie is one of the block makers in a friendship quilt in my collection."

As Terry notes, it's an occupation you don't often come across, but the censuses (censii?) offer an interesting data set.

Mrs. Clarence Pace, Louisiana, from the Library of Congress photographs

Photographs and Illustrations

Photographs after 1840 and illustrations back into the 18th-century show women at quilt frames, but again, interpretation is subjective. See a post on looking at the Farm Security photographs from the 1930s and '40s here:

Nottingham Lace-Running or Embroidering
Charles Knight, Pictorial Gallery of Arts, 1858

I found two photos of this woman showing off her quilt blocks.
What's going on?

Oral Histories: Interviews, family history and personal accounts

Oral histories may be the most useful source for information about 20th century professional quilters. We have a wealth of digital transcripts but searching and sorting are never easy. The Quilt Alliance's Save Our Stories has transcripts on line, but hard to search for words like "paid", "earned", etc. The state quilt projects, digitized in the Quilt Index also has interview snippets.

Emma Crockett of Alabama believed she 
was about 79 or 80 years old when interviewed.
She worried about her memory in her interview.

Trying to find information about quilt work before 1900 is more difficult. One source is the W.P.A. Ex-Slave Narratives, which were collected  in 1937 and 1938. The limitations on the accuracy of the data include the poor reflection of life in actual slavery collected from elderly people seventy years after emancipation. Some interviewees professed to be 130 years old, but the majority were probably young children during slavery like Emma Crockett who was younger than ten. The Narratives' value as documentation about quilts during slavery is low; but people did often talk about their lives after slavery.

Laura Ramsey Parker was interviewed in Nashville when she was 87. She recalled being taught to spin and weave while in slavery as a child. Soon after she was freed she went to Wisconsin but returned to Tennessee. 
"Have worked all my life seems to me. At one time I was a chambermaid...later a sick nurse, a seamstress, dressmaker but now I piece and sell bed quilts."

Minerva Cline and quilts

These fragments of biography give us some clues. I find fragments to be widespread; comprehensive accounts to be few.

Another snippet or two:
On this blog Joanne left a comment:
"My grandmother was poor and quilted for herself and for others. Quilting was how she expressed herself and how she earned needed cash."
And Dianne's comment:
"I've always wondered about all the orphan blocks I inherited from my grandma. She was a single mother in the 30's and raised her 2 children by making quilts, baking, ironing and taking in boarders. I inherited ALL of her quilt patterns, quilting templates, bits and bobs of fabric etc. and was amazed at the amount of orphan blocks she had, there were also letters from her customers telling her to use what color for which piece and to add the cost of the fabric to their bill. She had several complicated blocks that had different color swatches pinned to different pieces so she could see what they would look like in the different color ways. I always thought I'd put them all together in a sampler but now I think I will leave them as they are."
Looking for a thesis project on quilting, women's history or economics? 

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Ann Adeline Orr Parks: Family in the Fabric Business

One of four chintz applique quilts attributed to
 Ann Adeline Orr Parks (1803-1835) of Charlotte, 
documented in the North Carolina project

We have many impressive collections of a body of work by quiltmakers working in the past century such as Rose Kretsinger, Anna Williams and Bertha Stenge, but groups of quilts by 19th-century quiltmaker are rare. We can look to state and regional quilt projects for family collections.

Ellen Fickling Eanes in the North Carolina project pictured four quilts by Ann Adeline Orr Parks of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Adeline Parks (she may have been called by her middle name) was born November 28, 1803 in Mallard Creek, Mecklenberg County in the western part of the state and lived her life in that county. She married David Parks of Charlotte on February 6, 1827 when she was 23.

David Parks is among the Merchants listed in an 1844 Charlotte directory.

See the last post on quilts in drygoods dealers' family quilts:

Note the beautiful striped chintz for the final border with butted
rather than mitered corners.

The Parks quilts use a variety of chintz-scale prints, some of them quite popular with quiltmakers in the 1820-1850 period. Each central focus is a furnishing panel, often with these panels trimmed in various ways around the edges.

The fruit panel at the center of this one is framed with strips cut
from a pillar and basket print that was quite the rage at the time.

Variations on that print

Brunk Auctions
Chintz quilt attributed to "Grandmother Kendall,"
 Mecklenburg County NC with the same print in its dark borders, dated 1833

Even more popular was the palm tree and pheasant print, which is cut up and appliqued in the corners of the Parks quilt with an unusual scalloped edge. Note also another early-to-mid-19th century stripe that would have worked better had the corners been mitered.

Read more about the palm tree print:

Tryon Street about 1910, where David Parks's store and later 
Parks & Hutchinson was located

The Parkses were prosperous. We can see it in the quilts and city records. David Parks moved from being a drygoods merchant to making investments in railroads and banks. He was active in Democratic and later Confederate politics, the Presbyterian Church and was mayor of the city in the late 1850s, but much of this was after Ann Adeline died.

The David Parks Building was at 24 Tryon Street. Here's Tryon mid-century.

They are recorded as having only one child, Mary Adeline born in February, 1835. Ann Adeline died on September 10th that year at the age of 32, leaving an infant and a 38-year-old husband who soon married again.

David's second wife was widow Ann Chambers Locke Beyers, wed on July 11, 1837. The second Ann Parks raised Mary Adeline and must have emphasized the importance of these quilts, which were handed down to Mary Adeline's descendants.

Mary Adeline married Ebenezer Nye Hutchinson and left one child David Parks Hutchinson, born in 1853, when she died young at 23 in 1858. Ann Adelaide's grandson known as Parks Hutchinson was also raised by a stepmother. He lived to be 69, dying in 1922. Family quilts, treated with reverence, were a legacy from a mother and grandmother never known.

Ann Adeline's husband's obituary. He'd been Charlotte's oldest citizen at the time.

David Parks and both his Anns are buried in Elmwood cemetery. At the Parks monument
a stone for David Parks and off to the corner of the photo A.A. (for Ann Adelaide?)

When Ellen Fickling Eanes interviewed a family member almost thirty years ago she was told:
"It cannot be questioned that in her short adult life Adeline Orr Parks made all of these quilts. Ann Byers Parks, David Parks's second wife, who had the quilts in her possession for fifty three years, always attributed them to Adeline, leaving no doubt about the maker. Adeline's daughter, Mary Adeline, died at twenty-three and Ann raised her child, David Parks Hutchinson. Through Ann's bequest the quilts have come down to Adeline's descendants through his family."
So how did Ann Adeline come to make so many quilts? Perhaps her position as wife of a fabric merchant gave her access to much expensive material from England and much leisure time (the Parks family owned slaves). Or perhaps the quilts were good marketing---showing what could be done with store merchandise. One can also imagine a scenario in which one of the luxuries you could buy at David Parks's store was a chintz quilt, stitched by seamstresses (free or slave) under Ann Adeline's direction. Perhaps these four quilts were unsold merchandise.

Chintz quilts must have been the fashion in Charlotte in the early 1830s.

Charlotte's Mint Museum owns a chintz panel quilt from
 another prosperous family, the Caldwells. This one is signed
Sally Roxana Caldwell and dated 1833 on the reverse. The borders
have mitered corners.

Born about 1813, Sally Roxana, wife of a physician, was a little younger than Ann Adeline, but of her generation with children of similar age. They probably moved in the same social and political  circles in a town of 20,000 people. See a post on the Caldwell family and note that David Parks replaced Dr. P.C. Caldwell as Charlotte's delegate to the Secession Convention at the beginning of the Civil War.

While looking through the Quilt Index I noticed the panel chintz quilt on the left in the collection of the DAR Museum, thought to have gone from South Carolina to Mississippi to the museum.

Ann Adeline's quilt uses the same floral fabric in the final border adjacent to a neatly cut stripe. A mitered corner would have finished these quilts off nicely, but both have the awkward butted corners usually seen towards the end of the 19th century. Was the same hand directing the look of the borders?

This caused me to look closer at Ann Adeline's construction. All four of her quilts have butted corners in the final borders. And notice the odd edging---scallops! and one with round corners---visual evidence of  the same designer's hand.

Did someone add late-19th century borders to Ann Adeline's centers? This is doubtful as the identifiable border chintzes are mid-century prints. It just may be that A.A. thought this was a fine finish (and it does take a little less yardage.)

In our blog about chintz panels we included two of Ann Adeline's with this floral panel seen often in Carolina quilts. Note the similarities between the center of hers and the top below it in the collection of Historic Columbia (SC). Parts are cut in a clever way to make the most of center bouquet, frame and four corners.

Uncut panel from the Winterthur Museum collection.

See our panel blog post:

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Family in the Dry Goods Business

Medallion chintz quilt attributed to Jane Weakley Leche (1792-1855)
Collection of the Virginia Quilt Museum. Estimated date: 1825.

Ad for David Leche & Son, 1845

Pennsylvanian Jane Weakley married Irish immigrant David Leche in 1819 and moved to Baltimore where her husband was a successful dealer in textiles, a dry goods merchant. See more about the family here:

My first thought about having a husband in retail fabric sales was that Jane had access to a lot of fabric at wholesale prices, permitting her to indulge her quiltmaking hobby with some "British, French & China Dry Goods." 

But then I started thinking about how many other quiltmakers shared her good fortune. For example, Adeline Parks.

Quilt attributed to Ann Adeline Orr Parks

When Adeline married David he was in the dry goods business in Charlotte, North Carolina. He did well and retired in 1855, long after her death when she was in her early thirties.

Collection of Colonial Williamsburg

For many years a large group of appliqued bedcovers has been attributed to Achsah Goodwin Wilkins (1775-1854) of Baltimore, whose husband William Wilkins (1767-1832)  was a well-to-do drygoods merchant in business with his brother Joseph at a store at 165 Baltimore Street in the first half of the century. 

Joseph Wilkins (1782 - ca 1850) and his wife Mary Cooke Bedford

Dr. William Dunton first wrote about the quilts associated with the Wilkins family in his 1945 book Old Quilts. He found several in the families of Wilkins family descendants and concluded they had been made under the direction of Achsah Wilkins by free or enslaved seamstresses in a form of "quilt industry."
Smithsonian Collection, inscribed A.G. Wilkins, 1820 at a later date.

In her 2018 paper "The Chintz Gardens of Achsah Goodwin Wilkins" for the American Quilt Study Group Ronda Harrell McAllen notes an 1819 ad she found from Wm. & Jos. Wilkins & Co. offering "a few sets of very elegant printed moreens, chintz patterns, a new article, which will be sold in sets to private families." (He apparently wasn't selling the chintz sets, which we assume to be companion prints, to the competition.)

She also notes that Achsah's daughters' husbands left inventories with their wills indicating the family had 72 quilts in their possession at the time the wills were read---"extraordinary, even for very wealthy families...."
A pair of quilts by Lucinda Ward Honstain at the 
International Quilt Study Center & Museum

Lucinda Ward Honstain's famous pictorial quilt dated 1867 includes a block with a wagon labeled W.B. Dry Goods, which researchers have linked to her brother Thomas's store Ward & Burroughs. Lucinda's father, another Thomas, was also in the drygoods business in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Her husband was a tailor for two decades before the Civil War and her sister was a professional dressmaker. This was truly a family in the drygoods business. Was Lucinda's quilt a form of advertising? A quilt like this one displayed in a store or at a fair would certainly sell some calico.

Dr. Dunton also showed this midcentury Baltimore chintz quilt, noting that Mrs. Kunkel owned it in 1945 and had inherited it from her aunt. "The maker of this quilt is unknown but it belonged to Mrs. Annie G. Broadbent who conducted an exclusive dry goods business of Charles Street, Baltimore, between Lexington and Fayette during the Civil War."

The dry goods district about 1910
As an Atlantic Ocean port Baltimore was
 full of dry goods stores in the 19th century.

Anna Gordon Broadbent (ca 1800-ca 1891), listed as a drygoods merchant, was married to Gershom Broadbent who is also listed as a dry goods merchant at 18 North Charles Street in city directories. A William Broadbent was a dealer in "French fancy goods."

What role did being in the dry goods business have to do with these elegant quilts?
1) Luxury fabrics at wholesale prices encouraged female hobbyists to make luxury quilts.
2) The quilts were models made by family or professional seamstresses to promote the fabrics.
3) The quilts were made by family or professional seamstresses and sold in the store.

Baltimore Pilot & Transcript
November 2, 1840
Comforts---Comfortable Comforts
"Just finished, a large supply of Comfortables, an excellent article for the approaching winter; a person ensconced beneath one of these truly comfortable articles can bid defiance to the rudest attacks of his frosty majesty. Apply...corner of Lombard & Light streets."

Betts Family quilt, Colonial Williamsburg #1970-194

 UPDATE: Terry reminded me of the Betts family's South Carolina quilt in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg. The medallion framed by diagonal stripes includes a popular striped poppy fabric. The quilt descended in the family of James Betts, Charleston dry goods merchant. Betts, confined to a chair, is said to have finished the quilt, perhaps after his wife Emily Margaret Silliman Betts appliqued the center. Emily died at 28 years old in 1841. James never remarried and lived into 1875.

Betts advertised widely in the South before the war. He seems
to have been both a storekeeper (a retailer) and a merchant (a

See a post on the poppy print and advertisements for similar stripes for "bordering quilts" here:

Detail of a quilt in the Charleston Museum

Another family of quiltmakers in the drygoods business:
Hugh Rose Banks had an antebellum store in Charleston, South Carolina

Above: One of seven chintz quilts attributed to the Banks/Eason/Dodderer families; this one made for Hugh's daughter Margaret's marriage to James M. Eason in the mid 1840s.

See this album dated 1844-1847 at the Charleston Museum here: