BALTIMORE, MD. – Colorful, exquisite, inventive, and rarely seen by the public, the Maryland Historical Society’s collection of Baltimore album quilts is the world’s largest collection of this unique textile art. A new exhibition, “The Baltimore Album Quilt Tradition,” featuring more than 40 quilts from the MHS, the Lovely Lane Museum, and private collections, will be featured at the Maryland Historical Society from June 16 through September 9.
Baltimore album quilts were created in the mid-Nineteenth century and are primarily collaborative pieces of women’s work. Individual cloth squares – sometimes over 40 unique blocks – were fabricated by individuals who were often friends or family members. Completed squares were then arranged in a grid to create a pleasing pattern and were stitched together to form a whole.
“Often, they commemorated a significant event, place, or person,” explains Nancy Davis, deputy director of the MHS’s museum and the exhibition’s curator. Album quilts were frequently used as gifts to the church ministers who were retiring or moving to a new assignments, as wedding presents, or they were presented to a young man upon his 21st birthday.
“The quilts provide a wonderful glimpse into Maryland life during the Nineteenth Century,” says Davis. “They are an original Maryland art form and were beautifully done. The style became influential throughout the country.” Today, Baltimore album quilts are recognized by historians and quilters as masterpieces of needlework.
Baltimore album quilts also serve as historical documents of the period. Many quilt squares were signed with messages to the quilts’ recipients in much the same way autograph albums, popular in this era, are inscribed. The signatures belong to the quilts’ makers as well as people who may have contributed to the cost of materials or who wanted to have their name associated with the quilt.
Design motifs on the quilts reflect Maryland’s society of the mid-Nineteenth Century. The intricate applique style favored by German-American Marylanders was created by first folding and cutting paper patterns for complex geometric designs that were then cut from cloth. The resulting snowflake-like designs are reminiscent of the German art of scherenschnitte (the art of making delicate, lacy, cut paper designs).
Another decorative form found on many Baltimore album quilts is applique work that features landscapes, local landmarks, modes of transportation, and objects form everyday Nineteenth Century life. Fabrics were layered and expertly sewn, often crating the illusion of three-dimensionality through padding and fabric placement.
Adds Davis, “Quilts in the exhibition tell the stories of Maryland. The album quilts offer an unusual and fascinating glimpse at the ways some middle class Nineteenth Century Maryland women expressed their ambitions and paid tribute to traditions of the past, all while they created new form of textile art. The evolution of the album quilt coincides with the middle class’s growing appreciation for refinement and gentility that had previously originated with the European and American upper class. Album quilts emulate the beauty and refinement that quilts of this earlier era represented.”
“Some of the squares could even be purchased as kits,” she continues. “Though each of the completed quilts is unique, they followed a more formulaic system of creation than previous quilt styles. The use of patterns and kits may reflect the maker’s attempt to demonstrate that she was a genteel person who could correctly choose tasteful design.”
Also connected to the development of Baltimore album quilts is the history of the Methodist church in Maryland. Though Methodists may have been the last major religious denomination to advocate gentility, their embrace of it was enthusiastic. Album quilts may represent the products of that concern. Baltimore was a center for American Methodism at that time and many of the quilts on exhibit have known Methodist associations.
The quilts on exhibit at the MHS demonstrate the entire history of the album quilt traditions and range from early Nineteenth Century broderie perse (chintz applique) through later Nineteenth and Twentieth Century quilts that evolved from the Baltimore album tradition. Paintings and decorative arts from the MHS’s collection will be included in the exhibition to illustrate the origins of some of the patterns and motifs found in the album quilts.
Many of the quilts in the exhibition will have just returned from an extremely successful traveling exhibition in Japan. A catalog, The Baltimore Album Quilt Tradition, written by Nancy Davis and published in North America by The Press at the Maryland Historical Society in both English and Japanese, is available. Visit www.mdhs.org.
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