Last week I gave a lecture for the Kansas City Museum about their silk star quilt which was donated with a medal inscribed "Awarded to Mrs. Gilbert Smith for an Emblematic Quilt 1853" by the American Institute New York. The family believed that the medal was from what is considered America's First World's Fair, the Crystal Palace exhibit in 1853.
Detail of a flag in Mrs. Smith's quilt. She embroidered all the stars with a satin stitch in gold thread (more the color of the picture at the top). She also couched down a silver cord. The blue silk has held it's color while the red has faded to peach.
My major questions were:
1) Was the quilt exhibited and awarded a prize at our first world's fair?
2) Who was Mrs. Gilbert Smith?
I found fairly easily that there were two New York City fairs in 1853, the new international fair at the Crystal Palace, and a smaller annual exhibit of American products put on by the American Institute founded in 1828. At their month-long exhibits every October "were displayed the finest products of agriculture and manufacturing, the newest types of machinery, the most recent contributions of inventive genius." Below is a claustrophic people mover from the 1867 fair.
Mrs. Smith's medal seems to be from that 1853 event, but would an organization dedicated to American science and industry display a quilt? Then I remembered a picture I'd seen years ago, an interior painting of the 1845 American Institute Fair.
American Institute Fair at Niblo's Garden by B. J. Harrison, about 1845. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York.
Apparently they showed quilts. The balcony seems to be hung with quilts on both sides of the room.
And then I remembered (it's good I remember things eventually) that I had a whole file on the winners in the quilt category at those annual fairs, which I had copied from their annual publication Transactions of the American Institute. At the top of the list from 1853 under "Needlework, Embroidery and Fancy Articles" is "Mrs. Gilbert Smith, 209 Monroe Street, for an emblematic quilt, silver medal." I also found her prize listed in an October 1853 issue of the New York Daily Times.
So the answer to my first question is that the quilt was not exhibited and awarded a prize at the 1853 Crystal Palace exhibit, but rather won a silver medal at one of a long series of American Insitute fairs. In 1853 three quilts were awarded diplomas and Mrs. Smith a medal at that smaller fair. There was no gold medal.
I haven't found the answer to my second question. I'd like to know Mrs. Smith's first name but her husband's name is too common to be of much help. The 1820 New York state census lists 12 Gilbert Smiths. The 1860 census counts 42 with nine Gilbert Smiths living in the City.
And now I have another question. This is obviously not Mrs. Smith's first quilt. Where are her other quilts?
The Kansas City Museum has two locations. Their major building Corinthian Hall is undergoing a renovation right now. For more information click here: http://unionstation.org/KansasCityMuseum/museuminfo.html
Photograph of the 1867 American Institute Fair from the Collection of the Library of Congress.