Sunday, June 2, 2019

Family in the Dry Goods Business: Jemima Prentice

Silk Strip Quilt dated 1835 by Jemima Parmalee Prentice (1773-1865), 
New York. Collection of Colonial Williamsburg, 
Gift of Graham and Sally N. Lusk in memory of Eloise Prentice Lusk

This lovely silk quilt is one of three attributed to Jemima Prentice who was 62 years old when she made it. All three are in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg.

It is initialed  "LCP 1835," likely a gift for 21-year-old daughter Lucy Candace Prentice. The Lusk family donation included a paper note in which Jemima "records the astounding number of eighty quilts that she made during her lifetime." 

This may seem extraordinary, but Jemima lived a long time, born before the Revolution and dying after the Civil War in her early nineties. Some of us long-time quilters haven't counted, but eighty is within the window of possibility. Especially if one had access to a good deal of fabric and chose fairly simple patterns.

Silk quilt tied with ribbons
by Jemima Prentice.
Made about 1865

The family story from her great-great grandsons on the silk sample quilt above:
"Jemima Parmalee Prentice made this quilt from silk dress samples from her relatives' dry goods business. The comforter is tied together with multicolor ribbons that keep the layers in place. Jemima Prentice created quilts throughout much of her life. In her later years, she made and sold bed quilts, probably similar to this one, and used the profits to found Sunday schools in small villages on the edge of the American frontier. The average price for a quilt was three dollars. This comforter may be the last that Jemima pieced.... A paper label, penned by Eloise W. V. Prentice and dated October 30, 1911, once attached to the silk cover records: 'This quilt given to Eloise B[?] Prentice / on her fourth birthday by her grand / mother for whom she was named. / The quilt was made in 1862 before / Eloise’s father was born – when her / great grandmother [Jemima Prentice] was 92 years old / & was tied by her grandmother – & her / two Great Aunts'."

The plaid silk was woven in various colorways

as was the pink and purple floral stripe.
These rectangles may have been pulled from sample books.

What is extraordinary is that three of Jemima's quilts have survived as a collection. And that so much family history has been passed on with the textiles. And that the family story tells us where she got the fabric and why she might have been motivated to make so many quilts. She had family in the dry goods business and she sold her quilts to raise money for a favorite charity.

The family attributes this Flying Geese silk quilt to 1852, 
when Jemima was 80, given to her son
James Hill Prentice (1817-1891).

An 1816 letter from Jemima is in the collection of the Brooklyn Historical Society. Their biographical notes on the family:

The Prentice family resided in Cambridge, MA; Alstead, N.H.; and parts of New York State....Sartell Prentice and his wife, Jemima Parmele  moved to Canton, N.Y. in 1816, and later settled in Albany. Their son, John H. Prentice (1803-1881) ... in 1839 he relocated to Brooklyn, where he lived with his wife and 11 children at 1 Grace Court in the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights. Prentice was a businessman and owner of Prentice's Stores, a series of warehouses that were located on the piers that once lined the Brooklyn side of the East River.

This one is also tied with tufts of silk.

The website Spared and Shared has a letter from Jemima's grandson during the Civil War. "Twenty-two year-old Ezra was working as a 'hatter' in his uncle’s hat manufacturing business in Brooklyn, New York, when he enlisted." Three years later he writes his cousin Ida:
"I am out of the ranks again. I am orderly for Dr. at the [5th] Corps Headquarters [Hospital]. That last fight was enough for me and I am bound to keep out of the rest if I can." 


  1. Your research turns up the most interesting quilts and stories. That first quilt keeps pulling my eyes back. It's a good block combination, and the colors are lovely.

  2. Wow, that first quilt has such a modern vibe to it -- amazing!

  3. It really does with the solid color silks that take the color so well. It's worth copying.

  4. BEAUTIFUL! Using sample book fabrics is a great way to get variety! Even tied, they are worthy of being kept and appreciated.

  5. Wow! I was born a Prentice, and have Parmelee ancestors. Dont know how or if I am related, but this just gave me chills!