Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Oscar Crazy Quilts #1: The Correct Flowers

Detail of a crazy quilt by Lydia Pearl Finnell, Harrodsburg, Kentucky
Collection of the Smithsonian Institution
Note the three-dimensional Calla lily.

Detail of a crazy quilt by Victorene Parsons Mitchell
Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art

Calla lilies are not so common as sunflowers on high-style crazy quilts
from the 1880s.

By Sarah Paul Streeper, Philadelphia
Collection of the Smithsonian Institution

Both flowers were associated with Anglo-Irish celebrity Oscar Wilde who wowed the United States in an 1882 cross country tour.

Illustration from the operetta Patience, satirizing
Wilde and his adoring fans

Knowing the value of a signature wardrobe he wore a Byronic collar (floppy and large) a velvet jacket, breeches and long, wavy hair. He often walked down the street with a single lily in his hand hoping to encounter a reporter.

Napoleon Sarony's series of portraits defined the outrageous
Oscar. You just could not wear tights and knee breeches without
calling attention to yourself in 1882.

By Aimee Hodge
Collection of the Smithsonian Institution

Young Oscar's celebrity tour (he really hadn't done anything yet but dress eccentrically and say some witty things) inspired many aspects of popular culture. Until I read David M. Friedman's book Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity I had no idea of the impact of the Oscar mania on the crazy quilt.

By Sophia Tilton
Collection of the Smithsonian Institution

Cartoon from Punch ridiculing immigrant Irish
Americans, inspired by Wilde to rise above their station

Wilde's lecture topic was the aesthetic movement, particularly in decorating, which advocated the sunflower image as perfection.

Aesthetic andirons by Thomas Jeckyll

Now, Oscar's influence on the crazy quilt might all be speculation if crazy quilt experts like Sheila Betterton had not noticed a newspaper feature published in October, 1882 under the title Patch Work:
"This year the rage is for the 'Oscar Crazy Quilt' [requiring] in the centre a sunflower made of either yellow broadcloth, silk or velvet; or else a lily, daisy or pansy."
Center of a quilt at IQSCM # 1997.007.0670

The author was a well-known free-lance writer Annie Wakefield, who went on:
"The sunflower gives the name of 'Oscar,' and heaven knows the patches are 'crazy' enough in shape. Such is fame. Oscar Wilde is immortalized himself in silk quilts, to be handed down to generations yet unborn as heirlooms of what 'grandmama did when she was a girl.' Spirits of former grandmamas, how you must fume...'What is this folly?' "
Annie Wakefield's article is the only reference I've found to Oscar Quilts so far but all those sunflowers indicate she was reporting what she'd seen.

Links to posts on crazy quilts that I've written:



  1. Interesting. I had no idea he had such influence on crazy quilts, but then Oscar was most definitely "Wild(e)"! Thanks for the book recommendation. I will look for it.

  2. Great examples of crazy quilts.
    The '3D' effect is impressive, skilled with needle and thread!

  3. Very interesting perspective on fans of celebrities of the past.