Friday, April 13, 2018

Tottenville Sisters # 3: The Sunflower/Sunburst Quilt

WPA Watercolor of a "Sunburst Quilt," painted in the 1930s
by Charlotte Winter for the WPA's Index of American Design.

I was excited to find this color photo of the painting at the National Gallery of Art. Cuesta Benberry had been looking for a color picture of the quilt for years with no luck. It's the fourth Totten family quilt that Florence Peto showed.

UPDATE: Barbara Schaffer reminds me of the New Jersey projects book A Passion for Quilts: The Story of Florence Peto in which there is a photo of the Sunflower quilt on page 127.

The watercolor was pictured in Peto's 1939 book
Historic Quilts in a black and white detail.

Peto says "probably made by Mary Totten" and she guessed it was "older than the Rising Suns."
There are at least three Rising Suns or Star quilts attributed to the Totten family.

Again two different WPA artists painted two pictures: a detail and an overall view of the quilt.
This painting is by George Loughridge.

Cuesta had found a black and white photo in the collection of 
Collection of the New York State Historical Association
 (now in the Cooperstown Farmers' Museum.)
In the records it was noted that Ella Totten Butler attributed it to Mary Totten Williams 

Peto holding a copy of her 1939 book Historic Quilts,
which contains watercolors of the Totten quilts.

Florence Peto worked with Ella Butler in the 1930s and Peto may have linked the WPA artists with Butler's collection of family quilts. The New York Historical Association records indicate Peto obtained the quilt from Ella Butler before it went to the Association. She also may have brokered some of the other quilts as museum gifts or purchases. Barbara S. says she sold the Sunflower quilt to the New York museum in 1944.

 In the 1980s my friends Cuesta Benberry and Joyce Gross did much research on Peto and her collection. We discussed it all at length.

NY Historical Association records

Somehow the Sunburst or Sunflower became known as "Mary Totten's first quilt."
Do we have any evidence of this?

Detail of Charlotte Winter's painting gives us an idea
of the fabrics. Looks like the blue crosses are cut from a blue-ground chintz.
The fabric appears to be no later than 1840. The patchwork design no earlier than 1810 or so.
A date then of about 1810-1840.

A similar quilt from New York below pieced of buffs and blues from about 1850.
Sarah Jane Stoller, Johnstown, New York
Collection of the New England Quilt Museum
Estimated date 1840-1860

I've done a couple of posts about these sunflower quilts

I don't see that the Totten sunflower is any earlier than the Star quilts.
They seem to share fabrics and borders.

Three borders, same green chintz lozenges

Tomorrow we'll look at the dates on the Tottenville quilts.
Indiana Starburst by Judy Morton, Lydia Stoll and Miriam Graber 2008
Center inspired by the Smithsonian's quilt.


  1. Have enjoyed reading about your Totten quilt research. A beautiful color photo of Mary Totten's Sunflower or Sunburst Quilt was published in HQPNJ's book A Passion for Quilts: The Story of Florence Peto. Florence sold the quilt to The Farmers' Museum in 1944.

  2. Good to know. Thanks for reminding me I have that book and I should have looked in there first!

  3. Re the Totten family's prominance, a special type of bank account originating in New York is called a Totten Trust. The creator sets up the account and names a beneficiary to whom the account is payable upon the death of the creator when by law the assets in the account will not pass through the creator's estate but will go directly to the beneficiary. During life, the creator can add and withdraw funds in the account or even close it, the beneficiary has no interest in it (unlike a joint account) before the creator's death.

    The concept must have been devised by or for this Totten family. I wonder if one of them was a banker.

    You can Google Totten Trust for further explanation.