Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Civil War Quilt? Dating Basics Say No

Four Patch Quilt
82" x 88"

I saw this quilt recently in an online auction where it was advertised as a Civil War quilt dated 1865. Right away the style made me wonder how accurate that date was. I found that the date is on a note attached to the quilt. I keep a file of quilts with dates inscribed on them and I've learned to ignore quilts dated in a note or label rather than on the quilt.

Fifteen years ago, the seller bought the Four Patch from a friend, a niece of Sarah Elizabeth Lowe (1845-1916). The niece had written the note. She wasn't sure of the quilt's exact date but thought it had been made near the end of the Civil War.

The seller provided many good pictures of the fabric, which made the quilt's actual date rather easy to
figure out. 

The first thing to note is the presence of a black on white, silvery gray fabric.
These prints offer a basic clue to quilt dating. They were not printed before 1890 or so.

A second good clue: claret red prints. Again, these simple white
on wine red prints were abundant after 1890 but not seen before that.

The backing also offers a clue. You may not be able to see it
but an enlargement reveals that it is a gauzy muslin, the kind
of fabric I grew up calling unbleached muslin
or cheesecloth.

This is a backing you do not see in the mid-19th century.
It's far more common in the early to mid-20th century.
It has fine yarns and few threads per square inch.

The embroidered M (or is it a W?) is a mystery. 

I found a little about Sarah Elizabeth Graves Lowe at the website Find A Grave, She is buried in Washington County, Kentucky, where she apparently spent her whole life. She was born November 8, 1845 and died March 16, 1916 at 69 years old. She might have made this quilt towards the end of her life, sometime between 1890 and 1916.

Her nickname was Bet. She had six children, one with the lovely name of Zanie Bugg. Bet may have made this quilt for Mary Etta if that's an M..

Sarah Lowe's Children:
William Schyluar Lowe (1866 - 1929)
Mary Etta Russell (1868 - 1950)
James M. Lowe (1870 - 1881)
Gertie Lowe Russell (1880 - 1944)
Elmer Eugene Lowe (1884 - 1964)
Zanie Lowe Bugg (1890 - 1975)

Well I've gotten off on a tangent with Zanie Bugg.

 We can learn a few things from the quilt and its note.

1) Always be skeptical of a date on a note or a label. A well-meaning descendant can be quite inaccurate.
2) Black and claret cotton prints are excellent clues to dates after 1890. You do not find those prints in mid-century quilts.

Album quilt date-inscribed 1899
Michigan Quilt Project, picture from the QuiltIndex

Diamond four patch date-inscribed 1909

See more about black cotton prints at my Civil War blog this week:

I'll discuss the claret reds next Wednesday (October 7)
on my Civil War Quilts blog.


  1. In genealogy, one of the cardinal rules is that oral histories are often inaccurate, but contain a grain of truth. Stories get mangled over time like a game of rumor. This should also be applied to the stories that are attached to quilts and other heirlooms.

  2. Great info. I am usually skeptical of anything claimed to be that old (even a fork.) This helps provide some criteria to the skepticism. Thank you.

  3. So interesting, as always, Barbara. Thanks for sharing.

  4. You may have gotten off on a tangent with Z Bugg.... but I am wondering how Sarah Lowe had children 24 years apart, with 10 years between 3 and 4. With six children why did not one of them have the quilt? But these are not quilt history questions but genealogy questions which in my book are just as interesting.

  5. Very interesting. Thank you for the wonderful post. I love old quilts but know nothing of dating them.

  6. I've seen 19th century families in which the age gap between youngest and oldest child was 22 years -- "how" is they married early, sometimes the bride was as young as 15, they lived long and kept at it. Assuming only one husband fathered all of Sarah Lowe's children, a big gap in the middle like this usually indicates that some children were born who died young or there were miscarriages and/ stillbirths. On findagrave, however, unless all the children are listed in the "bio" section of the memorial, the blue links to children's graves will only include graves that were made into findagrave online memorials. Often the links do not contain every child for this reason. That is the situation on this memorial. There could have been several live healthy births in that 10 year span, it's just that their graves aren't posted on the findagrave website or if they are, they haven't yet been linked to their mother's memorial. Sarah Lowe's memorial is memorial # 99328250 at findagrave.com. Genealogy and quilts often seem to go hand-in-hand.

  7. Sarah E. "Bet" Graves Lowe was my great grandmother. Please let me know if you know where the quilt is now.