Monday, October 7, 2019

Southern Spin: Mary Ann Rouse Thomas

Mary Ann Rouse Thomas 
Blount County, Alabama
Quilt made perhaps 1890-1920

About 1950 Robert Cargo, a young Alabamian, inherited a group of quilts made by his great-grandmother Mary Ann Rouse Thomas. Cargo went on to get a PhD in French literature and teach in the Romance Languages department at the University of Alabama, but those quilts created an interest in an alternate specialty: Alabama folk art. He and wife Helen operated the Folk Art Gallery in Tuscaloosa for many years. Before their deaths they donated their collections to museums, particularly the Birmingham Museum, which has 700 pieces of folk art from the family.

Mary Ann Rouse Thomas (1842-1930)
She would be in her 50s in the photo

Bob Cargo also inherited a photograph taken in 1898. It looks like
an itinerant photographer came by the William Mabrey Thomas farm
and suggested the family show their proudest possessions in the yard.
Mary Ann has dogs and chickens around her but also a group of her quilts.

The Cargos also donated the photo to the Birmingham Museum of Art.
We can presume her husband is standing on the left
and her nine surviving children are in the photo.

Thomas children according to Find-a-Grave

Three of the quilts in the photo went to Bob and are now in the Birmingham Museum.
Also being shown off: a horse and a banjo and a granddaughter. 

A little Photoshopping

Seven Sisters, before 1898

Goose Chase, before 1898

Snail's Trail

Bob quilted this top, which may be the one in the photo
or a copy of it. He attributed it to his mother Mildred Thomas Cargo (1909-2004),
Mary Ann's granddaughter, born ten years after the picture was taken.

One quilt visible in the photo is unaccounted for.
An odd pattern, sort of a vase or tree, sort of a star.

This tree quilt is not in the photo.

It looks like Mary Ann enjoyed the pattern variety available in the turn-of-the-century publications.
Perhaps she bought patterns from the Ladies Art Company in St. Louis, which offered this one as Tree of Paradise as early as 1889.

The pattern the family called Snail's Trail was published three times in 1931,
long after the photo.
Here's a post from last year on the pattern:

Spider Web Star

These Thomas quilts are classics of Southern style:
  • An emphasis on chrome orange plain fabric (so much of it woven and dyed in Southern mills must have been available.)
  • Blocks separated by strong sashing with contrasting sashing squares, we call them cornerstones.
  • No borders except the sashing brought out to the edge.
  • Fan or arc quilting.

Here's a star that the family thought was made in 1928

And a Carpenter's Wheel done in similar style.
Red sashing squares seem to have been a late favorite.
What color was the tan sashing originally?

The quilts were made in Blount County, north of Birmingham but
Mary Ann had lived in various Alabama counties when younger.

Her children commissioned a formal grave marker but I like the one below better:
BO 1842 DI 1930
AGE 88 10 M
FISHER UND (ertaking?)

Thanks to her great-grandson her quilts are her best memorial.
Link to the Cargo quilts at the Birmingam Museum of Art:

See another post about the Cargo collections here:

Looking at the Cargo quilts got me interested in Southern style in general so I started a Facebook page QuiltHistorySouth. See it here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2427588900863781/
Ask to join.


  1. Thank you for a wonderful lesson. Her quilts are fantastic and complicated. What a treasure.

  2. your photo shopping of that photo is wonderful.... as a genealogist two stones are better than none..... but why does the undertaker get memorialized ????

  3. A great way to start my day! Simply amazing! Thank you for your research.

  4. Barbara, this isn't a comment on your blog which I just discovered by trying to find out how to get in touch with you. I live in Winfield, Kansas and am a member of the Walnut Valley Quilt Guild. I was recently given an envelope with quite a few newspaper clippings of quilt patterns. Some are from Cappers Weekly, some from the Kansas City Star, some from Woman's World, and a 1970 clipping from the Wichita Eagle about Rose Kretsinger. I also have a copy of Mrs Danner's Quilts by Scioto Danner of El Dorado, Kansas, copyright 1934. I have no use for these items but hate to throw them away. Do you, as a quilt historian, have any interest in any of these. If so, I would be happy to mail them to you.

    Janet Ward

  5. "The Cargos also donated the photo to the Birmingham Museum of Art.
    We can presume her husband is standing on the left
    and her nine surviving children are in the photo."
    In the William Mabrey Thomas Family photo is seven of their children, two grandchildren, a son-in-law, and a family neighbor.
    My great-grandparents William Mabrey and Mary Ann Rouse Thomas