Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

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:


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