Saturday, August 15, 2020

Margaret Younglove Calvert's Unusual Quilt

Tumbling Blocks, attributed to Margaret Younglove Calvert, 
72" x 77", estimated date:1850-1879
Cotton, wool, silk & mohair, Item number KM 4031
 Kentucky Library & Museum 
Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Kentucky

While looking at Kentucky quilts I was intrigued by this one, attributed to Margaret Younglove Calvert whose daughter wrote the very popular book Aunt Jane of Kentucky. 

Beulah Strong illustration of Aunt Jane, 1907, holding a utilitarian quilt that probably mortified the author's mother. Aunt Jane is famous for asking: “Did you ever think, child, how much piecin’ a quilt’s like livin’ a life?"
Margaret Younglove Calvert (1829-1920)
Photographs are all from the collections of 
Western Kentucky University. This one looks to be from the 1860s.
The University has published much about the Calvert family
from Bowling Green, but the remarkable quilt is not often mentioned.

Blocks pieced of various clothing fabrics float in a geometric design.

The basic pattern is two shapes, probably pieced over papers. The 60 degree diamond
 makes shaded blocks separated by 6-sided shapes, elongated hexagons.

A version of this hexagonal idea

We can't see the fabrics too well in the photos but they are probably cut from dressmaking scraps and worn out clothing, pieces of cotton, wool and silk and combination fabrics in prints and plains.

I've shifted their photos greener as they look a little too pink.

The paper pieced central design appears to be appliqued to a blue

which has faded as if it's been folded and exposed to light over
a period of time.

I would guess that the blue background is a manufactured quilted fabric, the kind
of machine quilted silk yardage often used for lining.

Something you might see inside a jacket or coat.

A shortcut late-Victorians used for the backs of crazy
quilts like this one.

Margaret Younglove Calvert, perhaps in her 30s.

WKU has much information about Margaret and even a little about her quiltmaking. She was born in Johnstown, Fulton County, New York, north of Albany, the ninth of ten children born to a shoemaker who died when she was fourteen, leaving her an orphan. 

Bowling Green in 1871

Two brothers who'd opened a drugstore in Bowling Green, Kentucky offered to raise her and she spent the rest of her life there, marrying in 1855 Thomas Chalmers Calvert (1826-1898), a Presbyterian minister's son born in Kentucky. His North Carolina parents moved to Bowling Green when he was a boy, his father preaching at a Presbyterian Church. When Margaret died in 1920 she was the oldest member of the town's First Presbyterian Church.

Eliza Caroline Calvert Obenchain (1856-1935)
Famous as Eliza Calvert Hall

Margaret had five children born between 1856 and 1870. The oldest of her four girls was Eliza Caroline Calvert, known as Lida. She wrote dialect stories for popular magazines using a variation of grandmother Eliza Hall Calvert's name as a pen name. 

Thomas Chalmers Calvert (1826-1898)

Thomas Calvert prospered as a bank manager; Margaret's quilt certainly speaks of leisure and access to luxury fabrics. When was it made?  Paper-pieced quilts of these kinds of dress scraps tend to be from the 1850s to the 1890s. When Margaret married in 1855 she may have been working on it.

Lynn E. Niedermeyer in her biography of Margaret's daughter quotes a letter from Margaret's sister Jane to her new brother-in-law Thomas Calvert. Apparently Margaret did not want any help from her sisters.
"I hope she will complete her quilt....if she had our assistance the task would be lighter for her. Mary says she is so particular, perhaps we could not do it good enough we would take just as fine stitches as we could."
The quilt may have taken years, the years when Margaret was having children and living the life of a wife of a well-to-do business man. She had household help. 

The 1860 slave schedule in the census lists two slaves for the family, one of whom may have been this woman whose photograph is in the Younglove/Calvert Family papers. After emancipation a woman the children called Aunt Bella continued to help raised Margaret's children while Thomas made a post-war fortune in speculation and built a new Italianate mansion.

Margaret and daughter Josephine in the 1890s perhaps

The Museum gives 1879 as an ending date for the quilt. Margaret's life changed so much in 1870, however, that she may have put it aside.

 Her husband was accused, quite rightly, of embezzlement from the bank. One night in November, 1870, a few days after Margaret had given birth to son Edward, he snuck out of the house and disappeared, leaving her with five children, debt and a scandal. She and her older daughters with help from Bella followed the usual pattern of "decayed gentlewomen," taking in laundry and sewing work to survive, moving in with relatives. No time for patiently piecing small diamonds together.

However, Margaret may have showed this particular quilt in 1860 at the Kentucky State Fair in the "Silk Patchwork Quilt" category, where there were five entries and she received a second place certificate. Was her quilt finished by 1860 or did she make several exceptional show quilts over her long life?

There's a lot more to Margaret Younglove Calvert's story. Read Lynn Niedermeyer's book Eliza Calvert Hall: Kentucky Author & Suffragist at this preview:

Niedermeyer has also summarized Lida's and her mother's story in Standing Up for Her Sex in Kentucky Humanities.


  1. So unusual! I have bookmarked all these links to read later. How apropos that you should mention a suffragette when we are a short two weeks from the centennial of a woman's right to vote!

  2. The quilt is incredible and gives testimony to the skills and level of education of mid 19th century women. She would certainly had to have had math skills to draft this pattern. Additionally she must have been exposed to theories of perspective in art and the use of shadow and light. I am assuming she was a well educated young woman and received the high level of training in needle skills so often a part of the training of a girl of this class.

  3. Purchased 'Divided Hearts' on Thursday and have already read it cover to cover. This is unusual for me to 'read' a quilt book and I have many. Fascinating stories behind the blocks, thank you. I am thinking about the quilt blocks and will most likely reduce them to a miniature which is my favorite style of working. It will be fun selecting fabrics that will work in miniature scale. Thank you again for a great book.

  4. Funny, I just re-read "Aunt Jane". The first time was 20+ years ago and I thought it was cute. This time I noticed the many references to women's plight mid-19th century.

  5. Thank you, I enjoyed reading the links - I also enjoyed the photos with barn blocks at the beginning of the second link!

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