Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Tottenville Sisters #1: Mary or Betsey?

Here's something I've been looking for for a while. It's a watercolor
of a quilt now in the Smithsonian.

Mary Berner painted this picture of a corner of the Totten quilt in the mid 1930s for the WPA's Index of American Design

Photo of Mary Totten's Rising Sun
Collection of the National Museum of 
American History, Smithsonian Institution

Betsey Totten's star quilt with cut-out chintz and conventional applique is one of the great American quilts.

The artists at the WPA who were hired to record American folk arts in color (reliable film images were black and white) liked this quilt so much they produced two paintings. Here's an overview
by Irene Schaefer. Hers seems a little more impressionistic than Berner's.

Photo of the corner
The quilt was made in Tottenville on Staten Island, New York,
 at New York's southernmost point.

Photo of applique.

It is attributed to Mary Totten (1781-1861) called Betsey. Her maiden name was Totten. The quilt has the initials B.T. embroidered in red cross stitch in a corner. Betsey was a common nickname for the  given name Elizabeth about 1800---a nickname not so often bestowed upon Marys who might be called Molly or Polly.

Mary Totten married twice while in her forties. She wed first husband James Polhemus November 15, 1821 and after his death in 1827 married Matthew Williams in 1828, so her name is actually Mary Totten Polhemus Williams. Williams died March 4, 1836. We call her by her maiden name Mary Totten, I imagine, because quilt historian Florence Peto did.

The Staten Island Historical Society has made a transcript of a Bible record of Mary's husbands and parents Gilbert and Mary Totten.

The quilt became famous when pictured in Peto's 1939 book Historic Quilts as the Frontispiece. (That is probably the watercolor of the quilt rather than a photo.)  Peto wrote several articles for magazines about it at the time. The gist of the story is that Mary Totten Polhemus Williams left a will reading:
"I, Mary Williams, of the Town of Westfield, County of Richmond and State of New York, being of sound mind and ... and testament; That is to say, First, after all my lawful debts are paid and discharged, I give and bequeath to Rachel Mary Drake, daughter of William Drake, deceased, my large spread called the Rising Sun."
Peto apparently found this will in the local historical society records, according to her letters in the Joyce Gross collection at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

In her book A Stitch in Time: The Needlework of Aging Women in Antebellum America Aimee Newell notes Rachel Drake as Mary's sister's granddaughter. Mary had no children.

Do notice that when Peto wrote about the maker she called her Mary. The earliest reference I've found to "Betsy Totten" as the maker was in the first edition of Orlofsky's Quilts in America in 1974. By then the quilt had been in the collection of the Smithsonian for over thirty years, donated by Marvel Mildred Matthes, a gift noted in the 1938 Report on the Progress and Condition of the United States National Museum,
"The collections of early American homecraft textiles and needlework were considerably enhanced by gifts and loans, totaling 8 coverlets, 6 quilts, a linen tablecloth, 38 specimens of fine needlework, and 8 specimens of hair work. Among these were: A cotton patchwork and applique quilt, "The Star of Bethlehem," made in 1810, presented by Mrs. Marvel Mildred Matthes, West Brighton, N. Y. [Staten Island]...."

Marvel Matthes "had been presented with this magnificent quilt by her godmother, Ellen Totten Butler," according to the Smithsonian's cataloging. Ella Totten Butler was the woman that Florence Peto was working with in the 1930s. She probably loaned the quilt to the WPA artists to paint.

Here's an unidentified painter working at the Dayton Institute of the Arts.
You can imagine that it might have taken several days to paint a quilt in any detail

But back to the identity puzzle: Mary or Betsey?

When did the museum begin referring to Mary Totten as Betsy or Betsey, the standard attribution today?

From the Smithsonian's current catalog:
"The maker is identified as the daughter of Gilbert Totten (1740-1819) and Mary Butler (1739-1832), ... born in either 1781 or 1783 in Staten Island, New York....

Family genealogy gives us much information The Tottens had several daughters:
Elizabeth Ann (1772-1860) married Reverend William Cole. She was called Betsy.
Mary (1781-1861) left the 1861 will that mentioned a quilt.

Are we confusing Mary Totten Polhemus Williams with her older sister Elizabeth (Betsy) Totten Cole?

The dates are different in the genealogies but Betsey Totten married William Cole.

I found this list of four Totten sisters on a message board indicating they were born in Hempstead on Long Island, rather than on Staten Island.
Daughters of Gilbert Totten & Mary Butler: 
Elizabeth Totten [Cole] b. Mar 05 1772 Hempstead, Nassau, New York d. Jan 16 1860
Rachel Totten [Johnson Butler] b. Dec 12 1778 Hempstead, Nassau, New York d. May 02 1858
Mary Or Mollie Totten [Polhemus Williams] b. Oct 08 1781 Hempstead, Nassau, New York d. Jan 28 1861
Letitia Totten [Johnson] b. Oct 08 1783 Hempstead, Nassau, New York d. May 07 1833
 Many in the Totten's extended family were founders of the 
Woodrow Methodist Church built in the 1842.
Others founded the Bethel Methodist Church.

There are so many of them and they intermarried frequently. I've given up finding relationships between generations. My friend Cuesta Benberry wrote that she'd tried it once, making a chart of the Totten family.

I would bet Elizabeth Totten Cole made the quilt in question. She died in 1860 about a year before younger sister Mary. 

 In the NMAH photo the initials BT are in the upper left corner
 below the green vase and inside the swag and bowknot border.
I've rotated their picture here.

We really have no evidence that Mary made the quilt with the initials BT in the corner. Peto tells us that in her will Mary left  "my large spread called the Rising Sun" to sister Rachel's granddaughter. Let's assume the BT quilt is the one Mary left her grandniece. It may have been a gift from sister Betsey.

Here is a possible chain of ownership:
Elizabeth Betsey Totten Cole
to Mary Mollie Totten Williams
to Rachel Mary Drake in 1861
to Ella Totten Butler
to Marvel Mildred Matthes (goddaughter)
to Smithsonian Institution in 1938
To confuse the issue further....
We actually have no evidence this is the quilt that Mary was referring to in her will, which was separated from the quilt, although the pattern was called Rising Sun in 1860.

And to confuse it even more:

Another WPA watercolor, this one by John Oster from Jersey City (B. 1873) . It is NOT the quilt signed BT.

See the NMAH catalog information on the Betsey Totten quilt here:

And all 4 posts on the Tottens:


  1. Oh my word! I am inclined to agree with you. I have seen hundreds of references to Mollie, Molly or Polly as a nickname for Mary, but never Betsy or Betsey. My daughter is a third generation Mary (Mollie) Stewart so we hear the name a lot. I love how you just keep digging! Cuesta would be proud.

  2. There is a second quilt, gorgeous and very much like the one in the Smithsonian made by a Mary or Betsy Totten for a marriage, the couple's names are on the quilt along with a date in the 1830's. The quilt is owned by the Staten Island Historical Society or its property, Historic Richmondtown, which refers to Richmond County NY which comprises Staten Island. You might ask the SI Historical Society for what they know about that quilt and its maker. I would ask but I haven't always found them cooperative in the past.

    If gun to my head I had to pick the most gorgeous antique American quilt, it would be one of these two.

  3. This is one of the quilts I was able to see up close when I was lucky enough to do a behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian quilts about ten years ago. I was so amazed at the workmanship, especially the 1/16" stems. My 1/4" vines look like logs in comparison.

  4. That is the most outstanding appliqued quilt I've seen - added bonus the beautiful star. It must have taken years to complete.
    It would be wonderful to see that. Thank you, Barbara.

  5. You can ask to see it at the Smithsonian. Get a group and go. And tell me what those initials say.

  6. I wish - my flying over the Atlantic days are long gone (flying phobia!), so I appreciate the quilts that you show us. :D
    Maybe with a bit of luck it'll be on loan at the Victoria & Albert or the American Museum in Bath one day.