QUILTS & FABRIC: PAST & PRESENT By Quilt Historian Barbara Brackman Above: Moda's Baltimore Blues

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Pattern Names: Romance & Revision

Red Robin
Print out this EQ7 sketch for an 8" pattern for
beginner's applique.

We discussed the Laurel Leaf pattern several weeks ago. We could call it Photinia. Bill V. suggested Red Robin. Of course, we are making these names up---but new names have no more history than "Laurel Leaf."

Read a post about names and the popular mid-19th century pattern here:

Much of our community knowledge about 19th-century American quilt pattern names comes from writers publishing in the 1930-1970 era. 

In the early 1930s Bessie Freeman published patterns
in the Arkansas Gazette. She called this one Cornflower.
See Wilene's post on Freeman here:

I've noticed that a few authors were particularly influential in giving us our vocabulary. One was Lilian Baker Carlisle who was curator at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.

The standard name for this pattern in its many variations is Laurel Leaves, probably due to Carlisle's influence. Safford & Bishop called a similar design Laurel Leaves in America's Quilts and Coverlets published in the early 1970s. 

Lilian Baker Carlisle (1912-2006
and Electra Havemeyer Webb (1889-1960)
Based on those shirtwaist dresses 
I'd guess the photo was taken in the late 1950s.

The Shelburne Museum in Vermont was founded by Electra Havemeyer Webb, a wealthy woman whose parents were important collectors of modern and classical European art. Electra focused on American folk arts, a rather radical interest at the time. Her mother referred to Electra's collections as "trash." 

Electra Havemeyer Webb
 "I just couldn't let a good piece go by," 

To store and show those 150,000 pieces (including hundreds of quilts) Electra organized the Shelburne Museum in 1947.

Carlisle began working as Webb's secretary in 1949. As smart women did in times when job possibilities were limited, she took on more than typing duties. She became so knowledgeable about Webb's collections that she became the "staff member in charge of collections and research", writing several catalogs.

In 1956 Carlisle published Pieced Work and Applique Quilts at Shelburne Museum, a small black and white catalog.

She recalled the project for Vermont Woman: "Electra Webb had gathered more than three hundred quilts, and they all needed to be catalogued before they could be exhibited. 'I would take whatever was on top of the pile and start describing it,' Carlisle explains of her approach. The collection included quilts with familiar geometric designs -- such as Jacob's ladder, orange slices, pin cushion, and log cabin. There were also applique quilts, with floral designs cut out of chintz or cotton. This collection was eventually displayed in a special Quilt Room in the Hat and Fragrance Shop of the museum."

The updated display area in the Hat and Fragrance Shop

"I would take whatever was on top of the pile and start describing it."

Standards for museum display, cataloging and labels were quite different in the 1950s than they are today. Carlisle did not mention reading the accession papers, doing any genealogy research, interviewing donors or exploring historical research. She had a romantic bent and expressed it well in the writing style of the time. Here's how she described the quilt in the 1956 catalog:

"The true laurel of history and classical literature is an evergreen tree native to the Mediterranean region, where to the ancients it symbolized victory and merit...Crowns or wreaths of laurel were presented to those who distinguished themselves in any of [the]arts...When Napoleon sought a personal symbol to exemplify the glory of his victories, he chose the laurel...In America we were keenly interested in the Emperor of France...We adopted his Empire furniture, bit in simpler forms, we appropriated his laurel leaves, but in the American rendition they were chaste and less severe.... We cultivated the plant...as bay leaves for use as a dried flavoring in soups, salads and meats."

Napoleon in a wreath of Laurel Leaves
by Jacques Louis David, 1807

Nice outfit, Boney, but I can't buy it. 

A later, more accurate Shelburne Museum catalog pictures
the quilt in question in color.

"Crossed Laurel Leaf Quilt," Maker Unknown....
Gift of Miss Edith H. Porter, Winooski, Vermont"

Curator Henry Joyce published a 2003 catalog, Art of the Needle, with Martha Strum as Research Assistant.  Their copy about the same quilt reads:
"Almost nothing for certain is known about this quilt's origin."

That's a good way to start, especially if nothing is known about the quilt. He goes on...

"Edith Porter, who gave it to the Museum in 1954, thought it had been made in Maine by the grandmother of a Mrs. S.S. Laird of Burlington, Vermont. When the Museum made inquiries, however, Mrs. Laird did not remember the quilt and knew only that her grandmother's name was Powers and that she had lived near Presque Isle, Maine. Such incomplete documentation is often the case in quilt histories."
If you don't know anything don't make things up. 

This seems like a basic principle to us but admitting one knows nothing was unacceptable to writers working with American arts in the 20th century.  Lilian Baker Carlisle, Rose Wilder Lane or Ruby Short McKim would not have pleased their editors or readers with statements such as "We don't know a thing about this quilt and have no idea what its name is."

There ARE 19th-century written records of quilt patterns called  Laurel Leaf before the 1956 catalog. 
In 1888 the San Francisco Mechanics' Fair catalog mentions a Laurel Leaf quilt by Miss T. Doyle, "the design being very prettily delineated."

In 1922 Willa Cather wrote a fictional account in "One of Ours," in which the character Mahailey brought three quilts from Virginia to Nebraska: a log cabin, a laurel-leaf and a blazing star. 

We just don't know what those laurel leaves look like. No pictures attached. I'd be more inclined to imagine the wreath-like designs above as as the Laurel Leaf inspired by classical imagery.

And another thing.

I was totally surprised to find the Shelburne's quilt is dark blue and gray blue.  Carlisle did mention that it was "dark and light blue cotton appliqued to a white background." But all this time I've imagined it as green and red, which says something about assumptions.

Dark and light blue cotton. Are those solid color fabrics? Just how old is the Shelburne's quilt? 1930s?

Lilian Baker Carlisle has had enormous influence on what passes for quilt history. Her copy has been echoed by later authors. Rose Wilder Lane described the pattern: "The evergreen laurel, ancient symbol of eternity in the eastern Mediterranean, gives us the bay leaves that season our stews and pot roasts." Carleton Safford & Robert Bishop: "Napoleon's influence on American decorative art is reflected in this pattern."

We need to look at history in its own context. 

Colonial ladies showing off their quilts
on the cover of Modern Priscilla magazine, 1914.

Romance and good stories were the standards in writing about quilts. Carlisle did a good job according to those standards.

A variation from an album quilt. I have no idea what
this flower is. Yellow leaves? Artistic license?

Read more about Lilian Baker Carlisle at these sites:



The 2015 seasonal quilt show in the Hat and Fragrance Gallery at the Shelburne Museum features contemporary quilts by Vermont quilt artist, Judy B. Dales through October 31.

Florence LaGanke's alter ego Nancy Page
did two updated Laurel Wreath designs in the 1930s


Bill Volckening said...

Good thoughts, and fascinating!
Godey's appears to support the idea that standard or accepted pattern names came along a little later than many of the old, pre-1900 quilts. Designs were simply called "patchwork" in Godey's.
The Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns also provides sense of when pattern names were first used and promoted; but it's important to follow the sources to the back of the book and read more.
Thank you, Barbara!

Bonnie said...

I love those 30's anecdotal quilt block pattern histories. They do have the most nostalgic, romantic charm to them. Perhaps it was also part of marketing patterns/books for sale in a time when the country was grim from the Depression. Patterns weren't being traded from neighbor or relative as much and the romance appealed to new and old quilters alike.
I have noticed how names changed from one source to another as they freely used each other's
new and traditional designs. One of my favorites was Hearts and Gizzards. One author wrote that this was too gruesome and she changed the name to Hearts and Blossoms. Many other names followed.