Monday, August 30, 2010

The Quilt in the Picture

Photograph purchased in Texas, probably from about 1910

Georgia artist and historian Vista Ann Mahan is the expert on quilts in old photos. For years she has been collecting pictures of people with quilts as backdrops. She also has collected information about the photograph style, finding it to be a Southern regionalism.

Vista in a portait for Ladies Circle Patchwork Quilts about 1991

Those of us who collect old photos come across these occasionally in antique shops. With the advent of online auctions we have more access to them, but the competition for the photos tends to be tough. Somebody always bids $1 more than I am willing to pay.

A recent online auction piece

In her paper on the topic for the American Quilt Study Group in 1991 Vista found that of the 59 photos she could date at the time, the most common time frame was between 1891-1920. One portrait of her family with a quilt backdrop dates to 1860.

Vista believes that these photos were done by itinerant professionals. Rural people remembered photographers who came "to a community once or twice a year, stopping by all the farms inquring if families wanted their picture made."

The examples she found were primarily from the Southeastern U.S. although she had one Canadian example.

We can imagine that the quilt in the picture provided both physical background and symbolic status. In this case, the use of a T-patterned quilt MAY have symbolized the girl's enthusiasm for Temperance ideals.

Vista's paper "Quilts Used as Backdrops in Old Photographs" was published in the research papers of the American Quilt Study Group: Uncoverings 1991. See ordering information by clicking here:

If all this sounds interesting to you you will want to attend this year's American Quilt Study Group Seminar in Minnesota on October 14-17, 2010.
Click here for more information:
It's the place for quilt history.

See family photos by clicking on these links.
Photographers often used coverlet and tablecloths for backdrops too.


  1. What a fascinating post. And thank you for the links for further reading.

    If I could have only one photo per year, I'd want to include a quilt along with the family too.

  2. This is a really interesting post, it's lovely to see the quilts in the photos, a piece of history right in front of us. I especially liked the 'T' shaped block, wonderful.

  3. Thanks so much for featuring Vista Mahan's work. Her research on quilts as backdrops for photographs is a wonderful addition to the American Quilt Study Group's endeavors to find and preserve the history of this art form.

    mj stubblefield

  4. My husband's family in Virgina was photographed circa 1880 on their front porch with two quilts over the banisters and the sewing machine to the side...

  5. Great information, especially about Vista Mahan, would like more info on her.

  6. I enjoyed reading about Vista Mahan's research on old family photos using quilts as a backdrop.
    Mary Robinson
    Hobe Sound, FL

  7. Wow! This is fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing.