Monday, November 22, 2021

Professional Album Quiltmakers in Philadelphia


The Brainerd Quilt
Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Approximately 120" x 108"
Detail of a quilt with about 100 cut-out-chintz applique blocks,
 many of them inked with names and dated 1846.
Attributed to women of Philadelphia's Third Presbyterian Church. 

For the past five years or so I have been enamored of the idea that quilts like this extraordinary feat of needlework were not the work of the women whose names appear on the blocks but of professional seamstresses who sold blocks or kits of cut-out chintz to the signers.

Wallace Nutting's staged photographs of "Colonial Quilters"
in the early 20th century helped shape our ideas of 
quiltmaking's origins.

This theory is a contradiction to our belief that quilting is a folk art with commercial needlework such as kits or patterns somehow less authentic than true folk art.

Authentic folk art: rural women, preferably
older women, making quilts for the love of it.

Magazine illustration by Jean Oldham
Profit? Puh-leaze! Don't mention it.

New Jersey album, International Quilt Museum collection

Somewhat astonished by my picture file of 30 quilts with this dahlia chintz I figured I had to find a new origin story for these album quilts, primarily made in the Delaware River Valley from Philadelphia to New Jersey. Why were so many of the blocks in so many different quilts almost identical?

Chintz carefully trimmed, assembled and stitched to
a matching background.

As I said in our recent Six Know-It-Alls episode #7: After working on many group quilts I also wonder how you get 100 amateur seamstresses up to the standards you see in these early-to-mid-1840s album quilts. The style was new; the process is not easy. (I have started several cut-out-chintz quilts---hard to compose and stitch for a novice.)

Doesn't it make more sense to credit the quilts as products of professional needlewomen who sold finished or basted blocks to members of a group interested in giving such a gift? Might those commercial seamstresses have promoted the idea of a group quilt as a fashionable gift?

Researchers studying album quilts in Baltimore
stitched of conventional applique have ample evidence
of professional needlewomen selling finished
 and basted blocks

I have nagged about my hypothesis for several years. Two years ago I did a year-long blog on my theory: Women's Work: Making a Living Making Quilts.
Here's a post on the topic:

 But it's just a theory. I've never found a newspaper advertisement offering these chintz squares for sale or a diary entry mentioning a purchase. However, I was recently reading last winter's copy of Blanket Statements, the quarterly newsletter for members of American Quilt Study Group and came across good evidence of a similar business plan in Philadelphia.

William and Charlene Stephens visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art to look once again at a quilt made of the dahlia chintz dated 1841 (quite early in the inked album fad) that was "made for Miss Jane Gordon."

Identical red calico album blocks surround an inked cut-out chintz
center with a dedication interpreted as indicating
 it was presented to Miss Jane Gordon. 

Charlene's photo of the professionally inked presentation block

The caption for the quilt has long been interpreted to say:
“Made and presented to Miss Jane Gordon & Co."
 Jane and Co. was thought to mean Jane and her betrothed. 
Other presenters with names in the ribbon:
Mary Anne Skerrett, EB Phillips, Juli[a]n Phillips, E. Phillips.” 

Charlene and William had been researching the dry goods business in Philadelphia. They realized that "Jane Gordon & Co." was indeed part of a commercial company---not the bride & groom. The quilt was a gift to George Shortread Lang and his 1841 bride Annie Traquair. The Stephens found that Lang owned Lang's Dry Goods and Jane Gordon, Mary Anne Skerrett, EB Phillips, Juli[a]n Phillips, E. Phillips were  employees, who presented the quilt to him.

I had done some work on Lang's Dry Goods myself. George Lang and his sister Jane Lang are often in the business directories. Jane Lang's dry goods business is listed from 1839 until after the Civil War with stores located at various spots on North 8th Street and 733 Filbert Street. Jane Lang remained single and made a good deal of money in the dry goods business. See a post on her:

So Jane Gordon, Mary Anne Skerrett and the Phillipses worked for Jane Lang and brother George.

The caption has been updated.

The central block is the only place with inking. All the red and white blocks in the pattern often used for album quilts are blank. Did the dry goods department seamstresses make this quilt and finish it with the expectation that George and Annie Lang would ask friends to sign the blocks---something that never happened? Do recall that the wedding and the quilt are from 1841, early in the album quilt craze. Maybe Annie had no idea how or why to add names to her quilt.

Collection of the National Museum of American History
Dahlia block from another Philadelphia album dated 1843

Well, I am still speculating but the correct attribution for this quilt does add some evidence to my theory that professional seamstresses and the commercial dry goods business contributed to the album style.

More on Jane Lang's store:
In 1891 the Philadelphia Times printed two articles recalling Jane and her employees. One sales clerk was Irish woman Diana Blake who was quite pretty and eventually married European royalty. Diana worked at Jane Lang's, selling gloves to gentlemen.

We learn Miss Lang (Rachel is not her first name) was a 
"kindly old Scotch lady" who preferred to hire women clerks rather than men.
(Saleswomen were often a shock to country women visiting Philadelphia.)

A follow-up letter to the Times recalled Jane Lang's store was once
"as noted as Wanamaker's now." Jane was "tall and very thin and
wore a cap." 

Wanamaker's Department Store about 1900


You probably would like to read the Stephens's article in Blanket Statements but you have to be a member. (One very good reason to join.)

The dahlia bouquet fabric:

1 comment:

  1. Barbara - I am fascinated by your theory! It makes so much sense especially when your perspective on the Jane Gordon quilt is taken into account. Equally taken by the information about Jane Lang, her shop and it;s employees and looking forward to hearing more about all of this.