Sunday, July 16, 2017

Quilts at the 1885 Cotton States Exposition

Harriet Powers's Bible Quilt

"Quilt Exhibit, Interior of Negro Building, Atlanta Exposition," 1895
Stereograph by B W. Kilburn, published 1896

The vintage photo features Harriet Powers's Bible Quilt, now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Kyra Hicks on her blog Black Threads reported on an original card selling on eBay for $203 ten years ago.

 Harriet Powers's Bible Quilt - 1885-1886

The exposition, a sort of a world's fair, was held in Atlanta, Georgia. The 1895 exhibit was the last of three Atlanta Cotton State fairs:
  • 1881 International Cotton Exposition,
  • 1887 Piedmont Exposition
  • 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition
A coin purse made of a painted shell

The trade show and entertainment showcased Atlanta as a growing city and hoped to develop markets for the post-Civil-War Southern textile economy.

The Negro Building
In the spirit of segregation there was a separate building for black
Americans' arts and industry.

The Memphis Display in the Negro Building.
On the left of the women a spinning wheel.
See one version of this card at the Libarary of Congress:

Behind the spinning wheel some kind of patterned textile.

The commercial photographer B. W. Kilburn & Company of Littleton, New Hampshire, published a series of 149 stereocards of the Expo. In some of the shots of the Negro Building you get a glimpse of what might be quilts.

Probably just flags....

Same photo, another detail
of a doll bed in the foreground
and a girl sitting on a bed just like it.

Just flags.

Those patterned items hung on walls are probably some
other kind of banner or canvas.

Except in the photo of the quilt exhibit featuring Harriet Powers's quilt.
Behind her quilt is a woman in a booth. On the right: seems like a Lone Star.
On the left: A pine cone or pine burr bedcover of folded triangles?

Similar to this one from the inventory of Julie Silber Quilts.

Or maybe it's a  pieced wheel quilt of some kind.

And in the case:
Appliqued words of the Lord's Prayer.
At the bottom

See a similar quilt by Lena Moore featuring Psalm 23 here:


  1. Thank you for posting this bit of history I didn't know. Sometime after 1973, there was a wonderful quilt exhibit in Newark, New Jersey, where I saw the Harriet Powers' quilt for the first time and was so amazed by it. Many other antique quilts were exhibited, and the show made a big impact on how I thought of quilting. I was a brand new quilter then, and the shows the Whitney display were my main source of education at that time. Along with trial and error - lots of error!

  2. Bonjour Barbara,
    Toujours et a nouveau je suis charmé et intéressé par vos publications et votre incroyable patrimoine de votre pays
    Que serais le patchwork sans les Etats Unis,j'aime lire et relire a ce sujet sans m'en lasser!
    j'admire beaucoup les photos d'archives.
    Merci de ce partage
    Amicalement de France

  3. Hi Barbara, the quilt with the folded triangles reminds me of an exhibition of Ukrainian quilts a few years ago in Vijfhuizen, The Netherlands. There even was a workshop so you could learn how to fold those triangles. I will try to find the photos for you.
    The Netherlands

  4. Thank you for the post on the 1885 Cotton States Exhibition and the photos of Harriett Powers's iconic Bible Quilt. In 2012 our local Artworks in Beaufort, SC, produced a play by Grace Cavalieri entitled, "Quilting the Sun." It was about Powers and her Bible Quilt. I was asked to make a replica of this historic quilt, and with the help of a friend, pulled it off! Delving into the life of this remarkable quiltmaker was one of the most meaningful experiences I have ever had. Just think . . . Powers was born into slavery yet she accomplished the impossible. Two of her quilts are in major museums – the Bible Quilt in the Smithsonian and the Presentation Quilt in the Boston Museum of fine arts. Read Kyra Hicks's biography of Powers for the fascinating stories of how these quilts survived through the decades. What treasures they are!
    Beaufort, SC

  5. I saw a Harriett Powers Bible Quilt on ebay once and, at that time, I wondered if a person had made a replica or if there were quilt kits out there. The seller provided no information, and I lost track before the listing ended. Still wondering...

  6. Susan, in the early 1990's, the Smithsonian reproduced several American quilts – the Bible Quilt being among them. The quilters rose up in arms! You probably saw one of the reproductions. (I still have the one I made.) Here is a link to the controversy surrounding the Chines-made quilts:

  7. Thank you for sharing such historical findings. I use some materials from your blog to cover topics such as the difference between marvel and dc.