Sunday, December 29, 2019

Nancy Rutherford Fisher's Marvelous Quilt

Remarkable quilt on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum
of American History for a few more weeks.

"Oct 1st 1891
Presented to
Mrs. S.J. Vernon
Her Mother
Aged 76 years"

The exhibit is in a case on the main floor next to the Batmobile.

The family who recently donated the quilt believe the maker, mother of Sarah Jane Fisher Vernon,  was Nancy Rutherford Fisher, born in Bath County, Kentucky in 1815; died in Clover Bottom, Franklin County, Missouri 1901, ten years after the date on the quilt. The Rutherfords were one of many Kentucky immigrants to Missouri, immigrating as a family in the 1820s when Nancy was a girl; they lived in St. Louis and in Franklin County, west of St. Louis and close to the Missouri River, the great Western highway.

Here's Nancy's grave:

"S.J. Vernon 
Born Feb 16, 1844
Sept 2 1906"

Nancy married Bavel Fisher (1808-1882) in 1833 and had 8 children. (Did anyone else get a quilt?) Daughter Sarah Jane moved to Hunt County, Texas after marrying James Mulkey Vernon in 1873, where she died five years after her mother gave her the quilt.

It's just about impossible to get an all-over photo of it but I
took some details when I was in Washington in October.

Difficult to photograph as a whole, but you get the idea.
It's one big swirl of hundreds of long irregular pieces with curved edges.

Louise Tiemann writes that it is 73-inch by 79-inches, "a single block – radiating from the center, with additional scraps pieced around it, giving it a swirl design." Louise did some of the genealogy on the Fishers.
See her post here:

I pirated a few from the internet too.

The pattern was quite the thing about 1900. 

From the Quilt Index

Martha Spark pointed out a more conventional version done block-by-block in the collection of the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum.
Similar fabrics, same time.

Online auction
A block-by-block pattern relatively common; the medallion idea---this
may be the only example.

Nancy "cut hundreds of curving wedge-shaped pieces from dozens
 of different printed cotton fabrics...."

Thinking about cutting scraps reminded me of something I read in a Comfort magazine from the 1920s. A contributor with a pattern for a scrappy quilt explained:
"Patchwork is not the cutting up of whole cloth into bits for the sake of sewing it together again, as has been said by someone, but rather the utilizing of goods which is already cut up. A really attractive quilt results from the ingenious ways in which these scraps are used."
The central swirl

In another issue of Comfort from about the same time Mary Gilbert of Iowa explained:
"There is always an accumulation of new bits of percales, ginghams and other sorts of wash goods where the clothing for the family is still made at home, and the quantity of those scraps is, of course, usually regulated by the size of the family and the care which is taken of them."

Now, one cannot imagine that a family would have
this many strange-shaped scraps left over from 
garment making (no matter what the size of the family)

Louise thought about the source for the fabrics and did a little follow-up.
"The quilt had its start in Missouri, then traveled down to Texas to the home of Sarah Jane (Fisher) Vernon in 1891. It is quite possible that the fabrics used to make the quilt were obtained from the dry goods store Nancy’s nephew worked at in St. Louis, Missouri. He was a merchant for the wholesale house Morisse Lace and Embroidery Company. From Texas, the quilt made its way to California, and now finally to its permanent home in Washington, DC."

1924 ad for Morrise Lace & Embroidery Company --- since 1886.

Family in the fabric business is often behind a masterpiece quilt. But I would think it more likely that Nancy Fisher's fabric source was factory cutaways, scraps from a clothing factory. St. Louis was not home to any cotton-producing mills but there were undoubtedly ready-to-wear clothing factories there in the 1890s.

Toronto Daily Mail, 1900

Factory cutaways were also commonly retailed by stores, through the mail and by clothing factories. One would guess that Northern sources would sell the prints, percales and cretonnes produced
in nearby textile mills.

From Stella Rubin's inventory.
A New England style scrap quilt featuring pictorial cretonnes.

Southern stores, like this one advertising in South Carolina, would likely
be selling the solid color cottons and yarn-dyed woven patterns we
see so much in Southern quilts.

Mary Stogner Smith, Georgia
Collection of the Henry Ford Museum

1915 Manning, Clarendon County, South Carolina

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Everyday Luxury at the Smithsonian

Crazy Quilt, Aimee Elkington Shepherd Hodge (1865-1946)

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is displaying silk quilts through January, 2020 in an exhibit “Everyday Luxury: Silk Quilts from the National Collection.”

Aimee is said to have worked on this quilt most of her long life,
beginning with an embroidered ribbon when she was 12 and 
setting the blocks together in 1946.

Aimee's monogram

All quilts and related artifacts date roughly from 1880-1910

Crazy patchwork throw, Bates family, New Haven, Connecticut

Curator Madeline Shaw includes information about the American silk industry and how it affected these luxurious items.
"From the 1870s through the 1920s, the silk industry flourished in America. Paterson, New Jersey, then known as America’s 'Silk City,' produced miles of silk fabric while Connecticut housed many silk-thread factories. Manufacturers marketed silk by giving away pattern booklets and thread holders. As industry competition increased, prices decreased, so much so that by the 1880s, even the girls and young women who worked in the factories could afford a silk dress for 'Sunday best.' ”

Patchwork Table Cover, Laura A. Baldwin Clark (1834 - 1892)

 Pineapple design

Piano cover with initials E.S. by Eva Gibbs Shaw (1859-?)
Washington D.C.

Biscuit Parlor Throw, Mary Way Dickson Watson (1839-1916)
 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1890-1900

Parlor Throw, Martha Jane Nicar Taylor (1827 - 1882)
Read more:

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Comfort Magazine #2: Patterns

Quilt by unknown maker, Thomas County Kansas Historical Society

Until very recently I'd have guessed the date on this quilt to be about 1880-1900. The Turkey red, the beautiful feather quilting---so 19th century. "Late in the 19th century" is indicated by the fading tan
leaves and stems, must once have been green but you often see greens fade to this dun-colored tan after 1880.
Where did she get the pattern?

Conventional Lily

Could it be from Comfort magazine which printed a photo of an almost identical
design in 1928?

Seems awfully late. But once I started looking at the applique designs published in Comfort in the 1920s I began to see a pattern so to speak. (See yesterday's post on Comfort here:

The quilt was bought at a sale in Yadkin County,
North Carolina, dated by the able North Carolina team as around 1870. 

In 1923 the photo of the pattern was mailed to the magazine by Marie H. Carey who called it
Bleeding Heart and said she copied it from "an old Indiana quilt. Coloring: yellow, followed by red, then double green leaves, followed by yellow, topped with red heart-like pieces." The North Carolina quilt attributed to the family of Lola Taylor follows the color suggestions with the exception of the fugitive blue for green.

Now, this may be a question of chicken and egg superseding one another. Did Marie H. Carey photograph the Taylor family quilt? Or did the Taylor family make the quilt after finding the pattern in Comfort in 1923?

Comfort, June, 1928

Surprisingly Comfort, aimed at rural women, 
had the largest circulation of any U.S.
 magazine in the early 20th century.

I am afraid that I am now leaning towards the idea that the quilts were made after the patterns were published in the 1920s. You might notice my discomfort with these Comfort patterns. If....then... We've been dating these very traditional quilts very wrong.

Here's Lemon Lily or Cockscomb from my Encyclopedia of Applique among two other distinctive Comfort designs. 

My drawing is not great

and neither is Mildred Dickerson's from her Comfort scrapbook at the Quilt Research Center at the University of Nebraska Libraries. No date on either sketch. Thanks to Merikay Waldvogel for allowing me to photograph Mildred's Comfort files.

Here is what it is supposed to look like, I guess. Lemon Lily.

From an ebay auction. Apparently she had two dye lots of 
red ---one fast and one fugitive. I would not have dated this into the 1920s...
until now.

"Coxcomb variation quilt by Ellen Aycock Jones, ca. 1870s."

McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina

May be time for some revisionist history.
Just how old are these solid color quilts?

Update: Debby K sent this block she worked up into a small piece.
Flowering Almond from Mrs. M  M Mitchell in Tennessee in the 1920s.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Comfort Magazine Patterns

Augusta, Maine in the early twentieth century was a publishing phenomenon.

Augusta in 1907

Maine's capital city had, according to magazine historian Frank Luther Mott, "the doubtful glory of being the home of the mail-order papers." The glory was doubtful because the periodicals were an advertising medium thinly disguised as literary magazines. Chief among them was Comfort, 
America's most popular magazine between 1892 and 1905.

Comfort, 1896

William Howard Gannett, who owned a fancy goods store in Augusta according to the 1880 census, had a flair for advertising. In the early 1880s, he began special Christmas promotions for toys and seasonal gifts, featuring a man dressed as Santa Claus and a small printed newspaper, The Visit of St. Nicholas. Realizing that shopping through the mail had potential, he began marketing a patent medicine/beverage called Oxien, a copy of the popular energy drink Moxie, through advertisements in national periodicals.

1892 ad for Oxien, sold through the mail in pill form to be dissolved in water.
What do you suppose was in Oxien to make you feel peppier?

Taking his cue from local publishers Peleg Vickery and John Hill, who had been publishing Vickery's Fireside Visitor for a decade, Gannett realized that printing his own periodical would give him advertising space cheap.

Vickery & Hill, Augusta

The Vickery & Hill building remains.
Comfort's offices at 20-26 Willow Street were demolished in the 1980s.

The U. S. government subsidized mail-order shopping in a nation of rural residents by offering reduced postal rates on parcels, free delivery to rural mailboxes, and inexpensive postage on the magazines supported by the ads. The publishers in Augusta took advantage of the last loophole in the postal laws by creating monthly advertisements that met federal guidelines for inexpensive magazine postage.

How was one to differentiate a legitimate magazine from newsprint containing advice, letters to the editor and fiction framing the ads? One criterion was the subscription fee. A magazine like Harper's or the Atlantic Monthly charged an annual cost. Comfort and other Augusta periodicals, such as Happy Hours and Golden Moments, charged a nominal fee that was rarely collected. The magazines were essentially free because income, a good deal of income, returned to the publishers in orders for health tonics and novelties.


Gannett, E.C. Allen, and Vickery & Hill who all made fortunes in Augusta with this format, were most interested in increasing their mailing lists. Gannett realized he could reward readers who sent him their friends' addresses with premiums. Always savvy as to trends, he saw the nationwide craze for silk patchwork and began buying small remnants from a necktie factory. His wife Sadie N. Hill Gannett and son Guy packaged the remnants for a premium called "Sadie's Silken Shower of Satin Samples." Women were glad to trade subscription lists for free fabric, and many also mailed orders for Oxien, which promised to "Cure Drunkards and make weak women walk."

Readers were glad to enter "contests" and send in content that editors could
work up into pages around the ads.

The Maine magazines rarely paid for articles. Most content was written by readers who entered fiction contests, wrote letters to "clubs" asking and giving advice, and were pleased to see their poetry in print. The "legitimate" press looked down at the twenty or so mail-order magazines that made Augusta one of the country's largest post offices.

Magazine historians who dismissed the "Maine Magazines" could not see the impact they had in the lives of the women who read them and contributed to them.

Comfort may not have been the Atlantic Monthly but it served a devoted audience.
Gannett claimed over a million and a quarter readers in 1906, the first magazine
to boast over a million readers.

Congress attributed Post Office debt to the volume of the subsidized newsprint being mailed out of Augusta and passed a 1907 law decreeing that a legitimate magazine must have a pre-paid, audited subscription list.

William Howard Gannett 1854 - 1848

Unable to afford mailing at first-class rates, most of the Maine magazines went out of business that year. Gannett decided Comfort had a following loyal enough to actually pay to receive it, and the format changed to look more like a legitimate magazine.


Comfort continued through 1940 when Vickery & Hill's Needlecraft Magazine absorbed it. The Gannett family branched out into newspapers where they became quite successful in Maine, but they are not the same family as the other Gannett publishing empire, founded by a New Yorker.

Chestnut Burr design of red and green sent by Mrs. M.P. Williams, Texas.

From its beginnings at the kitchen table, quilts were a feature. Premiums included quilt patterns and kits as well as fabric.

The readers' exchange columns featured drawings and photographs of completed blocks. Editors, primarily with the byline Mrs. Wheeler Wilkinson and a few others like Mollie Millard, organized the columns giving a few pattern names and minimal color suggestions.

Washington Lily
published in April, 1923,
one of the winners in a reader contest.
A Washington Lily---pink and yellow

Quilt from Kathy Sullivan's collection. I'd have dated
this as 1880-1920 until I realized Comfort's influence.
It's likely after 1923.

Collection of the American/International Quilt Association
"Dark blue for the vases"

Online auction
Perhaps influenced by the Washington Lily

The Comfort quilt patterns featured many appliqué designs, so they are a good source up into the 1920s of vernacular patterns that many other periodicals ignored.

1922 ad

Patterns were reprinted in a 1921-1922 booklet Comfort's Applique and Patchwork by Mrs. Wilkinson.

Were people like "Janie Becker" free lance writers,
reader contributors or Comfort employees?

We'd like to know more about Mrs. Wheeler Wilkinson but she remains elusive---a fictional editor or a pen name?
More tomorrow.