Monday, October 4, 2021

1893 Columbian Exposition: Quilts #2: A 16th-Century Quilt


Crazy Quilt in the Illinois State Museum collection.

For Episode #6 of our Six Know-It-Alls: Six Quilts last August Merikay Waldvogel showed us a pretty fabulous crazy quilt with connections to the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, the World's Columbian Exposition, celebrating Columbus during a time when empires were to be celebrated.

The Episode: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/bedrugstocrazyquilts

This prompted me to look at my files of quilts shown at that fair--- a confusing bunch of information, much of which is questionable as you will see over the next few days. One story tells of a quilt displayed there allegedly made by Mary Queen of Scots who died in 1587--- a 16th-century quilt in the possession of John Bidlake who lived in Osnabrock, North Dakota. It was shown in the North Dakota building.


 I've found no pictures but above is a description from a souvenir publication describing an embroidered piece (a quilt in British terminology might not be quite what Americans would describe) done in silk thread on red, black and green silk, apparently embroidered portrait faces.

Panel from the Oxburgh Hangings,
Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury
 Museum no. T.33AA-1955.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Marie Webster's 1915 book Quilts is one source for information about the Queen's needlework

"Mary, Queen of Scots, was devoted to the needle and was expert in its use. It is said that while in France she learned lace making and embroidery. Many wall hangings, bed draperies, bedcovers, and house linens are the work of her skillful fingers, or were made under her personal direction. A number of examples of her work are now owned by the Duke of Devonshire....As a solace during long days of loneliness, Queen Mary found consolation in her needle, as [Pg 41]have many women of lower degree before and since her unhappy time....The Earl of Shrewsbury was her custodian, and his wife, the countess, often sat and sewed with the unfortunate queen, both making pastime of their needlework."
The description of the needlework above sounds reasonable for Mary's time and Bidlake was born in England. We do know the Queen embroidered in her imprisonment. The Victoria & Albert Museum owns several of her embroideries, which appear to be slips, small pieces then attached to larger textiles.


Slip attributed to Mary, "A CAT"
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another description of the Queen's quilt from the Irish Standard Times of Minneapolis describes a faded yellow floral quilt (no portraits mentioned) with blooming roses.

In this summer, 1893 article the quilt's owner was given as Senator Bidlake's mother, an English immigrant. (Bidlake was for two years a South Dakota state senator.) The quilt was said to have been handed down to the eldest daughter of each generation. The 1900 census from Minneapolis tells us the next owner would be Helen Harriett Bidlake, born in 1886 and about 7 during the fair. 

We learn the piece was displayed in a case in the North Dakota state building
with contemporary needlework from North Dakota citizens.

From Shepp's World's Fair Photographed

Here's something we'd like to know more about: "In one of the glass cases is a beautiful silk...[quilt] the work of the Indian children" at the Standing Rock Reservation.

What ever happened to the Bidlake's family textile with its royal attribution? And how reliable an authority was John Bidlake? I couldn't find out much about him but what I did does not inspire faith in the family tale.

First of all Bidlake had a huge financial interest in that fair,
managing the concessions in the mile-long Midway, a carnival strip.

Bidlake's Midway with Ferris's innovative wheel ride.
Using a family textile as a draw to fair exhibits would
have paid off for Bidlake.

Second, he doesn't seem to have been a model of integrity.

The Bidlake family of Hereford, England--- Harriet Sarah Rhind (1829-1906), husband Henry Bidlake, three sons including John (1858-1917), W. Henry (1865-1923) and a daughter Mary Cecelia--- moved to Canada where the father and one son died. They then moved to North Dakota in 1881 and the boys  married sisters (?) Helen and Margaret Fleming while Mary Cecelia married William Fleming. They were all in the hardware business in Osnabrock in the '80s. John was elected state senator from South Dakota (real residency apparently not required.) He lost re-election in 1889 and then we find him in big business at the Columbian Exposition.

After the fair (we assume he made a good amount of money on the Midway) Grover Cleveland's administration appointed him counsel to Barranquilla, Colombia, a port on the Caribbean where John & Helen relocated. Helen became ill and they returned to Osnabrock. While John was on a ship back to Barranquila Helen died at 40 in 1901.

In South America he fell for 16-year-old Maria Gutierrez. They married and lived in New York City where he was active in "financial circles" until the Panic of 1907 when after losing all his money (and probably other's too) he again left for South America.


In 1914 Maria Bidlake filed for divorce alleging he'd deserted her and daughter Lolita and was living with a woman named Mercedes in South America. After leaving the Consul position in Colombia he obtained the exclusive rights to asphalt mining there and remained until his death in 1917. Lolita and presumably her mother moved to Los Angeles.

Osnabrock about the time the Colonel left for good.

If John held on to the "Mary Queen of Scots quilt" it's unlikely to have survived those domestic debacles with its story intact. But it may have continued in his mother's possession. Harriett Rhind Bidlake moved to Seattle with son Henry and his family where she died in 1906. 

Marriage Record
Family Search

Then again John's daughter Helen Harriett Bidlake may have kept the quilt. She married Roberto  Murphy y Morgan in Mexico City in 1908. They also wound up in Seattle. The 1940 census found a divorced Helen Murphy and her daughter another Helen, born in 1915, in Seattle.

Another possible line of descent is John's sister Mary Cecelia Bidlake Fleming. She was indeed the eldest daughter of Harriett Rhind Bidlake, but aside from her marriage to William Fleming in Osnabrock I don't see much mention of her. 

And speaking of mention---not one word about that quilt or its connection to Mary Queen of Scots after the 1893 Fair. Was it all fair publicity? And yet.... it's a textile one might keep an eye out for in Osnabrock, North Dakota and Seattle, Washington.

Some helpful Findagrave pages:
Tomorrow: A "Columbian Celebration Quilt"

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