Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Mary Miller Taylor Quilt #1

Attributed to Mary Elizabeth Clayton Miller Taylor by her descendant 
Donor Julia Taylor Scholz. 99" x 94"
MESDA Collection
Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts

Tree of Life chintz applique quilt with cross-stitched 
inscription at the base of the tree:
"Alexdr M. Taylor
July 1803″

Mary Miller Taylor left a group of early quilts, a rather unusual legacy. We know of few women born in the 18th century who left even a pair of quilts, much less the four associated with Mary. Like Catherine Garnhart of Frederick, Maryland, Amelia Lauck of Winchester, Virginia and the prolific family of Achsah Goodwin Wilkins and Milcah Goodwin Dorsey of Baltimore we can use a group of quilts to look at women's lives and community.

Four date-inscribed quilts associated with Mary Taylor are in important museum collections. We'll look at one a day for the next four posts The earliest quilt is cross-stitched with her son's name and the year 1803. Alexander Miller Taylor was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1800.

Portrait of Mary Taylor (1774-1846) 
By John Wesley Jarvis about 1830
Low House Museum, Savannah
National Society of Colonial Dames

As Anita Zaleski Weinraub wrote in Georgia Quilts, "We luckily know a bit about Mary Elizabeth Taylor and her family." (See a link to Anita's biography at the bottom of the page.) Mary's parents were well-to-do plantation owners in colonial North Carolina when she was born two years before the Declaration of Independence. Father Andrew Pharaba Miller was a mariner and shipper, a Scottish immigrant who took his family to Bermuda when the Revolutionary war began. Mary's mother, his second wife Elizabeth Blount (1747-1831) gave birth to a son Thomas Harvey Miller there (Elizabeth had ten children with Andrew). They returned to the rebellious colonies when Mary was young, settling in South Carolina, in or near Charleston.

The fabrics in Mary's quilts were undoubtedly British imports. Perhaps her father had shipped British wools to the American colonies before the Revolution, but these skillful prints were not imported in any quantity until after the War of 1812 ended in 1815. Therefore, the date on the quilt and the bird fabric is relatively early, one of the earliest of these cut-out chintz appliques.

Mary's father died when she was about ten and her mother married one of his partners, John McNair  who'd established a cotton mill in Stateburg in the Sumter District of South Carolina about 1790. Nearly fifty years later Mary's brother John Blount Miller wrote of his step-father's early mill where they "manufactured huckaback, fustian, corduroy, jeans, bed ticking, bed quilts, figured and colored, plain white homespun and cotton stocking."

What did the mill's "bed quilts" look like? The reference is intriguing.

Various places along the southern Atlantic coast
where Mary Miller Taylor lived. 

The Millers were ambitious and successful, leaving quite a paper trail in libraries North and South. Mary began making her own mark in 1799 when she wed another Scots immigrant William Taylor (1769-1840) in Stateburg.

William followed a common career path for Scots-Americans, becoming a merchant in Savannah. He had many investments in shipping and goods and was a cotton factor, or agent. Although people in the fabric and importing business like her family could not hope to impress the plantation gentry because they were "in trade," she was affluent and undoubtedly owned many luxury items purchased from Europe, China and local artisans.

William was an investor in the Savannah Steamship Company, which launched the Savannah, the first steamship to sail the Atlantic in an 1819 trip to Liverpool, just in time for a serious financial depression that undoubtedly affected the fortunes of the Taylor family.

The birds on Mary's quilt are familiar. We call them hawks and see two poses in chintz applique quilts.

The picture at MESDA is probably flipped as this is the direction the hawk faces.

Central bird from Hephzibah Jenkins Townsend's quilt in the collection of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian. It's cataloged as "1840-1850" and the bird is called a "Hawk Owl."
Hephzibah lived in Charleston and on Edisto Island.
(It is a digression to mention she is probably related
to the Pope-Townsend family associated with quilts on the sea island.)

Another quilt from the MESDA collection, associated with
Elizabeth Granbery Gordon (1784-?) of Gates County, North Carolina.

The bird is quite distinctive but is it a hawk or an eagle? 
Another digression....

There are far more surviving quilts than pieces of yardage.
The only uncut cloth I know of is in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

28" x 33"
The larger bird measures 16" from top of the wing down to his tip of his tail.
Is this the same print in Mary Miller Taylor's quilt but faded,
or was there a more intense colorway printed too?

The Cooper Hewitt owns this block print, which they catalog as 1785-1795. They acquired it from collector Florence Peto (I believe) and it is pictured in Florence Pettit's book America's Printed & Painted Fabrics* The date on the print corresponds with the 1803 date on the Taylor quilt.

Birds are hard to keep straight too, Pettit called this an eagle.

Many early chintzes were inspired by the nature illustrations in Carl Linnaeus & Ebenezer Sibley's series A Genuine and Universal System of Natural-History (1794-1810). The paper print is labeled Golden Eagle.

How to tell a hawk from a Golden Eagle? (something we get to practice in Kansas.) They are similar in coloring but the eagle is quite a bit larger and limb proportions differ. Eagles are lankier. Linnaeus's Golden Eagle looks a bit squatty to me and so does the bird on the fabric---Rather hawk-like.
Mary's quilt is reversed in the photo.

I am NOT going to attempt to identify the two other birds
in the 1803 quilt but both are cut from the same hawk chintz.

Tomorrow a quilt dated 21 years later.

* Another digression: There are three Florences in the mid-20th century fabric world: Peto, Pettit and Montgomery, so it's hard to keep them straight.)


  1. Williamsburg has a long length of the bird-print chintz that is much more colorful than the Cooper-Hewitt's. I had an ornithologist look at those birds when doing my paper on their presence in various US quilts. The are fanciful, largely hawk with some eagle features. The two large ones are a male & female pair, the two smaller are generic. 1803 is an early date for a quilt with figures cut from this textile; Mary Koval included hers dated 1806 from North Carolina in her recent book "Piece by Piece."

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