Monday, October 3, 2011

"Quilt Code" Persists

When I was in Philadelphia last week I gave some thought to the idea of false myths set in stone. The city's built a historical identity around the tale of Betsy Ross sewing (and designing) the "first flag" for George Washington.

The Betsy Ross Bridge

There are three bridges across the Delaware River there, one named for First President George Washington, one for poet Walt Whitman and the third for Betsy Ross. There it sits---a giant metal monument to a woman who did nothing heroic or even monumental. She stitched flags---not the first flag, not the most flags, not the last flag.  UPDATE: I shoulda fact checked. The first bridge is Benjamin Franklin not George Washington. Thanks Judi.
One of the better Betsy Ross marketing schemes,
 a child's sewing machine.

So when a reporter for the Nashville City Paper called the other day and asked me questions about the Quilt Code---the idea that escaping slaves used quilt patterns as code to help make their way north on the Underground Railroad, Betsy's name came to mind immediately. Let's not create a public image around a historical innacuracy.

Mixing marketing metaphors:
The cowboy's favorite Revolutionary grape juice.

Apparently Nashville was planning to use the Quilt Code/Underground Railroad story as the basis for public art. I was surprised to hear the Commission was unaware of the lack of historical evidence supporting the tale derived from a twenty-year-old children's fiction book. 

Deborah Hopkinson's  charming 1993 book told of a
quilt used as a map to freedom.

We haven't heard much about the Quilt Code lately. Most schools no longer use it in their Black History curriculum.
The Sail Boat pattern is about 80 years old.
 No quilts in this design were made in the 19th century,
although quilt code advocates believe it was a signal.

Few quilt lecturers go around anymore with a stack of Double Wedding Ring and Sail Boat quilts to discuss the deep historical meanings of these 20th-century patterns in mid-19th-century"history."

Several members of the American Quilt Study Group advised Nashville against using the UGRR Quilt Code idea. Jen Cole, the art commission’s director, listened and responded that the project would continue to have a quilt theme, but would no longer commemorate the Underground Railroad. 'We were unaware of the historical inaccuracies when we acted,' Cole said. 'We basically are going to move forward with the artist, but any relationship to the Underground Railroad, or the quilt code, will be taken out.' "

Shouldn't this be tea?

A false myth made permanent in steel and concrete? Bad idea. A quilt theme for the public art. An excellent idea. Any thoughts? 

 I'd go to the book of Tennessee quilt history---The Quilts of Tennessee: Images of Domestic Life Prior to 1930, published in 1986 by Bets Ramsey and Merikay Waldvogel. They mention several regional Tennessee patterns and I can think of more they've found since they conducted their original research in the 1980s.

You may think of this as a New York Beauty
but the association with New York was a 1930s marketing idea.
 It's actually a regional Southern design,
popularly known in Tennessee as
Crown of Thorns or Rocky Mountain.

Read more about Tennessee quilt history by clicking here:

An unusual pattern found in Tennessee and Texas

Betsy Ross Danish Butterhorns.
 I'd eat them with Philadelphia cream cheese.


  1. George Washington Bridge is a NY bridge. Ben Franklin is the 3rd bridge. Also, down river is the Commodore Barry Bridge to Chester, PA and the Delaware Memorial Bridge to DE. Judi in NJ

  2. An excellent book was published recently about Betsy Ross, Betsy Ross and the Making of America by Marla R. Miller. It's written by a historian who specializes in women's work.

  3. The Underground Railroad quilt idea is quite romantic. We like to think that there were many who helped runaway slaves, but they were not very many. Society has changed and our abhorrence of slavery has led us to want to believe that a steady stream of slaves escaped. Escaping was a very scary and dangerous thing to try and I give credit to all those who tried whether the did escape or failed.
    History is often given romantic tales to create icons or myths that embody our ideals. The Underground Railroad Quilt story is one of those. It is a great story, but a tale created by the imagination of the author.

  4. The Tacony-Palmyra bridge was left off the list too. And the Burlington Bristol bridge. ;-)

  5. Not believing the stories of the UGRR sort of takes the air out of my balloon. I know the stories are not true but it makes good fiction.

  6. We're not alone in all this- Leibniz Cakes have been a big industry in Hannover, Germany since the late 19th century...they are good cookies. Of course, Gotfried Wilhelm Leibniz-philosopher and general genius-lived in Hannover in the 17th/18th centuries.

  7. I remember once, hearing about how fireplaces were marked with a white stone, so the slaves would know which were safe houses. I grew up in an old farmhouse with a stone like that, so always wondered. The funny thing though is, the house had a back room with it's own set of stairs to the kitchen and outside, so wonder who used that room, lol.


  8. You have enlightened me. I must have missed the memo about the code being purely fiction. I was aware of the children's book, and I think I even own a copy.

    Marketing experts don't lack gumption when it comes to dropping names to sell, even if it means perpetuating myths and outright lies.

  9. thanks for all of the interesting information. I think the Crown of thorns quilt is amazing and beautiful.

  10. My friend, a native Philadelphian, grew up with the Betsy Ross legend. She has fond memories of visiting the Betsy Ross house every year with her Mother. She will need therapy if she is ever to believe the truth about dear old Betsy.

  11. Wow, I never knew that Betsy Ross got around that much.

  12. I'm glad you brought this up, Barbara -- I didn't realize that the UGRR 'quilt code' theory was even out there and kicking yet. Silly me. A good story is forever, particularly one that points out the ingenuity and intelligence of a group that weren't given that compliment in their day. Sadly.

    I have a Lawrence, KS problem -- a Crazy quilt for a client that includes ribbons for the "Lawrence Chorus" as well as "Caliopean" (a literary society with chapters in other universities, I've found) and "Netrophian." The latter is stumping me. Do you know anything about this group (or the others) and their connection with the University of Kansas? Please e-mail me at cindybrick@gmail.com if you do...best to you.

  13. oops...sorry.


  14. I wonder did you think about sending your information about the underground railroad textiles to urbanlegends.about.com and HoaxSlayer and Snopes.com -
    lots of people read those for verifying stories they hear in all sorts of sources.

    Some stories are Fiction and are done so well that they feel real. Lots of people want stories of kindness to be true. People need to separate History from Fiction. Thank you for all the detective work you do to find the true history.