Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Silk Eagle Quilt #1: To London?


In 1927 an artist depicted a Kentucky quilt sent to London's 1851
 Crystal Palace Exposition. The artist did not know much about quilts---
patchwork of simple rectangles did not get invited to international fairs.

Five quilts appear to have been sent to represent the United States in London's Exposition, four from Kentucky. One honoree was Ellen Clay Anderson (1828-1902) who'd been winning local prizes with a silk Henry Clay quilt honoring her great-uncle the Kentucky politician. 

Hers is typical of Kentucky's high-style quilts at the time. Kentuckians made elegant silk mosaic designs with a good deal of embroidery. Prizes for silk quilts at the county and state fairs were extravagant and standards were high. Calico quilts seem to have been too common to merit much comment in Kentucky fair accounts.

The center hexagons are cut from campaign ribbons.
Unfortunately Ellen's quilt has disintegrated over the
years but fragments are in the collection of the
Henry Clay home, Ashland.

See more about the Clay quilt here: 

Collection of Historic New England

New Yorker Theresa Baldwin Hollander also displayed a small abolitionist quilt she'd commissioned but hers was a commercial display promoting her clothing business (and her antislavery sympathies.)

The Great Exhibition of 1851 on cloth

The other three quilts were made by one Kentuckian. Ann Mary Crittenden Coleman had been cleaning up in premiums at Bourbon County fairs for several years.

"Mrs. Coleman has been very successful....Now she
has got the first again. It's about time for her to stop and give
others a chance."

It did not hurt, I would imagine, that Ann Mary's father John J. Crittenden was Governor of Kentucky at the time. But her quilts must have been impressive. Unlike the two quilts above we have no surviving examples credited to her.

One was a silk quilt with an eagle framed in borders in which
there were "the insignia of the Republic," patriotic symbols.
Other borders featured fruits, animals and beautiful flowers.

See a post about Ann Mary's Civil War here:

We know a lot about her due to her social position.

But perhaps one quilt does survive....

An eagle in the center

Could this be her lauded masterpiece?

More eagles in an outer border

Fruits in the corners

Charlene Bongiorno Stephens took this photo.

Floral corner with a red fringe. Notice the red tassels rather out of place. They
may once have hung off the corners but were detached
and resituated, perhaps to protect them.

This certainly may be Ann Mary Coleman's quilt as it fits the description
closely. The tassels in the corners are quite typical of fancy Kentucky quilt
as are the borders of mosaic silk patchwork.

A few other Kentucky silk quilts with similar design characteristics.

Kentucky Historical Society
Attributed to Mary Elgin Stewart

Winterthur Museum
Attributed to Elizabeth Walker Stone

Kentucky Project & the Quilt Index
Attributed to Mrs Pierce of Maysville

University of Louisville
Attributed to Emma & Mary Warren of Louisville

Kentucky Historical Society
Attributed to Eliza Hoskins Farris of Garrard County

Kentuckians enthusiastically adapted the crazy quilt fashion in the 1880s, continuing to finish edges with tassels and cording and doing a world-class job in embroidery.

More about the eagle quilt this week.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Freedom Quilts & The Civil Rights Era


Freedom Quilt by Jessie Bell Williams Telfair (1913-1986)

 Georgian Jessie Telfair made at least four versions of this dramatic narrative quilt before her death in 1986. One recently sold at a Brunk Auction for $80,000.

The other three (all quite similar) are in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, Atlanta's High Museum of Art and New York's American Folk Art Museum.

The fan of quilt patterns recognizes her source, a popular pieced alphabet published by St. Louis's Ladies Art Company pattern business in the early 20th century.

Page with the letters from their 1928 catalog
One could order color picture cards, a pattern---
or as many did, just use the diagrams to draw your own.

Notice Jessie used the pictured setting of strips with squares in the corners. Dates attributed for the four quilts range from circa 1975 (NMAAH) to 1983 (American Folk Art Museum.) Jessie, known as Sis, was a native of Terrell County, Georgia, spending her life in the area of Parrott.

Parrott in southwest Georgia

In the early 1960s Jessie had turned 50, was married to S. David Telfair with two
grown daughters. She was a cook at the local "colored school," the Helen Gurr Elementary School.

1940 Census when Betty Lou & Sherry Jean were children.

Parrott in the 1970s

As you may recall--- if you lived through the 1960s---times changed. Decades of white supremacy rule in the former Confederate states was challenged by "outside agitators," young people who aimed to change the Southern power structure that oppressed the Black population.

At right a representative of the Southwest Georgia Project for
Community Education talks to a family about registering to vote.
The lady of the house is working on a quilt.

"Your old road is rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin' "
Bob Dylan, 1964

Jessie and David Telfair were inspired to register. The white leaders of Terrell County had them fired from their jobs. This political tactic was not unique to Terrell County. Accounts of Alabama's Gees Bend community tell the same tale. 

Library of Congress
The school in Gees Bend, Alabama, late 1930s.

Quiltmaker Annie Mae Young recalled Martin Luther King's visit to Wilcox County, Alabama in 1965 and how she was inspired to exercise her rights. Gees Bend residents were dependent on a ferry to access jobs and local government. Sherriff Lummie Jenkins ordered the ferry closed. 

Percy Columbus "Lummie" Jenkins (1901-1978)
 "We didn't close the ferry because they were black. We closed it because they forgot they were black."

One response to job losses was opening crafts co-operatives such
as the Gees Bend quiltmaking enterprise, still in business today.

The Freedom Quilting Bee was another Alabama crafts cooperative
that produced quilts.

Representative of Mississippi's Liberty House co-op at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 
According to the copy about the four quilts Jessie was inspired to work out her grief and anger at losing her job with a freedom quilt, suggested by some students from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC,) a group active in the South in the 1960s. One wonders who had a copy of the Ladies Art Company catalog with its page of alphabet letters and when Jessie began this series.

Library of Congress
The first (?) Freedom Quilt pictured in
Folklife Center News in April, 1978 traveled in an exhibit
Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art, 1770-1976.
It must have been finished before 1976.

Why did Jessie make four quilts? Perhaps she was selling them through a co-op. Looking for such an arts organization in Terrell County though turns up few leads.

The 1998 revision of the Department of Agriculture's index to co-ops lists three in Georgia. The whole topic of these crafts co-operatives on quiltmaking in the last half of the 20th century is a topic worthy of someone's dissertation.

Civil Rights Movement Archive
Duke University

In a letter to SNCC's leader James Forman, Philadelphian Joyce Barrett described a plan for "Small Business Ventures" like the "quiltmaking in Dawson, Georgia or the sewing company in Selma."

1963, Macon Telegraph

 Judith Alexander (1931-2004)
See her papers at the Kenan Research Center at
The Atlanta History Center

Jessie Telfair's motivation for piecing all those letters may have been her relationship with Atlanta gallery owner Judith Alexander. Judith was Atlanta born, a student at the Barnes Foundation and of painter Hans Hoffman. She operated an Atlanta gallery devoted to works of, shall we say, establishment artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline in the years 1959 through 1965. In 1976 she opened another gallery. The Alexander Gallery sold  pieces by what might be called Georgia folk artists or outsider artists.

Two of the four Freedom Quilts in Museum Collections were donated by Judith Alexander before her 2004 death. 

You may note that times began to change in the 1960s but we are still fighting that fight.
"The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin' "

Stacey Abrams

Stacey Abrams Rocks Haiku by Susan Shie 
Made for a 2021 SAQA auction

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Eby Byers's Quilt?

Quilt in collection of the National Museum of American History 
at the Smithsonian

In the center is an inked block with much information, including a date of 1837. We do not have many surviving quilts dated 1837 or even in the late 1830s as the explosion of interest fueled by the fad for signature album quilts did not start until the mid 1840s.

But the question is: What does the date mean? Was the quilt made in 1837?

We wish there was more fabric to offer us clues---just one blue cotton print repeated and the typical white cotton background. The pattern, what we'd call a honeybee could be 1837.

The inking itself would tell us the quilt top probably does not date to after 1880 or so. The diagonal set is a weak clue to "19th century." One style characteristic that looks later than 1837 is the use of "Elbow Quilting," a utilitarian pattern seen in the block detail above and the inscription block below.

Elbow quilting viewed on the back of an early
20th-century quilt

Elbow quilting done in such every-day style is usually a good clue to a Southern quilt made after 1890.
Perhaps Catharine's top was quilted later. The Catharine associated with the quilt was not Southern and the elbow quilting is finer style here. 

The quilt was donated in 1980 by Dr. Grace Fox. This may be Grace Fox (1899-1984) who spent her summers in Uniontown, Maryland and lived in Washington D.C. where she was an authority on Asian diplomacy. The Smithsonian would be a logical place to donate an interesting and well-preserved quilt. Perhaps she knew nothing about it. I can find no connection between Grace Fox and Chambersburg or any Byerses.

B [???] or P
Catharine Byers

The curators at the Smithsonian are as confused as I am. They have no associated information with the quilt:
"A stamped [sic---it's hand drawn in ink] inscription of leaves and a bird frame the names: 'Eby Byers & Catherine Byers' and the place, 'Chambersburg.' Below Chambersburg is noted '1837,' in a penned ink inscription ---possibly a later addition? Did Catherine make this quilt?"

 "As no information was included with the quilt, it is difficult to know who made the quilt and the significance of the date."

Catharine Byers is a rather common name---Pennsylvania had several including a Catherine Byers who drowned in the 1889 Johnstown Flood (not the quiltmaker.) This quilt with names Eby and Byers is credited to the daughter of Frederick Byers and Anna Eby of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Catherine (1805-1892) married James Crawford (1799-1872) in 1826. So by 1837 her name was Catherine Byers Crawford.
Catharine and Eby's brothers and sisters. Their father married twice.

The other name on the quilt is Eby Byers, Catherine's brother with an unusual name. Eby (1807-1880) spent much of his life in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania after moving from Chambersburg.

1880 obituary from a Harrisburg newspaper

Eby was widowed at least twice. His first wife was Margaret Ann McArthur Eby (1830-1852) who was 7 years old in 1837.

The 1870 census shows him living with wife Julia and
daughter named for his first wife. Alas, no Catherines.

Could this quilt have been given to Eby in 1837 when he was about 30?

Well, it's a handsome if mysterious quilt.