Thursday, March 9, 2023

Cats on Quilts: What's It Mean?


Regina Jobes, New York sampler applique dated 1849

Mary Proud

There is some symbolism going on here I am guessing.
I may be wrong but something is going on.
The cat, the lily or tulip?
Both a good sign the quilt was made in New York.

This has to go beyond cats are cute, as some people believe.
The cats seem to identify some New Yorkers as....

1867 Susan Rogers, Brooklyn

Sampler dated 1881

Brooklyn Museum Collection

1867 Lucinda Honstain, International Quilt Museum

Crib quilt with cats and roosters. Roosters could just be a barnyard
image, familiar to every woman who raised chickens
but it could also be a Democrat party symbol.

Many of these New York quilts date from about 1840 to 1870, the glory days of the applique sampler. During those years two New Yorkers served as president. Martin Van Buren was elected in 1838; Millard Fillmore replaced Zachary Taylor after he died in 1850. These politicians do not inspire vivid memories nor did their politics have much in common. Van Buren was a Democrat and Fillmore a Whig. But New Yorkers must have been proud of their favorite sons. Could the cats have anything to do with New York politics? 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Here's a glimmer of a clue. Andrew Jackson, Democratic populist, had the brilliant idea to eliminate any central bank  --- too much government. As one might imagine unregulated banking could lead to disaster---and the Panic of 1837, which began as he left office and left Van Buren to deal with it.

A New York bank note. Like crypto currency you had to have faith.

During the Jackson term states instituted their own banking laws with New York and Michigan in the forefront to permit what were called Wildcat banks, private banks free of any federal regulation. Anyone could start a bank, take your money and fail. New York was considered the hot spot of Wildcat banks. It was a populist idea. No central government.

Criticism of the "Albany Regency," in New York---Van Buren's political cronies.

Were all those cats (who don't look the least bit wild) political symbols of a specific kind of New York politics or identity?

A wildcat besting G.C. in 1892

When New Yorker Grover Cleveland ran for President at the end of the century he was associated with "Wild Cat Currency" again. A New York signature?

Anti-Cleveland campaign memorabilia

My analysis has many flaws, chief being that the cat on the quilts is NOT a wildcat.
But it certainly is persistent.

Sampler from Shelly Zegart Quilts

See a post on other thoughts of cat symbolism

In the comments Dorothy suggested the cat may be a fraternal organization's symbol and there are certainly other Masonic images in these New York samplers. I did find a 1907 postcard of a Masonic cat and a piece of jewelry with cats.....

Museum of Freemasonry


  1. I was inclined to say, Quilters put what they see in their quilts and cats are all around us.

    But one of the quilts you show has Masonic symbols on it. So that may account for some “cats on quilts”: http://www.masonic.benemerito.net/msricf/papers/marples/marples-masonic.cat.pdf

    When I lived in South Carolina a woman visited our guild and showed a family quilt. Her family lore says that her ancestor, about to leave to fight in the Civil War, instructed his wife to make a quilt covered in Masonic symbols. If the Yankees came she was to put the quilt over the porch rail in case some Yankee officer was a Mason and he might spare their home. And, so says the family story, the Yankees DID come, she DID display her quilt, and a kind Yankee Mason DID spare their home.

    1. Interesting. I wonder if the cat was a Masonic or other fraternal icon.

    2. Yes, it would be interesting to see the whole quilt and find out if there are other symbols tied to some organization. Do have quilt’s accession number from the Brooklyn Museum? If not I can write to the curator and see if there’s a photo available.