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.


  1. The dash between Eby and Byers makes me wonder if it might be referring to the wedding of an Eby and a Byers. Who maybe got married in Chambersburg in 1837??? Just an idea.

    1. Familysearch have him as Frederick Eby, but on FindAGrave (and his obituary posted there) he is just Eby. I just profiled him on Wikitree: https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Byers-4563

  2. Two ideas:

    The “elbow quilting” reminds me of Baptist fan quilting — echos over a portion of the quilt, repeating across the entire piece. No need for marking, easy-peasy once you get the idea. Could be done by a group or by an individual. Could be done in small portions as time permits. Could be done in a hoop or on a frame …

    I’m always a bit uncomfortable with using a quilting pattern to date a quilt since (as we all know) a top can sit around for decades before it’s quilted — very often by someone(s) other then the piercer. But y’all know this.