Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Buying Tops: A Long Term Partnership

Quilt pieced by unknown Arkansas woman,
quilted by Alba Loulee Spires Ward (1905-1983)

A man brought this quilt in to be documented in the Oregon project last year. Alba Ward, Matthew's grandmother, was born in Damascus, Arkansas. When five her family moved to Plummerville, Arkansas. Grandmother remained friends with an African-American girl from Damascus (her name unknown). About 1930 Alba, her husband and two-year old Maxene moved to the northwest to work in the apple orchards, according to Maxene's obituary. Censuses find them in Washington, Idaho and eventually in Oregon.

Matthew recalled his grandparents drove home to Arkansas annually, buying quilt tops from the unnamed friend "for about $40 each."  Alba then quilted the tops. The unnamed friend was a domestic worker in Damascus and the family recalled that she was "blind"---visually impaired to some degree.

Some of the fabric is printed; the documenters noted a double pink print and indicated recycled tobacco sacks had been used. The pattern with its curved handles was a popular design. Perhaps the quiltmaker's inspiration was the Ladies Art Company pattern "Tulip in Vase." 

Matthew recalled that Alba's daughter, his mother Maxene Ward Stringer (1928-2015), had about 60 quilts. He inherited six, which he brought to be recorded. The quilt at the top of the page looks to be the oldest, perhaps one of the first the women cooperated on, pieced in the 1920s.


This one also looks to have been pieced for fabrics from
the 1940-1960 years.

Alba gave it to Matthew as a birthday present in 1975

There were three diamond stars---this one perhaps pieced in the 1960-1980's

He had two of these red sashed stars, both with polyester fabrics,
so we'd guess 1965-1980. In all three stars the piecer solved the quilt size
problem by using half blocks along the edge.

Here's a link to the first quilt:

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Sewing for Money in Yadkin County

Mary Jane “Jennie” Newsom Pilcher (1860-1957) lived much of her life in Yadkin County, North Carolina in the Piedmont region of the state. She lived a very long life, born the month that Abraham Lincoln was first elected President and dying during the Eisenhower administration when she was 97 years old.

The North Carolina quilt project recorded the star quilt above, a classic example of Southern Appalachian quilt style popular in the years 1880-1930 or so with its bold, solid color fabrics and triple strip sashing. The quilt owner who brought the quilt in for documentation had inherited it from her Uncle John Wesley Doub and she also passed on the family story that her Uncle, a bachelor, had Jennie Pilcher make quilts for him. Jennie was apparently a professional quiltmaker.

Baltimore United Methodist Church where all these neighbors gathered

Both Jennie and John Doub are buried in the Baltimore United Methodist Church cemetery in East Bend, a small town northwest of Winston Salem. The project saw other quilts from the Baltimore community in East Bend, two from the Doub family.

Howard Newton Doub (1914 - 1974) with 
two of his sisters Irene and Ruth about 1919.

In 1935 the Doub family and Jennie Pilcher made a quilt for Leona Hutchens Doub's eldest son Howard Newton Doub who turned 21 that year.

Yadkin County quilters carried a taste for triple strip sashing
well into the mid- 20th century. The style is a bit old-fashioned for the mid-1930s.

The Quilt Index file on the Bear's Paw quilt tells us that the woman who brought the quilt in for photography recalled it was a joint project by Julie Doub Speas, Nancy Doub, Jenny Pilcher & other neighbors.

Family photo from Find A Grave, looks perhaps 1930
or a little earlier

We can guess that Howard's mother Leona is the woman standing at left, about 40 when this photo of five generations was taken. She probably had a had a hand in her son's quilt. Leona Velma Hutchens Doub (1893-1993) lived to be 100 years old...

...and continued making quilts. The family also brought this quilt of hers they believed to have been made in 1972.

The other standing woman in the photo above may be Leona's mother Ruth Permelia Williams Hutchens (1871-1943) who would be about 60 years old in the photo. A memoir of  Permelia at Find-A-Grave tells us she and her daughters sewed tobacco sacks as piece work during the 1930s. The Morse & Wade Sack Factory in East Bend sent unfinished sacks in cardboard boxes to women in the area who would stitch the seams. The sack company then sold them to the tobacco companies in Winston-Salem.

R. J. Reynolds tobacco sack from Winston Salem

There were a LOT of tobacco sacks out there and apparently the system was that local women sewed the seams (and probably inserted the string) as home workers.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Piecing on Shares

Buzz Saw with Chicken Feet in the corners, early 20th century
by Docella Johnson, Bradley, Arkansas
Old State House Museum, Arkansas

Docella's quilt is featured in the Piece of My Soul Exhibit, curated by Cuesta Benberry at the Old State House Museum. The caption tells us that she was "cook and general housekeeper for the McKinney family. When she quilted, Docella arranged her quilts in a 'halves' system since the McKinney’s mother would provide the materials for two quilts, one for the McKinneys and one for her."

When interviewing quilters for the Kansas Quilt Project we heard many stories about piecing or quilting "on shares," which like sharecropping means one person has an asset (land or fabric) which is traded to another person for their labor. "On halves" would be a synonym.

One pieced on shares with another woman who supplied the fabric; you stitched two quilts. She gets one; you get one.

I found two such references in looking through the Quilt Index.  

This remarkable quilt was brought to an Arizona quilt day by the daughter of the Kentucky maker. She recalled that her mother had a neighbor (husband's kin) in Kentucky who had nine children and was living in a two room cabin during the depression. This woman Arrie Ethel Boggs Wheeler (1889-1942) "offered to piece the circles with tiny triangles if [Emma Wheeler] would provide material. Emma Wheeler then put it together." Emma's daughter recalled it as made in 1937.

That's a lot of piecing of tiny points, particularly if you're making enough for two quilts. It appears Arrie's job was just the points. Emma's was stitching them into the stars and setting the blocks. The women lived in Blaine in Lawrence County along Kentucky's eastern border with West Virginia. Arrie died young at 47 during World War II.

The "old Wheeler place" in Blaine

Another story from the Tennessee project concerns this string quilt top. The woman who brought it to be documented wasn't really sure of where it came from (perhaps her mother did not quilt) but she recognized the fabrics as clothing from her childhood. She guessed the "top was 'pieced on shares', with the maker returning some of the blocks to the family and keeping some of the blocks and scraps for herself." Her thinking: her mother gave the leftover clothing fabrics to another woman who made two tops, returning one,  which is how the mysterious string quilt wound up in her family things.

In my quilting groups we've occasionally appliqued on shares. One person cuts and bastes all the pieces; the other sews. Two quilts.

It's hard to find any written references to this way of working, but it must have been quite common.  The above article is from a Utah newspaper in 1916, which like many periodicals had a column for reader requests; this one mentions a trade.

A few weeks later. 

Some of these columns are awfully sad, they seemed to have served as a place for poor, isolated women to connect. Of course, the sadder the story, the more responses, I guess.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Rebecca Murray Martin: Mantua Maker

1806 illustration of an English dress maker

Rebecca Murray Duvall Solzar Martin married three times in Charleston, South Carolina in the late 18th century. Through the marriages she maintained a dressmaking shop on Meeting Street.

This mantua maker can represent Rebecca Murray(ca 1860?-1840)

 Dress makers were called mantua makers at the time. Her first husband John Duvall was a "staymaker" manufacturing items for ladies' apparel. Together they opened a dressmaking establishment before his death during the American Revolution in 1782. She married next Jacob Solzar who died in 1784.

Learning from her experiences as a widowed businesswoman (Solzar's will compromised her finances) she arranged for a prenuptial agreement when she married a third time after five years of recouping her losses. Her son in law wrote that Rebecca "brought a decent competency," to husband John Jacob Martin (1763-1853), son of a Lutheran minister, who "himself had nothing" when they married in 1789.

Geertruydt Roghman's etching of a  Dutch seamstress, 1648-1650
Not much had changed in 200 years

Rebecca and Martin had four daughters and prospered. Records indicate she had four enslaved people and other women employees living with them. Her foresight in keeping her property separate from her husband's was wise because in 1813 she found out that Jacob had a second family in Charleston. He was essentially a bigamist in a society that did not allow divorce.

Jacob's solution to the dilemma was absconding for Philadelphia with his "Delilah" Elizabeth Pennington and their children. Property was divided; Rebecca kept her four girls and their father seems to have been forgotten. We know about the scandal because eldest daughter Eliza's husband Martin Strobel wrote a pamphlet defending his wife's family.

And we only know so much about Rebecca because her second daughter Harriet Martin married once and well, choosing a Lutheran minister who'd succeeded her grandfather at St. John's Lutheran Church. New Yorker John Bachman had recently come to serve in Charleston when he and Harriet Martin married in 1816 when she was 25.

John Bachman (1790-1874)
Bachman was minister at St. John's Lutheran Church
for 56 years.

St. John's Lutheran on Clifford Street.

Listings from 1816 Charleston Directory

Harriet lived with Rebecca and her sisters above the business at 197 Meeting Street
until she married.

John and Harriet Bachman lived in this house 

Bachman also married Harriet's family. Mother Rebecca and youngest sister Maria lived with him for the rest of their lives. Harriet gave birth to fourteen children; nine lived beyond childhood. The family was afflicted with tuberculosis---Harriet's many pregnancies complicated the lung disease and sister Maria served as mother to all those children while Harriet led the life of an invalid.

Harriet's son-in-law was an extraordinary man, an amateur scientist, 
an accomplished biologist when not
attending to church duties.

John James Audubon (1785-1851)
Photograph by the Brady Studios about 1850

About 1830 he met another extraordinary man, John James Audubon, who had published several volumes of his Birds of America. Bachman invited Audubon to live with them too.

Maria Martin Bachman (1796 - 1863)
Collection of the Charleston Museum

Houseguest Audubon encouraged Maria, then in her mid thirties, to develop her painting skills. She began painting the botanical backgrounds for Audubon's plates, graduated to insects and then to painting the birds.

Long Billed Curlew with the City of Charleston in the background

"The Long-billed Curlew spends the day in the sea-marshes, from which it returns at the approach of night, to the sandy beaches of the sea-shores, where it rests until dawn.... it was my good fortune to witness their departures and arrivals in the company of my friend Bachman....Accompanied by several friends, I left Charleston one beautiful morning, the 10th of November, 1831, with a view to visit Cole's Island, about twenty miles distant.... After shooting various birds..." Audubon
The Audubon paintings were workshop productions with different artists doing backgrounds and birds. This one was published in 1840 after Audubon spent time every year from 1831 to 1837 with the Bachmans.

One of Maria's butterfly paintings

Audubon wrote son Victor in 1833: 
 "Miss Martin with her superior talents, assists us greatly in the way of drawing, the insects she has drawn are, perhaps, the best I've seen"
A Fox
The painters used dead animals for models. It took more than a few
days to paint the corpse. One wonders where they were stored.

Despite the animal carcasses the Bachman household must have been a  wonderful place. Matriarch Rebecah oversaw a group of pious Lutherans, many grandchildren, painters studying the skins of dead birds, enslaved servants trained to skin the birds and maintain the usual Audubon zoo in the yard, which included small mammals such as shrews and rabbits and larger ones like a bear.

Bachman's Warbler

The Reverend was infatuated with Audubon who brought assistants on his annual visits plus two Audubon boys who married two Bachman girls. Maria was painting in the parlor with the other assistants, while upstairs Harriet periodically delivered another baby.

Audubon's first language was French, so we can add an imaginary French accent to the portrait of the resident genius. A friend who traveled to Florida with Audubon described him as "the most enthusiastic and indefatigable man I ever knew ... Mr. Audubon was neither dispirited by heat, fatigue, or bad luck ... he rose every morning at 3 o'clock." Maria's biographer Debra J. Lindsay describes Audubon as an inebriate --- a man fond of his liquor in a house full of sober Lutherans.

What Rebecca Martin thought of the visiting artist is not recorded. Her health declined and by 1840 she was confined to her sickroom where she died that year, leaving Maria, her only unmarried daughter "well off in money matters." While she painted, Maria supervised a house full of invalids, many afflicted with tuberculosis, which killed both those Bachman/Audubon wives and their mother Harriet, who died in 1846 at 56.

By then Audubon was living in his own home in New York City, suffering from dementia, his mind "all in ruins" wrote Bachman in 1848. Audubon came to rely on Bachman to do his science. Bachman wrote the text for Audubon's three volumes The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America published between 1846 and 1854. He had become the leading expert on American mammals.

In January, 1848 Bachman married his housemate and sister in law, Maria Martin. The couple who shared religion, science and a home full of children seem to have been happily married until Maria's death in 1863. She fell and seriously injured her arm in 1856, which put an end to her painting career but in the 25 years she spent at scientific illustration she produced an impressive body of work.

Read Debra J. Lindsay's biography, Maria Martin's World. Here's a preview:

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Colonial Confusion: The Nuttings

Quilt attributed to Johanna Christiana Miller (1762-1826)
Savannah, Georgia,  88" x 92"

Hannah Miller's Tree of Life from the Georgia Quilts Book

We can imagine Hannah in her twenties perhaps, stitching
this chintz quilt in Savannah during the American Revolution.

In fact, I can almost see her stitching all those frugal pieces of
chintz together in the standard interpretation of early chintz quilts.

Working by candlelight, creating beauty from scraps.

With a a toile table cover and a colonial braided oval rug on the floor.

A Patchwork Siesta, Wallace Nutting Print

Images come from Wallace Nutting's staged photographs of an imagined colonial past, which were extremely influential in American mythmaking.


There were no braided rugs in Colonial or Revolutionary America. A search through museums with an early American focus like Colonial Williamsburg and Old Sturbridge Village brings up not one 18th-century braided rug. In The Braided Rug Book: Creating Your Own American Folk Art by Norma M. Sturges, & Elizabeth J. Sturges tell us "The earliest braided rugs date from the 1820s in New England."

Wallace Nutting and wife would not have wanted to read that.

Wallace Nutting: "After careful inquiry the author is unable to find any authority to inform
us when braided and drawn-in rugs were first made....We shall probably
never know how early braid was worked into rugs."

Translation: "I want braided rugs to very early; that's my
story and I'm sticking to it."

Nutting Photo: The Quilting Party, 1920

The facts about braided rugs are surprising because they are such a staple of Early American decorating, considered the perfect floor covering for one's Colonial Revival decorating scheme a hundred years ago. 

1924 decorating suggestions show the trickle-down effect of 
Nutting prints

Making a Rag Rug, Nutting Photograph

She is holding a braided rug but Nutting rugs of this type were often called hooked rugs. Today (when we are fussier about accuracy in terms such as colonial and pilgrim) a "hooked rug" is not braided but looped on a canvas.

The New Cape Bonnet
The rug by the door looks like what we'd call a hooked rug.

Advertising card for Wallace Nutting Studio in Framingham, Massachusetts
where one could buy "Hooked rugs...original patterns," possibly the braided rugs in the photos.

The Rug Maker
But we are not here to nitpick about inaccurate histories
of braided rugs, as much fun as that may be.

Nostalgic photograph from Carlie Sexton  pattern catalog

The important point is how influential the Nutting images were on our historical idea of women's work. The Wallace Nutting Studios were not the only people to do set-up photographs but they were certainly the most successful.

The Joseph Webb House, Wethersfield, Connecticut

In the early 20th century Wallace Nutting began photographing staged scenes of models posing in Colonial houses. He bought several buildings including the Webb House, built in 1752 and used by George Washington as headquarters during the Revolution, which made it quite important to the antiquarians at the time. Preservation practice changes and this is what the house looks like today. Nutting opened the Webb House to the public in 1916 for a 25-cent fee but World War I put an end to tourism.

Huge semi-historic murals were painted on the walls under
Nutting supervision. This tea party is staged in what he called The 
Yorktown Room in the Webb House.

Sewing basket atop a complex braided rug.

Mariet Griswold Caswell Nutting  (1853-1944) in the 1930s

Nutting's wife Mariet was the art director for the interior photos, placing the models and props, possibly supervising the making or purchasing of  period clothing and period textiles. The rugs were not antiques, but pieces she designed, some quite elaborate.

Wallace Nutting also opened a furniture factory in an old woolen mill in Saugus, Massachusetts, producing reproduction designs....

with craftsmen who did such a good job that is easy to be fooled by the later period pieces.

Branded label after 1924

"Furniture of the Pilgrim Century"
Colonial/Pilgrim: a mish-mash of periods.

Mid-19th century quilt on a early 18th-century bed.

The Nutting combination of inexpensive photographic prints, expensive period furniture and the craze for braided rugs seems a brilliant business model, described by Thomas Andrew Denenberg as "an endlessly self-referential business empire that catered to the culturally conservative needs of middle-class America....a soothing idealized American history."

It's estimated that 200 people worked at the Framingham studios producing the lucrative photographs. Printers, framers, colorists, salesmen turned out hundreds of thousands of them, available in classy department stores and five & dimes across the country. Nutting enterprises also employed the furniture makers and somewhere the rug makers.

"more...than you ever dreamed could be seen in Omaha"
including "Wallace Nutting Colored Platinums"

Most of the hand-colored photographs printed on platinum paper
were landscapes but there were dozens of different interior set-up shots sold by the thousands.

Mother with Cradle detail
Models created idealized views of women's roles:
mothering, sewing, cooking, primping and visiting.

Wallace Nutting (1861-1941)

The dapper Nutting had been a Congregationalist minister in his youth
until he found the job too stressful. After a breakdown he took up photography.

Dedication of Furniture of the Pilgrim Century
Design = Character?

Mending the Quilt

In a 1989 article in Old House Journal Jeff Wilkinson summarized the problems:
"It is in his role as Pilgrim evangelist that he has attracted harshest criticism....He was responsible for much of America's perceptions of [colonial] times. Though the scenes appear authentic, they are very much Nutting's personal impressions. He was closer to the archaeologist who arranges things as he digs them up to fit in with his idea of how he wants the thing to  look."

Historic New England owns many of the original photos

Another important point is that Wallace gets all the credit (or blame) despite his wife's role in a partnership.

Mariet's role from Thomas Andrew Dennenberg's
Wallace Nutting and the Invention of America

 As we have seen in this blog over the past months, that was the convention of the times. Mariet Nutting wanted no publicity and no credit. The script: "an old fashioned minister's a time of social change."  

"Counterpane owned by Mrs. Wallace Nutting"
from Furniture of the Pilgrim Century

She took a more active role after Nutting's death during World War II when she was near 90. They never had children and when she died in 1944 she willed most of her estate to Berea College in Kentucky.  Berea had been producing furniture and may have also done her rugs over the years. The inheritance included the rights to the Wallace Nutting name.

1953 Drexel ad

Berea sold the name, furniture factory artifacts, patterns and tools to Drexel Furniture Company.

The Goose Chase 1915
Lone Star quilt on the bed

Props reappear, possibly in photos taken the same day.

Two versions of women quilting. This one "The Quilting Party"

You and I know there was no photography in Colonial or Revolutionary days.
yet somehow we retain an inaccurate image highly influenced by these pictures.

This one "The Quilting"

The Goose Chase

Indelible images.