Friday, July 13, 2012

The Quilt in America: Part II

      “Portions of discarded uniforms, old coat and cloak linings, brilliantly dyed worn flannel shirts  and well-worn petticoats were component parts of quilts that were needed for warmth. A magnificent scarlet cloak, worn by a Lord Mayor of London and brought to America by a member of the Merrit family of Salisbury, Massachusetts, went through a series of adventures and migrations and ended its days as small bits of vivid color, casting a grateful glory and variety on a patchwork quilt in the Saco Valley of Maine.
      “Around the outstretched quilt a dozen quilters could sit, running the whole together with fanciful set designs of stitchery. Sometimes several quilts were set up, and I know of a ten days’ quilting bee in Narragansett in 1752.”
      The women who came from Holland to make their homes on the narrow island at the mouth of the Hudson were housekeepers of traditional Dutch excellence. They delighted in well-stocked linen closets and possessed unusual quantities of sheets, pillow cases, and bedding, mostly of their own spinning and weaving. Like their English neighbors to the north, in Connecticut and Massachusetts, they adopted quilted hangings and garments for protection against the severity of winter. Their quilted petticoats were the pride and joy of these transplanted Hollanders, and in their construction they exerted their highest talents in design and needlework. These petticoats, which were worn short enough to display the home-knitted hose, were thickly interlined as well as quilted. They were very warm, as the interlining was usually of wool. The fuller the purse, the richer and gayer were the petticoats of the New Amsterdam dames.
"Morning Glory" Quilt Design.
In one of their many beautiful and delicate
varieties were chosen for this quilt, and while
the design is conventional to a certain extent
it shows the natural grace of the growing vine.
      While not so strict in religious matters as their Puritan neighbors, the early inhabitants of New Amsterdam always observed Sunday and attended church regularly. Within the fort at the battery stood the church, built of “Manhattan Stone” in 1642. Its two peaked roofs with the watch-tower between was the most prominent object of the fortress. “On Sunday mornings the two main streets, Broadway and Whitehall, were filled with dignified and sedate churchgoers arrayed in their best clothes. The tucked-up panniers worn by the women displayed to the best advantage the quilted petticoats. Red, blue, black, and white were the favorite and predominating colors, and the different materials included fine woolen cloth, camlet, grosgrain silk, and satin. Of all the  articles of feminine attire of that period the quilted petticoat was the most important. They were worn short, displaying the low shoes with high heels and colored hose with scarlet clockings; silken hoods partially covered their curled and powdered hair; altogether a charming and delightful picture.”
      The low, flat land of South Manhattan lying along the Hudson, because of its similarity to their mother country, was a favorite dwelling-place in New Netherlands. This region, known as Flatbush, was quickly covered with Dutch homes and big, orderly, flourishing gardens. A descendant of one of the oldest Dutch families which settled in this locality, Mrs. Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt, in her book, “The Social History of Flatbush,” has given many interesting details of early New York life. She tells of the place quilt making held in the community, and how the many intricate patterns of patchwork pleasantly occupied the spare moments of the women, thus serving as a means of expression of their love of color and design. The following little domestic picture shows how conveniently near the thrifty housewife kept her quilt blocks: “A low chair with a  seat of twisted osier, on which was tied a loose feather-filled cushion, covered with some gay material. On the back of these chairs hung the bag of knitting, with the little red stocking and shining needles plainly visible, indicating that this was the favorite seat of the industrious mother of the family; or a basket of patchwork held its place upon a low stool (bankje) beside the chair, also to be snatched up at odd intervals (ledige tyd).”
      One reliable source of information of the comforts and luxuries that contributed to pleasant dwelling in old New York is found in old inventories of household effects. Occasionally complete lists are found that throw much light on the furnishings of early days. Such an inventory of the household belongings of Captain John Kidd, before he went to sea and turned pirate, mentions over sixty different kinds of house furnishings, from a skillet to a dozen chairs embellished with Turkish embroidery. Among the articles with which John Kidd and his wife Sarah began housekeeping in New York in 1692, as recorded in this inventory, were four bedsteads, with three suits of hangings, curtains, and valances to go with them. Feather beds, feather pillows, linen sheets, tablecloths, and  napkins, ten blankets, and three quilts. How much of this store of household linens was part of his wife’s wedding dower is not stated.
      The early settlers in Virginia and the Carolinas were mostly English of the better class, who had been landed proprietors with considerable retinues of servants. As soon as these original colonists secured a firm foothold, large estates were developed on which the manners and customs of old England were followed as closely as possible. Each plantation became a self-supporting community, since nearly all the actual necessities were produced or manufactured thereon. The loom worked ceaselessly, turning the wool, cotton, and flax into household commodities, and even the shoes for both slave and master were made from home-tanned leather. For their luxuries, the ships that carried tobacco and rice to the English markets returned laden with books, wines, laces, silverware, and beautiful house furnishings of every description.
Women folk quilting layers together.
      In the colonial plantation days of household industry quilts, both patchwork and plain, were made in considerable numbers. Quilts were then in such general use as to be considered too commonplace  to be described or even mentioned. Consequently, we are forced to depend for evidence of their existence in those days on bills of sale and inventories of auctions. These records, however, constitute an authority which cannot be questioned.
      In 1774 Belvoir, the home of the Fairfax family, one of the largest and most imposing of houses of Virginia, was sold and its contents were put up at auction. A partial list of articles bought at this sale by George Washington, then Colonel Washington, and here given, will show the luxury to which the Southern planter was accustomed: “A mahogany shaving desk, settee bed and furnishings, four mahogany chairs, oval glass with gilt frame, mahogany sideboard, twelve chairs, and three window curtains from dining-room. Several pairs of andirons, tongs, shovels, toasting forks, pickle pots, wine glasses, pewter plates, many blankets, pillows, bolsters, and nineteen coverlids.”
      It was customary in the good old days after a dinner or ball for the guests, who necessarily came from long distances, to stay all night, and many bedrooms, frequently from ten to twenty-five, besides those needed for the family, were provided in the big houses. All were beautifully furnished with imported, massive, carved furniture from France and England. In one year, 1768, in Charlestown, South Carolina, occurred twelve weddings among the wealthy residents of that city, and all the furniture for these rich couples came from England. The twelve massive beds with canopies supported by heavily carved posts, decorated with rice stalks and full heads of grain, were so high that steps were needed in order to climb into them. Elaborate and expensive curtains and spreads were furnished to correspond. In one early inventory of an extensively furnished house there are mentioned “four feather beds, bolsters, two stools, looking-glass tipt with silver, two Turkey carpets, one yellow mohair bed counterpane, and two green silk quilts.” From this it is evident that the quilt had already found its place, and no doubt in great numbers, on account of the many beds to furnish in the spacious house of the rich planters.
      Shortly after the Revolution came the great migration from Virginia over the ridges of the Blue and the Appalachian chains into what was then the wilderness of Tennessee and Kentucky. The descendants of these hardy pioneers who first forced their way westward still live among the Kentucky and Virginia hills under the conditions which prevailed a hundred years ago. In this heavily timbered rough country they manage to eke out a precarious existence by cultivating small hillside patches of cotton, corn, and a few vegetables. Immured in the seclusion of the mountains they have remained untouched by the world’s progress during the past century. Year after year they are satisfied to live this secluded existence, and but rarely make an acquaintance with a stranger. Educational advantages, except of the most elementary sort, are almost unknown, and the majority of these mountaineers neither read nor write. As a result of this condition of isolated and primitive living, existing in the mountains of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas, the household crafts that flourished in this country before the advent of machinery are still carried on exactly as in the old days.

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