Friday, January 8, 2021

A 1682 Quilt in Alabama #5: The Persistence of Memory

The last 4 posts have examined the tale of America's oldest quilt, featured in the book Alabama Quilts where it is dated 1682. Facts do not substantiate that claim. 

Links to the previous four posts:

Why do such stories linger?

The quilt fragment is attributed to the hand of Sarah Kemble Knight (1626-1727) pictured here as the author of a journal from 1705. The absurdity of the whole tale of Madam Knight is illustrated in this portrait. The source is unknown but it was probably published in a late-19th century version of her journal, which is likely a fictional forgery. She looks quite a bit like a late-19th-century version of a woman.

Why forge diaries? 
1) It's entertaining for writer and reader---a narrative form that might start out labeled as historical fiction but seems so authentic that it's hard to differentiate. 

2) There is money to be made. You may recall Clifford Irving going to jail decades ago for the financial chicanery in forging a diary by eccentric celebrity Howard Hughes.

Reprint about 1850

3) Then there is slander, such as the anti-religious propaganda of the Maria Monk diaries, attributed to Theodore Dwight, thought to be the author of the forged diary of Sarah Kemble Knight. 

4) And, unfortunately, some people have psychotic episodes believing voices are dictating stories to them.

6) Often it is the message that matters. Some people desire an idea to be true so firmly that they see nothing wrong in a little lying. 

Messages: Family history as noble, regional history as honorable and righteous, a more aristocratic background than truth would tell? 
Colonial history of northern European immigrants as more authentic than history of the indigenous people or later, darker "foreigners"? 
Post Civil-War nostalgia for a lost Southern way of life?

I did some Photoshopping to show
what the other side (dark blue wool) might look like.

Did Alabama teacher Adeline Morse embellish a Massachusetts family quilt with a lengthier pedigree---just as she may have shortened her own when telling the 1870 census taker that she'd been born in 1820.

The complex tale of the 1682 quilt, America's "oldest quilt," its link to Sarah Kemble Knight and the Journal of Madam Knight probably weaves threads of various motivations. Slander would have little part in it and nobody seems to have heard voices so the strongest motivation for the persistence of the Sarah Kemble Knight myth might be the message this tale tells us.

Sarah Anne Hobson (1874-1953)
Anne and sister Margaret were keepers of
family heirlooms like the quilt fragment & family stories 

in the first half of the 20th century.

The message is complex but very durable, much like Anne Hobson's 1903 dialect fiction about African-Americans In Old Alabama, Being the Chronicles of Miss Mouse.

We could find a parallel in the image of the Southern plantation historic home.

Tara, the colonnaded mansion in the film Gone with the Wind. 
It's a movie set.

Karen L Cox in Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created notes that in the Gone With the Wind novel Margaret Mitchell described a more typical and more modest house but set decorators created a new fiction. Mitchell "feared that Hollywood might add columns 'on the smokehouse, too.' "

Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949)

 Mitchell: "Southerners could write the truth about the ante-bellum South [but] everyone would go on believing in the Hollywood version."

I'm afraid the "1682" quilt relates more to the Hollywood version than to the accurate textile history version.

And that's a wrap on quilts from 1682.

Although you could read Karen L. Cox's Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created



  1. I have really enjoyed this! Thank you!

  2. Thanks for these wonderful posts. I particularly like your reason #6. Our family has passed down so many little "stretched" stories it has been an effort to snap them back to the truth. I am thankful for some of the genealogy software. Somehow when they see it in print, it becomes easier to swallow.

  3. I really enjoyed this, and the research that went into it.

  4. Thank you. Great info. It amazes me the people who tell me about quilts made here from the 1600s by their relatives. And they slept under them as children. I guess its too much of a disappointment to know the more boring history. I, like those of us who study for historical truth, prefer it and find that more exciting than a tale.

  5. I totally enjoyed this series of posts! Thank you!

  6. Superb research and presentation. How do you find all those pictures?

  7. Re Pictures: I just love visual stuff and my idea of a break is rather randomly looking around the internet for relevant pictures. I've also gotten good at photoshopping. Isn't that a cute picture of Margaret Mitchell.


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