Friday, February 9, 2024

Elizabeth Baile Manahan's Quilt: Widely Copied


Rather unusual block from an appliqued sampler quilt dated 1850 & 1851

Smithsonian Institution Collection
93" square

The quilt has been in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution since the mid-20th century, when
it was donated by the maker's youngest daughter. About 30 years ago the Smithsonian made an ambitious but ill-advised marketing move by partnering with an import firm to engage Chinese seamstresses to copy a few of their most impressive quilts.

A copy
The copies were, shall we say, adequate--- and they still bring a pretty good price paid by those who'd like an applique quilt for their bed.

Three on eBay this week.

The marketing idea was comprehensive. What
are you going to do when legislators will not fund 
national museums?

You could also buy printed tablecloths in various sizes. 

The whole idea was not received well and if you want to know more do a web search for Smithsonian Quilt Controversy.

There are a couple of other important points here, though. One, copies are common and novice collectors are sometimes fooled. Don't be.

The other point is to take a closer look at the quilt and its maker. As you can see the advertising copy called it a Bride's Quilt and that it seems to be. There are only two inscribed blocks indicating that Eliza Baile Manahan stitched all of them without help from friends or family.

Stuffed work strawberries in block and border

 And there is a consistency across the applique that supports this idea.
The 25-block quilt and fancy borders took her about 16 months to sew. She may have had help with the blocks and/or the quilting but we have no indication of that.

When dealing with Maryland quilts in that creative decade 1845-1855 one must ask if a professional seamstress was involved---drawing patterns, cutting kits or selling finished blocks. And Eliza Jane was a Maryland Methodist, women instrumental in popularizing the idea of friendship or album quilt samplers with help from professional designers and seamstresses.

In the corners of the morning glory block two dates are inked:
“E J Baile. Commenced June 1850”                             “Finished October 30 185l.”

Eliza Jane (people seem to have called her that) married Levi when she was 19 on October 11, 1851 at her community church the Stone Chapel Methodist Church in New Windsor, Carroll County, where they are buried with several of their 7 children.

Eliza Jane Baile Manahan (1832-1923)

Eliza's Stone Chapel Church

Her distinctive cactus applique tells us something about where she obtained her ideas.

Eliza's cactus applique and the inspiration

Yardage of the cactus chintz in the collection of the 
Winterthur Museum

From Terry Terrell's collection

Terry, a botanist, will tell you this is a Disocactus, a Rattail Cactus. Check out her wonderful website: FlowersonChintz.com

And read her paper on "Identifying and Dating Disocactus Motifs on Early Chintz," in The American Quilt Study Group's journal Uncoverings 2019

Mid-19th-century Baltimore spread
From one of Dr. Dunton's photos from Baltimore in the 1940s at WKU's Kentucky Museum.

The image was often cut from the chintz and appliqued. It is probably an English print exported here in large quantities.

Quilt associated with Adaline Wineberger Lusby,
date inscribed 1837-1838

The Smithsonian Institution owns another quilt featuring the rattail cactus
but this one is more conventional---cut out chintz.

So in Eliza's quilt reproductions we have a copy of a copy of a chintz.

How many other applique artists copied a floral chintz?
A good project for someone with a good visual memory.


  1. I remember when the Smithsonian did this. Seems like maybe that’s when all those Asian-made quilts started flooding the market? Anyway, I remember wondering why the Smithsonian didn’t just publish the actual pattern as we quilters would have snapped them up! I still would buy one today. Love trying to replicate that beautiful applique. Such a stunning, and different, quilt. Thanks for the history lesson!

  2. Thanks for the forensic investigation. I, too, remember when Smithsonian introduced this scheme. If I found one of the mugs at a thrift shop I'd snap it up.