Thursday, March 2, 2023

Silk Eagle Quilt #3: To Medina, Ohio

Ruth Ebright Finley (1884-1955)

Portrait of Ruth Finley for her publicity tour in 1929 from widely printed feature by Hortense Saunders for the Newspaper Enterprise Association syndicate. 

We have been discussing an eagle medallion silk quilt that once belonged to Finley.

The eagle in the center of the quilt under discussion
was embroidered in silver thread that's tarnished.

As we've seen, our basic source on the eagle quilt's Lincoln/Keckley connection is Ruth Finley, not I am afraid, a reliable source. Finley was a journalist, not a historian. She was a great press agent for herself and her books, giving numerous newspaper interviews as she traveled to lecture. 

The Unseen Guest communicated through
the Finleys (Darby & Joan's) Ouija Board.

She was also, in my opinion, delusional if not just suggestible. She believed she was a skilled psychic medium, publishing an anonymous book with her husband about revelations from her Ouija board.

Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell, 1920

 My guess is that if she had a strong hunch something was true---it was true.
I addressed Ruth Finley’s historical inaccuracies in a biographical introduction to a paperback edition her family and I published with EPM in 1991. (My quotes in purple.)
"Finley’s basic fallacy is her underlying premise that the ’art of quilt-making in America was as highly developed in 1750 as in 1850.’ Because she believed this to be true, she did not believe that styles changed. Therefore, she dated many quilts incorrectly and mistakenly attributed the origins of many quilts, patterns, and customs to dates far earlier than they actually were.

In the 1929 book Finley tells us: This pieced Pine Tree
 "originated in Massachusetts along with the Pine Tree Shilling 
& the Pine Tree Flag [circa 1650]....[both] gone 
but 'The Pine Tree' quilt remains.

"Our current, wider view of the history of quilts enables us to see that the pieced tree designs developed in the second half of the 19th century, rather than in Colonial times; and that the red, white and green applique quilts she ascribes to the years before and after the Revolution are more likely to date from the mid- to the late-19th century.
Colonial crazy quilt origins in a story from the Minneapolis Star
and Ruth Finley in 1950

“Her stories of customs such as freedom quilts prior to 1825 and bridal hope chests containing a baker’s dozen quilts have not been corroborated by later research…..She twice described…her theory that crazy quilts of ‘shapeless scraps’ were the beginning of pattern development….Contemporary quilt historian Virginia Gunn has given us insight into Finley’s thinking, noting that her concept of pattern evolution parallels thought about Darwinian evolution. If in nature shapeless amoebas evolved into complex organisms, surely quilt patterns developed from the crazy patch through simple one-patch shapes to complex pieced designs.”
We must consider the source for the Lincoln/Keckley thread of ownership. We have no reliable link to the Lincolns or to Elizabeth Keckley, only references to the collection of Ruth Finley and then antique dealer Ross Trump.

Hard-to-read newsprint of the earliest mention I've yet found of Finley discussing the Lincoln/Keckley quilt: "Real Lincoln Quilt...pieced of tea gowns belonging to the President's wife....presented to the First Lady by its maker, Elizabeth Keckley, a slave who later became the most fashionable dressmaker in Washington."

Without corroboration for Finley's Lincoln/Keckley story we can look at the quilt itself for clues to  origins and provenance. The silk medallion could have been made any time from about 1840 to the end of the century, decades when such extravaganzas were a fashion. As there is no “crazy patchwork” in it we might guess it was not made after 1880 when random-shaped silk scraps were all the rage. But that omission isn't much of a clue.

Three outer borders on the eagle quilt

We see style clues that help us guess where it might have been made, particularly in the style of embroidered and mosaic patchwork borders around the central eagle. Kentucky women from about 1840 into the 20th century were well-known for their elaborate show quilts, prizewinners at Kentucky fairs where the prizes were sometimes $100, like the premium Ann Mary Crittenden Coleman won in 1849, equivalent to about $4,000 today.

Report on the 1852 Kentucky State Fair

Eliza Haskins won $25 for her silk quilt. Calico quilt won Mrs. Womack only $15, an award not to be sneezed at: Kentucky fairs encouraged exceptionalism with high value prizes. Mrs. Womack took home about $500 in today's money.

Eliza Farris Haskins was quite a competitor. Detail
of her later crazy quilt with typical linear embroidered
borders and corded edge, quite typical of Kentucky's best.
Was this embroidery purchased? 

Kentuckians' use of those embroidered borders must have won them many premiums at home and at fairs in other states where they knocked out more conventional silk mosaics, etc.  

Corner of Eliza Farris Haskins's late-19th-c crazy,
in the collection of the Kentucky Historical Society

Another end-of-the-century crazy from the Kentucky Historical Society
by Glovina Vertrees Wrather of Hardin County, Kentucky.

The museum has many of her household items:

Tassels in the corners in the Kent State quilt appear to have been detached and re-stitched inside the fringe. Quilters elsewhere may have finished their silk quilts with tassels but the look is generally a good clue to a Kentucky quilt. Do note that the tassel is bleeding in this older photo. I would bet the quilt has been conserved and some of the bleeding cleaned.

Considering a Kentucky origin, we recall that Mary Todd Lincoln was a Kentuckian, raised in affluence in Lexington until she went west to Illinois as a young woman about 1840. 

Elizabeth in the 1870s. She had to go back to
sewing dresses in New York after the "Old Clothing Sale" disaster.
It seems that Elizabeth spelled her married name Keckly while
most sources spell it Keckley today.

Elizabeth, the supposed quiltmaker, who lived in Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri before moving to Washington City, apparently had no Kentucky connections.

The ragged flag 
Was the eagle quilt a gift from an affluent Kentucky family to Mary Todd Lincoln in the White House?  She undoubtedly received a few quilts as did First Lady Julia Grant in the 1870s.

 Julia Grant worrying about storing 
gift quilts in the 1870s White House

And wouldn't a famous Kentucky quilt shown at the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition have been an excellent tribute to a First Lady who enjoyed attention?

I have no answers except to say that I loved the story of Mrs. Keckley and all those dress scraps. But unlike Ruth Finley I cannot will things to be true. Even amateur historians like me want corroborating evidence.

Read professional historian Dr. Virginia Gunn's 1993 paper "From Myth to Maturity: The Evolution of Quilt Scholarship  for the American Quilt Study Group's journal Uncoverings 13:

Ruth Ebright Finley is buried in Ohio with her husband's family:

Tomorrow: More about the Crittenden/Lincoln connection.

No comments:

Post a Comment