Friday, July 2, 2021

Kentucky Cherry Tree Quilts #1


Collection: Huntington (West Virginia) Museum
84" x 103"
An impressive quilt recorded in the West Virginia
project, photo from the Quilt Index.

Twelve appliqued and embroidered cherry trees set on point
with stuffed work quilting in the alternate plain squares.

Quilting patterns: another tree and some fern-like fronds

AND there is an inscription inked on the reverse:
"S. Z. Wilhoit March, 1852 by her mother"

AND when Juanita Reed documented it for the project she recorded this family story:
"The quilt belonged to our grandmother, Sarah Zerelda Wilhoit Long, from Versailles, Ky....We think these quilts were made as birth gifts for several members of our grandmother's family....The quilt was made by a woman in Woodford County, Kentucky (Versailles). It cost Mahalia Dale Wilhoit $80.00 and was a gift to her daughter, Sarah Z. Wilhoit, at birth, March 1852. It is called 'George Washington's Cherry Tree.'
Sarah's family gave the quilt to the museum in 1958 and then gave more of the story to the project in 1997.

It's not a West Virginia quilt. Sarah Zerelda Wilhoit was born, as her family knew, in Kentucky in 1852.

In 1860 the census taker found the Wilhoits on their farm in Woodford County, Kentucky. Robert and Mahala were rather prosperous farmers with daughters Mary, Sallie and Elizabeth and sons Hiram, Elijah and Robert. Did each of the six get a quilt at birth? The quilt's remembered price $80 would be worth about $2,500 today.

Ten years later the 1870 census tells us Robert was worth about half of what he'd had before the Civil War. Mary the eldest was listed as Mollie, Elizabeth was Lizzie and the older boys were on their own except for Robert who worked on the farm. Three children were born in the 1860s: Emma, Jackson and Clarence. Nine children in all.

A cherry tree pattern. In the original many of the stems
are embroidered with wool yarns. The trunk was stuffed.

"We think these quilts were made as birth gifts..." 

When I reread that I realized the family may have donated more than one but I don't find  record of any others.

One does not often come across a family story about a quilt purchased as a luxury item. The standard view without the memory would be that Mahala Wilhoit made this herself. Purchasing a quilt is not part of our attitudes about women's work.

Typical illustration of a hobbyist, a folk artist
by Jean Oldham who worked in the 1920s.
It's a pretty painting but not the least bit historically accurate.

This quilt and its story needs some follow-up. Tomorrow a twin.

See a large photo of Sarah's quilt here: https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/george-washington-s-cherry-tree-quilt-unknown-maker/bAEZ6hEgWOnhSA