Published: February 3, 2004
Colorful Baltimore album quilts, assembled from intricately appliquéd blocks with distinctive motifs, are among the most creative and well-designed quilts made in the Nineteenth Century. Although album quilts made up of signed blocks contributed by many hands are known from other cities, the finished product reached the level of a true art form only in Baltimore and only during a brief time span, roughly 1845-1855.
A new exhibition at The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), “Baltimore Album Quilts: Appliquéd Artistry” on view through May 9, 2004, attempts to provide answers to the mystery of why these brilliant needlework masterpieces were produced in a single city at this particular time.
Anita Jones, BMA associate curator of decorative arts for textiles and the show’s organizer, says, “Album quilts were made other places, but Baltimore became known for them because they became so sophisticated here during a brief period of history — about ten years in the mid-Nineteenth Century. Most of the examples in the exhibition are documented as having been made in Baltimore or Maryland; sometimes they’re signed and dated, but many times they aren’t. But we generally know through family records who made them or who they were given to in the area.”
“Civic Pride and Technological Advancements” is one of the five themes listed for individual block design in the exhibition’s wall text. Among the block motifs that fall into this class are a miniature version of Baltimore’s Washington Monument, a column with a 16-foot-high statue of the first president on top, designed by Robert Mills and completed in 1829. Blocks also appear with the Baltimore Battle Monument, erected to commemorate the Battle of North Point and defense of Fort McHenry in 1814. Quilters were equally proud of the busy Baltimore harbor and its shipping and the nation’s first railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, founded in 1827.
Other major themes expressed through appliqué designs are “Personal Sentiment,” “Bounty,” “Religious and Moral Themes” and “Patriotism.” The latter is often represented by magnificent American eagles holding shields and flags. Baltimore lost two local heroes in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, and memorial squares found on quilts honor Major Samuel Ringgold and Colonel William H. Watson for their sacrifice.
Although it is difficult to choose any single quilt from the 20 exceptional examples in the show, Jones says, “The Samuel Williams quilt is one of my favorites because, in my mind, it’s sort of the ultimate album quilt. Theoretically, an album quilt would have every block made by a different person, every block would have been signed, and all the blocks would have been put together into a quilt that was presented to someone. This quilt most closely resembles that ideal.”
“This quilt has 42 blocks and every one is signed,” the curator continues. “Every block is different – some are more sophisticated and exhibit wonderful needlework, while others are less sophisticated. Williams (1769-1847) was a Methodist lay preacher, and the blocks have the names of the relatives and friends that made the quilt for him. There are wonderful blocks that relate specifically to the Baltimore region, such as the Battle Monument and a car from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, as well as decorative eagles, baskets of flowers and wreaths, all surrounded and united by this incredible border.”
The Williams quilt has long been celebrated as one of the best examples among the appliquéd artistry from Baltimore: it appeared as the colored frontispiece for an 1946 monograph on Old Quilts by early researcher D. William Rush Dunton, Jr (1868-1966). Dunton, who is honored in the exhibition for his pioneering work, became interested in quilts while practicing medicine. A University of Pennsylvania-trained psychiatrist, the doctor came to Baltimore’s Sheppard Asylum and found quilting to be good therapy for his patients. Gradually, a side hobby of documenting old quilts grew into a life’s work, and he curated several exhibitions of this material at The Baltimore Museum of Art during the 1940s.
While some album quilts are truly collaborative efforts, such as the one prepared for Williams, others reveal a master hand in their overall organization and in the style of the individual block designs. Researchers have assigned one body of superb work to Mary Heidenroder Simon, an immigrant from Bavaria who married a Baltimore carpet weaver in 1844. Several quilts in the exhibition appear to have blocks designed and sewn by Simon, although other hands may have been involved in assembling the finished quilts.
The curator explains, “We know about her from a diary entry dated February 1, 1850, by a young woman, who said she went with her aunt to Mrs Simon’s house — the woman who is known to have cut and basted these blocks — and they saw a lot of pretty blocks there. So it appears that Mrs Simon must have sold the blocks to others to finish and put into quilts. Whether she ever finished quilts using these blocks herself, we don’t know. Her name has not come down to us as the maker of a particular quilt.” An additional mystery is the fact that Simon continued to live in Baltimore until her death in 1893, yet the type of block attributed to her hand is not found after the mid-1850s.
One of the quilts in the exhibition with Simon-attributed blocks is a textile work presented to Elizabeth Sliver (named in an inscription beneath the central basket), probably on the occasion of her marriage in 1849. Not only is the needlework very sophisticated, the quilt has an overall unity of design that points to a single mind behind the composition. Many of the motifs used here — the enlarged central medallion, cornucopias, wreaths, triple bowknots and layered appliqué floral designs — tie it to another album quilt presented to Captain George W. Russell by his friends on August 23, 1852. For many years, Russell (1811-1869) was a steamboat captain on the Bay line between Baltimore and Norfolk, and thus one quilt square has a small steamboat with his name on the stern.
Such techniques are so unmistakable that Jones notes, “When she did the ‘Lavish Legacies’ exhibition catalog in 1994, Jennifer Goldsborough had a chance to look at more quilts than I did, and she found that quilts from other states – if they had a block that related to Baltimore album quilts – that block was sent from Baltimore by somebody. For example, you find baskets of flowers done in a certain way with these slivers of red cotton that were very carefully turned under and appliquéd to make a sort of wire basket out of red, or the layering of fabrics in a certain way to make a flower.”
In spite of all the dedications, inscribed names and signature techniques, researchers still have uncovered few hard facts about the album quilt makers and their inspiration. Jones concludes, “We really know so very little about these women of the Nineteenth Century. The census until 1850 didn’t even list the women in the household or give their names and ages. You’re trying to investigate women that were in a real sense anonymous.”
Although the current exhibition does not have an accompanying catalog, earlier exhibition references can be located through book search services. These include Baltimore Album Quilts by Dena S. Katzenberg (The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1981), Lavish Legacies by Jennifer Faulds Goldborough with Barbara K. Weeks (Maryland Historical Society, 1994) – still available from the society at 410-685-3750, ext 318 – and The Baltimore Album Quilt Tradition by Nancy E. Davis (Maryland Historical Society, 1999).
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