Friday, July 13, 2012

The Quilt in America: Part III

      The simple needs of the family are almost entirely supplied by the women of the household. They spin, weave, and make the few plain garments which they and their families wear. Day after day, year in and year out, these isolated women must fill in the hours with little tasks connected with home life. As in many other instances where women are dependent upon their own resources for amusement, they have recourse to their needles. Consequently, it is in the making of quilts, coverlets, and allied forms of needlework that these mountain women spend their hours of recreation.
      The quilts, both pieced and patched, that are made in mountaineers’ cabins have a great variety of designs. Many designs have been used again and again by each succeeding generation of quilters without any variation whatever, and have well-known names. There are also designs that have been originated by a proficient quilt maker, who has made use of some common flower as the basis for her conventional design. It has not been a great many years since the materials used in making the mountain quilts were dyed as well as woven in the home. The dyes were homemade from common roots and shrubs gathered from nearby woods and meadows. Blue was obtained from wild indigo; brown from walnut hulls; black from the bark of scrub-oak; and yellow from laurel leaves. However, the materials which must be purchased for a quilt are so meager, and the colors called “oil boiled”—now used to dye calico—are so fast, that the mountain  women seldom dye their own fabrics any more. They bring in a few chickens or eggs to the nearest village, and in exchange obtain a few yards of precious colored calico for their quilts.
The "Ohio Rose" Quilt Design.
This “Rose” quilt was made in Ohio about 80
years ago. Colors: red, pink, and two
shades of green.
      Miss Bessie Daingerfield, a Kentuckian, who is in close touch with these mountaineers, tells us what a void the quilt fills in the lives of the lonely women of the hills: “While contemporary women out in the world are waging feminist war, those in the mountains of the long Appalachian chain still sit at their quilting frames and create beauty and work wonders with patient needles. There is much beautiful and skilful handiwork hidden away in these hills. The old women still weave coverlets, towels, and table linen from wool from their own sheep and from flax grown in their own gardens.   The girls adorn their cotton gowns with ‘compass work,’ exact, exquisite. In some places the men and boys, girls and women, make baskets of hickory reeds and willows to delight the heart of the collector. But from the cradle to the grave, the women make quilts. The tiny girl shows you with pride the completed four patch or nine patch, square piled on square, which ‘mammy aims to set up for her ag’inst spring.’ The mother tells you half jesting, half in earnest, ‘the young un will have several ag’inst she has a home of her own.’ No bride of the old country has more pride in her dower chest than the mountain bride in her pile of quilts. The old woman will show you a stack of quilts from floor to ceiling of her cabin. One dear old soul told me she had eighty-four, all different, and ‘ever’ stitch, piecin’, settin’ up, quiltin’, my own work and ne’er another finger tetched hit.’”
      Patchwork was an important factor in making plain the knotty problems of existence, as Eliza Calvert Hall clearly shows when she makes “Aunt Jane of Kentucky” say: “How much piecin’ a quilt is like livin’ a life! Many a time I’ve set and listened to Parson Page preachin’ about predestination and free will, and I’ve said to myself, ‘If I could jest git up in the pulpit with one of my quilts I could make it a heap plainer to folks than parson’s makin’ it with his big words.’ You see, you start out with jest so much caliker; you don’t go to the store and pick it out and buy it, but the neighbours will give you a piece here and a piece there, and you’ll have a piece left over every time you cut a dress, and you take jest what happens to come. And that’s like predestination. But when  it comes to the cuttin’ out, why, you’re free to choose your own pattern. You can give the same kind o’ pieces to two persons, and one’ll make a ‘nine patch’ and one’ll make a ‘wild-goose chase,’ and there’ll be two quilts made out of the same kind of pieces, and jest as different as they can be. And that is jest the way with livin’. The Lord sends us the pieces, but we can cut them out and put ’em together pretty much to suit ourselves, and there’s a heap more in the cuttin’ out and the sewin’ than there is in the caliker.”
A quilt designed with golden
butterflies and pansies.
      In the great Central West, from Ohio to the Mississippi, the early settlers passed through the same cycle of development as did their ancestors in the beginnings of the original colonies along the seaboard. The same dangers and privations were faced, and the women, as well as the men, quickly adapted themselves to the hardships of life in a new country. Shortly after the War of 1812, which secured to the United States a clear title to this vast region, the great migration into the Ohio Valley began. Some families came by way of the Great Lakes, some by wagon over the Pennsylvania ridges, and still others by horseback over the mountains from Virginia. One and all of these pioneer families brought with them their most cherished household possessions. It is hardly necessary to say that every family had one or more quilts among its household goods. Many cases are on record of rare old mahogany bureaus and bedsteads transported hundreds of miles over trails through the wilderness on pack horses. Upon arrival at the site chosen for the future home, the real work of house building and furnishing began.
      “Only he who knows what it means to hew a home out of the forest; of what is involved in the task of replacing mighty trees with corn; only he who has watched the log house rising in the clearing, and has witnessed the devotedness that gathers around the old log schoolhouse and the pathos of a grave in the wilderness, can understand how sobriety, decency, age, devoutness, beauty, and power belong to the story of those who began the mighty task of changing the wild west into the heart of a teeming continent.” Thus Jenkin Lloyd Jones, in his address on “The Father of Lincoln,” gives a graphic picture of the labors and trials confronting those who made the first settlements in what are now the flourishing states of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, and Michigan.
      As in the colonies of New England, so here, the comforts of the family depended upon the thrift, energy, and thoughtfulness of the women. Practically every article of clothing worn by the entire family, as well as all household supplies, were the work of their busy hands. All day in the frontier cabin could be heard the hum of the spinning wheel, the clack of the loom, or the click of knitting needles. In many localities the added work of teaching the children fell to the mothers, and the home lessons given around the fireplace, heaped with glowing logs, were the only ones possible for many boys and girls. It is of particular interest to note how often learning and housekeeping went hand in hand in the first homes of this new country. The few lines following are extracts from the diary of a busy Indiana housewife of the period preceding the Mexican War, and show how fully occupied was the time of the pioneer woman:

      “November 10th. To-day was cider-making day, and all were up at sunrise.”
      “December 1st. We killed a beef to-day, the neighbors helping.”
      “December 4th. I was much engaged in trying out my tallow. To-day I dipped candles and finished the ‘Vicar of Wakefield.’”
      “December 8th. To-day I commenced to read the ‘Life of Washington,’ and I borrowed a singing book. Have been trying to make a bonnet. The cotton we raised served a very good purpose for candlewicking when spun.”

      In the Middle West, without friendly coöperation, the lot of the pioneer would have been much more difficult than it was. Julia Henderson Levering tells of the prevalence of this kindly custom in her interesting “Historic Indiana”: “The social pleasures of the earliest days were largely connected with the helpful neighborhood assistance in the homely, necessary tasks of the frontier. If a new cabin was to be built, the neighbors assembled for the house raising, for the logs were too heavy to be handled alone. When a clearing was made, the log rolling followed. All men for miles around came to help, and the women to help cook and serve the bountiful meals. Then there were corn huskings, wool shearings, apple parings, sugar boilings, and quilting bees.”
      About 1820 a new channel of commerce was opened to the inhabitants of the Ohio Valley, in the advantages of which every household shared. This was the establishing of steamboat and flatboat communication with New Orleans. From out of the Wabash River alone over a thousand flatboats, laden with agricultural products, passed into the Ohio during the annual spring rise on their way to the seaport by the Gulf of Mexico. On their return voyage these boats were laden with sacks of coffee, quaint Chinese boxes of tea, china and silk from France, and mahogany and silver from England. In this manner the finest fabrics, which were hitherto obtainable only in those cities that possessed sea communication, were available in every river hamlet. Many of the fine old quilts now being brought to light in the Central West were wrought of foreign cloth which has made this long journey in some farmer’s scow.

Old bed with a quilt and canopy and a trundle bed beneath for a small child.

Part IPart IIPart IV

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