Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Cooper Union Sanitary Commission Quilt #2: The Cooper Institute

"School of Design
Engraving Class
Cooper Union"

When I read the inscription on this sampler quilt I knew what it meant. I'd done a little research on quilts made in the Cooper Union building in New York City during the Civil War. I realized this is likely a rare Civil War survivor---a quilt made there to donate to the Union Sanitary Commission.

Peter Cooper (1791-1883) with a granddaughter

The Cooper Union was (and is) an art school in New York City. Wealthy entrepreneur Peter Cooper founded The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1859. The beautiful building housed offices, classrooms and studios and a Great Hall seating almost a thousand people in one of the city's tallest structures at the time.

The Cooper Union building about 1890

Cooper's liberal ideas included a free education not only for talented men but for women. Once accepted students  paid no tuition. “To better the condition of woman and to widen the sphere of female employment I have provided seven rooms to be forever devoted to a Female School of Design.” The Engraving Class prepared art students for a career in commercial art. One acceptable female occupation was wood engraving, the process widely used to illustrate publications.

Wood engraving picturing students learning wood engraving at the 
Cooper Union, 1883 

They drew and cut images on the end of blocks of boxwood.
Small hands, acute near vision, a talent for drawing, and attention to detail
were qualifications that made it a good job for young women.

The Engraving Room was in a well-lit studio...

Probably on the fourth floor on the side behind those Gothic arched windows

The inscription is beautifully embroidered in blue thread.

During the Civil War the Cooper Union building housed the offices of the New York Branch of the Sanitary Commission, called the Women's Central Relief Association, organized by the elite of the city. A founding member was Sarah Bedell Cooper, Peter Cooper's wife.

Sarah Bedell Cooper (1793-1869)

The Association's offices were on the ground floor of the building. In this Civil-War-era 
photo men address crates of donated hospital supplies to be sent to 
Sanitary Commission agents in the field.

The quilt is 54" wide by 88".
Sanitary Commission guidelines asked for
long, narrow quilts to fit hospital beds.

Women's groups all over the North donated supplies to comfort wounded Union soldiers. The supplies included bed quilts.

The New York organization alone reported that in its first two and a half years
they received 20,444 quilts to distribute to hospitals.
The war dragged on for over another year.

Quilts were gathered and shipped by the Subcommittee on Receiving and Forwarding Supplies. My quilt descended in the family of Samuel W. Bridgham, who was chair of that committee.

Engraving by Guilielma's student Alice Donlevy

Quilts were not only stored in the building but were stitched in the building. Gulielma Field (1814-1875) who taught wood engraving also knew how to quilt. Alice Donlevy, one of her students, recalled:
"Under her guidance many patchwork quilts were made during the Civil War, in an upper room in the Cooper Institute, where the students of the Art School came to quilt for any half hour they could spare after lesson times....Every student that I remember had to learn to quilt."

Skylights on the top floor may have provided light for quilting.

Alice also recalled that Gulielma opened "the every day quilting bee with poetry" and she was a "diplomatic teacher."
"One of her warmest admirers was a young Southern girl. Gulielma would cut off her criticisms of President Lincoln with a question about books, and succeeded in keeping the atmosphere of that quilting bee restfully sympathetic."
The blocks are well-pieced. Gulielma must have been
an exacting teacher in quilting as well as engraving.
I'd guess you pronounce her name Julie-Elma.

The products of the Engraving Department's restful quilting bee went to the Sanitary Commission offices on the first floor. My new quilt must have been one of many stitched at the Cooper Union.

More about this quilt tomorrow.

See a post from 2016 on the Cooper-Union soldiers' aid society:

Read Donlevy's biography of her teacher Gulielma here:


  1. OH how wonderful. Wondering if the seller of the quilt knew about any of it???

  2. What an awesome history lesson this morning! That quilt is so special!!

  3. The seller knew a good deal of it and I am so grateful that she kept the notes on the family and shared them with me. Thank you, Stella.

  4. This is so interesting. A wood engraver and a quilter. Art can surely overlap. So glad you found this quilt and thanks for sharing your research.

  5. This is an wonderful post....what a great story to this quilt! Thank you Barbara for sharing.

  6. Wow over 20,000 and just a smidgeon survived. Your one is in such good condition too! A very interesting and forward thinking man - wonderful history. Thank you.

  7. And didn't Peter Cooper invent Jell-o?

  8. Thanks so much for sharing, loved reading about this!

  9. Wow, it must have been saved because of the beautiful work-womanship. That is a stunning example. Thank you for sharing.

  10. I do believe Peter Cooper invented jello, Marianne

  11. Thank goodness for those who save such historical items and pass them on or sell them into the collector's market. So glad this one wound up with you, Barb!

  12. What interesting history! And my father was an engineering graduate of Cooper Union and I never knew of the quilt connection. Thanks so much for the history.


  13. Peter Cooper was a great industrialist and inventor, but I do not think he would approve of how his school is managed.