Monday, February 19, 2024

Nostalgia: Quiltings Are Not What They Used to Be


F. Chapman, A Country Quilting Bee
Quilting "Bees" or Quilting Parties, as they were called early in the 19th century, were a popular topic for nostalgia that mourned an imagined way of life, long lost due to cities, industrialization, immigration and modern times.
"Reader, were you ever at a Quilting Party---an old fashioned quilting party....the thing is now nearly obsolete."
Colonial women at an old-fashioned quilting party

Readers might lament the obsolete quilting party, a "real old-fashioned quilting," as Marie Webster did in her 1915 book.

But the "Readers" being addressed in the feature on obsolete social practices at the top of the page here  were not 20th-century people but readers of an 1830 magazine feature.

It is quite surprising to find such lamentation for a defunct social event in the 1830s.

Esther H Cobb, 1832
Delaware Historical Society

Despite the survival of a remarkable number of almost 200-year-old quilts dated 1832 the cliche "old-fashioned" was attached to the item and its making.

In reality quiltmaking was thriving in 1832. With hindsight we can see quilters were inventing new styles and techniques: cut-out chintz appliques, innovative pieced blocks, lavish chintz borders.

Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts MESDA
South Carolina
Quilt signed and dated by Mary Miller Taylor, 1832

See a post on this quilt:

Obviously, the nostalgia of the 1830s was illusionary.
 But why are people so prone to become nostalgic even though 
the emotion has little basis in reality?

The American Psychological Association has an online interview with Krystine Batcho, PhD, professor of psychology at LeMoyne College who describes two types of nostalgia, historical and personal.
"If people are unhappy for any reason with how things are today, they're more likely then to experience this sense that things must have been better in the [historical] past."

Personal: [If today is stressful people think] "when I was growing up, I think it was less stressful. The reason for that is because our memories are not faithful. They're not accurate to what things really were like. They're our impressions of what things were like in the past."


North Carolina Museum of History
1832 Rosannah McCullough, North Carolina

It looks like the nostalgia for the obsolete quilting bee is a product of historical nostalgia. Just how stressful were the 1830s?

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1832 Euphemia Kitchen, Pennsylvania

Puppet Master Andrew Jackson, 1834

Divisive President Andrew Jackson, was elected in 1832 (having loudly contested his loss in the "corrupt" 1828 election) and began Indian removal, closing the National Bank and other political moves leading to the financial panic of 1837 after ineffectual Martin VanBuren took office.

Nat Turner's slave rebellion, terrifying Southern slaveholders, took place in 1831. The Battle of the Alamo in which Americans Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and 187 others were killed in Mexico and a great fire in New York City were news in the mid-30s. As slavery was abolished in England, Illinois abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy was killed by a pro-slavery mob in 1837.

VanBuren lost his bid for a second term in 1840

I do think Dr. Batcho has described the influences behind 1830s historical nostalgia quite well. It sounds like a tough decade---and entirely too familiar.

The trend to nostalgia for old-fashioned qultings continued.

Kansas State Historical Society

But why are quilts so much a part of historical nostalgia? That is a harder question. 


  1. Janet Berlo wrote that another name for a quilting bee was a "frolic." From industriousness to carefree-ness? I recall a book called "The Good Old Days? They Were Terrible." (A concept that certain political supporters haven't grasped.)

  2. I'm guessing cozy, comforting quilts feed the cozy, comforting image of " the little woman at home getting together with friends and neighbors to quilt her quilt tops made of her family's clothing scraps".

    The good old days weren't so good for a great many people. There's so much more I could say about the history that's taught in schools and what's left out (people of color, women, environment, etc.), but I won't.

  3. The past is "perfect" because memory creates perfection.