Sunday, September 30, 2007

Women and Their Dedication to Beauty in 19th Century America

Quilt from Pennsylvania, 1865

The American Quilt Story: The How-to and Heritage of a Craft Tradition, which was given to me by a kind friend, has a discussion of the importance of quilts and quilting in early America and in the frontier. The religious Great Awakening of the 1790s, according to the book, "was important in the story of quilting because it transferred the responsibility for moral and religious education directly from clergymen to women in the home.... The family came to be seen as the moral repository of the nation and home life to be associted with virtue." After the American War of Independence, "women's education was taken more seriously, prompted in part by the new domestic thinking whereby women assumed the mantle of the moral guardianship of the family."

In this cultural ambience, needlework and quilting gained in prestige as an essential part of a young woman's repertoire of skills. Quilting often involved the whole family. According to quilt historian Patsy Orlofsky (cited in the The American Quilt Story),
"Everyone seemed to participate in the making of quilt, whole families were involved. Husbands and fiances drew complex patterns on a quilt top or cut out templates from which patterns were cut. Grandmothers and children threaded needles and cut out patches while mothers sewed pieces together and quilted the top. A quilt in some instances represented the creative efforts of an entire family."
The Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer (also cited) wrote in a letter home in 1849:
"I have been a at a 'Bee.' And if you would know what this creature is in society here, then behold! If a family is reduced to poverty by fire or sickness, and the children are in want of clothes or anything else, a number of ladies of the neighborhood who are in good circumstances immediately get together at some place and sew for them. Such an assembly is called a bee."

Ladies having a tea in front of a log home.

In the mid-19th century, as more and more people headed west, according to the American Quilt Story, women worked extremely hard, even harder than men, historians say, to build a homestead and create a home from it. "It was considered a woman's duty not only to maintain the stabiity of the family unit in the new environment but also to provide a measure of refinement and domestic comfort to their crude homes. Rather than leave behind aspects of life that they regarded as civilized, women tried to recreate them on the prairie. They would often add rag rugs, wallpaper the sod walls with newsprint, crochet dainty covers for slop jars, and hang curtains fashioned from newspapers, old sheets or petticoats.... Women spent hours stitching the curtains, table linens, and quilts which would add a touch of domestic and psychological comfort to the home--which might be a log cabin or sod hut. ..."

Mariner's Compass pattern square from an 1840 quilt

I am reminded of the movie, Rachel and the Stranger, where the widower laments that his wife fought so hard to make their isolated cabin a home and bring beauty to it by insisting on planting flowers in the front yard, bringing her spinet to the West and playing it every evening, buying a metronome for her playing, educating their son in the home and insisting that he show good manners. (The contribution of women on the frontier is, of course, rarely a subject of interest in the modern-day Westerns.)

Quilt from Illinois, 1860.

The women and their quilting also played a major role in socializing the frontier: "The average distance of half a mile between farms meant isolation and loneliness for many women, and in order to adjust to their new lives, pioneer women worked to establish their own schools and churches and created a network of associations which would provide female companionship," The American Quilt Story says. "Both get-togethers to make a quilt and the quilt itself served important social functions and provided women with a material means to soften the harsh reality of the frontier. The popularity of the Album and Friendship Quilts during this period testifies to the importance of personal bonds, both within families and among women."
Later in the 19th century, the sewing machine came to be a prize possession on the frontier, as the picture below indicates.


Kendra said...

What an interesting post. I love the idea of whole families joining together to make a quilt!

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