Published: July 31, 2001
Collaborative Efforts of a Skilled Sisterhood:
By Karla Klein Albertson
BALTIMORE, MD. – Among the antique textiles most highly prized by collectors are the magnificent album quilts made in the Baltimore area during the mid-Nineteenth Century. “The Baltimore Album Quilt Tradition,” on view at the Maryland Historical Society through September 9, brings together over 40 examples of these complex compositions and documents them for posterity in a companion catalogue. The reference’s side-by-side text in English and Japanese reflects the fact that for the past year the exhibition has been touring Japan, where enthusiasm for the American quilting tradition continues unabated.
Exhibition curator Nancy E. Davis, the Deputy Director of the MHS museum, has selected 38 quilts from the society’s rich permanent collection and four from the nearby Lovely Lane United Methodist Church & Museum, which illustrate the development of the album quilt tradition before, during, and after its 1845-1855 heyday. The exhibits begin with early Nineteenth Century broderie perse examples and include several modern interpretations of the genre.
In the introductory essay for the catalogue, Davis explains the evolution of this distinct quilt type: “Earlier quilters had chosen a variety of forms: center medallions, mathematical stars, and trailing, arborescent vines, which were widely used and composed principally of floral or geometric motifs. In contrast album quilts contained specific pictorial images of urban, Baltimore life – ships, churches, monuments, and people – presented in a more rigid, segmented form…
“This formulaic discipline of album quilts in which structure, repetition, and order prevailed, may have been comfortable to women whose lives were jostled by rapid social change. The pictorial images possibly served as stabilizers, enabling these women to incorporate the familiar and the past into a swiftly changing world.”
“For the most part, these quilts are products of a collective effort,” explains Davis. “Very often the quilters were members of the same church or school and sometimes they were relatives. Or they could be friends making a quilt for someone in the group who was getting married, thus the name Friendship Albums.” Individual blocks are often signed with makers’ names, although one woman may have served as a “master designer” of the overall composition.
Documentation on individual examples opens a window on women’s history during the period. For example, one album quilt dated 1852 may have been made by friends and relatives of Laura Horton upon her marriage, since many of the inscriptions refer to members of her family. As with most quilts of this type, floral motifs are a unifying theme between the border and 25 individual squares.
In another composition of 16 squares within a vine border, attributed to Mrs Josiah Goodman, trees and flowers are accented by novel figural additions: an American eagle, horses, dogs, Mexican War hero Captain Samuel Hamilton Walker of Maryland, and an elephant. The appliqued fabrics, which include wool tweeds, are strongly outlined in embroidery overcasting.
For serious students of quilt history, the exhibition offers a not-to-be-missed opportunity to view a least a dozen early textiles – predecessors of the true album style – which incorporate a dazzling variety of printed English fabric motifs, carefully cut out and appliqued onto a quilted background. In a section on “Selecting Fabrics,” Davis notes, “Most fine quilts of this early period contained imported fabrics, for the United States produced little cloth until the 1820s. A decade later the quality of American cloth still did not equal that of English or French fabrics. Few American companies produced the fine glazed cotton chintzes printed with polychrome designs that quilters desired.”
As Baltimore quilting developed, floral baskets and sprays cut whole from fabrics were replaced by appliqued floral patterns created by the needleworker herself from smaller bits of cloth, a characteristic technique of the album quilt style.
The uniformly high level of skill exhibited by these appliqued and embroidered quilts is dazzling to modern eyes, although Davis notes, “You can see as you go through the exhibition that there are varieties of abilities – not everybody is equally as capable – but for the most part these were pretty accomplished women.” The popularity and uniformity of the style during the 1845-1855 decade suggest that women had opportunities to compare their work on home or church visits and during fair-time displays. The curator points out, “In Baltimore at his time, there were agricultural fairs at which quilts were exhibited and seen by many visitors as part of needlework competitions.”
Nancy Davis concludes, “My hope is that this exhibition will help our visitors see women in a more holistic way. Women at the time were capable, knowledgeable, and aware of the world and went on to incorporate details of their lives in these quilts. The makers also valued gentility and the sensibility of giving gifts; this was their way of uplifting dear friends and relatives with the art they had created.”
“Women did a lot of mundane sewing from baby clothes to shrouds, but these were tours-de-force designed to be displayed as a best bed covering,” she emphasizes. “Therefore, it’s surprising that examples in the exhibition are very well cared for and in excellent condition; these quilts were revered.”
The Maryland Historical Society will continue its yearlong series, “Preserving Your Family Treasures,” with special programs related to the current exhibition “Textile Conservation” on August 2 and “Quilt Identification and Preservation” on September 6. The Society’s series of 12 “Summer Quilt Sundays” featuring activities and demonstrations every week from 1 to 4 pm will continue through September 9.
Needleworkers will also enjoy a trio of two-day “Master Quilt Classes” beginning on July 27 and 28 with “Theorem Applique: Epergne of Fruit,” with later sessions August 24 and 25 and September 7 and 8. Register by calling 410-685-3750, extension 321, or online at www.mdhs.org.
The Baltimore Album Quilt Tradition by Nancy E. Davis is available from The Press. The illustrated catalogue with text in English and Japanese explores the development of this art form and focuses on the history of individual examples. Purchase the volume or view an Online Exhibition of the quilts with text on the MHS Web site at www.mdhs.org.
A loan of four historic quilts to “The Baltimore Album Quilt Tradition” acquaints readers with a small part of the interesting collections and archival material belonging to a museum located in the Lovely Lane United Methodist Church in Baltimore, an architecturally significant structure designed by Stanford White in 1884. Not named for its current address on St Paul Street, the church and museum take their title from the old Lovely Lane Meeting House, site of the Christmas conference in 1784 which established a separate Methodist Church in America.
The museum houses books, portraits, textiles, furniture, and decorative arts associated with important members of the early church, such as Bishop Francis Asbury, as well as genealogical archives on Methodist families which are accessible to researchers.
The four loans to the Maryland Historical Society Exhibition include an 1847 example celebrating the work of the Seaman’s Bethel Mission, pictured in appliqued red fabric on the quilt, where Methodist Reverend Hezekiah Best served as chaplain from 1844-1847. A second Lovely Lane quilt features squares with an accurate depiction of the Greene Street Methodist Church and several inscribed Bibles sewn in 1848 by the ladies of the church.
Lovely Lane United Methodist Church and Museum is at 2200 St Paul Street. For information, 410-889-4458. The Maryland Historical Society is at 201 West Monument Street. Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 am to 5 pm; Saturday, 9 am to 5 pm; and Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm. For information, 410-685-3750.
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