Looking at cotton quilts from 1881 tells a little about fabric style and innovations in dyes, colors and color combinations. Sarah Henshaw Putnam may have been 81 and remembered "the days of old" when she stitched this quilt for her nieces but she knew what a younger generation might like. None of that old-fashioned madder brown. She chose new-style bronzey greenish-browns, a fresh look in prints.
The ad tells us a lot about the types of fabric one could buy in 1881 and also how available the New England prints were to anyone who could receive the U.S. mail (and had to cash to send.)
- Bleached and unbleached cotton (we assume plain white utilitarian yardage produced locally.)
- Beautiful spring Prints..... (from New England?)
- Cassimeres, Kentucky Jeans &c, (probably wool/cotton fabrics that also came from local North Carolina mills.)
"We will take in exchange for goods the following substantials: Gold, Silver, Greenback, Old castings, rags, beeswax, peas, corn, cotton, fodder, oats, wheat, meal, flour, dried fruit. In fact anything that can be turned in to money. We take this method of returning thanks to the public generally for their past favors and hope to merit a continuance of the same."
Undoubtedly quiltmakers in Massachusetts and Rhode Island also bartered with local merchants, trading farm goods for factory goods but the "fabric department" in those New England stores would also have been local, cottons from the nearby mills that specialized in complex prints.
The difference between what was available in a New England store and its counterpart in the upland South may explain growing differences in regional quilt style after 1880. One could in theory buy up-to-date sophisticated, colorfast prints anywhere in the U.S. but differences in what local mills manufactured and what local store owners stocked was regional. Customers locked into an agricultural economy had to shop local even if the Southern mills were producing inferior, cheap yardage, which might have been suitable for baby clothes and aprons but far too fugitive for heirloom quilts.
So what have we learned about quilt style from a close look at quilts inscribed with the date?
It may just be coincidence that none of the 1881 quilts feature them but people no longer seem interested in the madder red-brown prints on the left (quilt dated 1872.) The different shade of brown with pinks as accents instead of oranges was what was fashionable (or available.) No other fabric style differences pop out in looking at the 34 quilts dated 1881 and that may be why there are so few quilt---fabric just wasn't that interesting or innovative (yet.)
But here are a couple of quirky quilts dated 1881 that add little to the discussion