Maltese Cross or Pineapple
This is not a block but the whole quilt, which was sold at Garth Auctions.
It's about 65" square. The maker balanced her darks, mediums and lights quite nicely, using a variety of shirting prints for the lightest fabrics.
Sherri at the Moda Cutting Table blog recently did a post on text prints or low-volume prints, which are today's equivalent of shirtings. Read it here:
Low-volume is an interesting description and fits the idea of a print as a neutral.
Shirting prints were a lightweight cotton, generally considered to have small, rather simple figures.
Shirtings could have any color background but here we are discussing white ground prints
which make such an effective foil for darker calicoes.
The term "shirting" is an old one.
Men often wore printed shirts. In his book The Growth of the British Cotton Trade: 1780-1815 Michael M. Edwards found a 1785 reference to 'the fashion of wearing calico shirting.'
Shirtings became popular for women in a fad for menswear fashion about 1910.
Women wore shirtwaists with dark skirts. Some shirtwaists were plain white cottons, linen or silk but many were printed cottons.
Patterned shirtings were a fashion necessity for men and women.
This New York store advertised ten floors of shirtings in 1910.
We can see what look like bolts of shirting prints in this Minnesota dry goods store.
The sales clerk is wearing a striped dress, a category of shirtings.
... fabric similar to this.
Shirtwaist with added Turkey red embroidery
The 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog noted the "growing popularity of ladies' shirt waists." The cheapest prints at almost 7 cents a yard (30 inches wide) were stripes or polka dots only. For 8 cents you could get stripes, "dots or small figures on white ground; these are in black, blue or pink, also larger." (31 inches wide).
For 12 cents: extra wide (36 inches) "styles printed for high class trade...There are polka dots, stripes, exclusive figures, sporting patterns...drums, bicycles etc."
White as a neutral
Plain white fabric was the most popular neutral for antique quilts---maybe because it was relatively inexpensive as compared to prints.
Here's a quilt from about 1840-1860.
Same idea about 1880-1900
with shirtings instead of plain white as the neutral.
Shirtings became a real craze about
1875 to 1910 with the fashion for ladies' wear,
particularly in Pennsylvania
where they liked to use it as the background for applique.
Pennsylvanians made good use of the prints
But everybody was enthralled.
Some used yardage for a coordinated look.
Scrappy was popular too.
One influence on the trend was the fad for Log Cabin quilts in the 1870s,
which relied very little on plain whites for contrast.
A good scrapbag of light-colored prints was very useful.
Ocean Wave designs also required a variety of contrasting prints.
Another contributing craze was charm quilts,
with their requirement that no two pieces be the same fabric.
Shirtings defined the era.
Because they are low-volume they don't shout at us on the bolt, but it's a good idea to keep an eye out for these very useful shirtings---or today's text prints and low-volume prints.