Friendship, Album, and Fundraising Quilts
Curated by Emelie Gevalt, Curator of Folk Art, American Folk Art Museum
By its nature, the signature quilt is meant to be read not only as a whole but also square by square. Although the form is known by various names—including friendship, album, and fundraising quilts—what all of these types share in common is the composite nature of the quilting project, in which individual signed blocks have been brought together to form a larger design. Often a group undertaking, each block was typically named for, and frequently made and/or paid for by, a different member of a community.
In this sense, the signature quilt holds symbolic value not only as a record of shared creative endeavor, which is the case for many quilts, but also as a legible record of relationships between the quilters and their communities, as well as between the part and the whole. As documents of past networks, such objects extend a sense of interconnectedness into the present, drawing viewers into a web of historical linkages in tandem with the visual interactions between blocks.
Like the systematically articulated branches of a family tree, the signature quilt simultaneously lays out and pulls in, engaging us in a simile of the group’s structure, and of the object’s dynamism, as we expand and contract our focus to take in both large and small.
The American trend towards signature quilts began in the mid-1800s and was reignited in the late nineteenth century. Inspiring a fad with numerous variations, the form itself likely developed in part from a fashion for autograph albums, popular in the United States by the early nineteenth century. Similar to the guest book or later yearbook, an autograph album served as a forum for preserving personal connections, collecting inscriptions from friends and acquaintances as mementos of relationships, in keeping with the era’s culture of sentimentality.
The signature quilt takes up the spirit of this social ritual and enlarges it, demanding greater ambition from its participants and a bolder display for its finished product – an expansive bedcover or showpiece that would have a regular presence in a domestic interior, a reminder of community, bound together both literally and metaphorically by connecting threads. Such visual and material symbols would have served as powerful constants during times of familial and social change.
Some of the most elegant mid-nineteenth-century album quilts were made in Baltimore, Maryland, typically by members of the Methodist and German Reformed congregations of the city. These quilts are characterized by their elaborate appliquéd pictorial imagery and creative use of fabrics. This variety was facilitated, in part, by easy access to a wide range of textiles that were imported into Baltimore’s commercial harbor.
Scholarship suggests that Baltimore album quilt blocks may have been designed and made by single individuals for purchase and assembly by other quilters. This example is one of a group that has been attributed to the same designer, possibly Mary Heidenroder Simon. After describing a quilt featuring similar images – including cornucopias, wreaths, and an eagle – a 1850 diarist recorded a visit to “Mrs. Simon’s in Chesnut [sic] St. The lady who cut & basted these handsome quilts – saw some pretty squares.”
Reiter Family Album Quilt
Unidentified artist, descended in the family of Katie Friedman Reiter (1873–1942) and Liebe Gross Friedman (dates unknown). Probably Baltimore, Maryland, 1848–1850. Cotton and wool, 101 x 101 in. Gift of Katherine Amelia Wine in honor of her grandmother Theresa Reiter Gross and the makers of the quilt, her great-grandmother Katie Friedman Reiter and her great-great-grandmother Liebe Gross Friedman, and on behalf of a generation of cousins: Sydney Howard Reiter, Penelope Breyer Tarplin, Jonnie Breyer Stahl, Susan Reiter Blinn, Benjamin Joseph Gross, and Leba Gross Wine, 2000.2.1
Although the occasion celebrated by this quilt is unknown, each block bears the name of a friend who contributed to a “surprise” for Mary A. Grow, as the quilt is inscribed in ink on the reverse. Mary Ann Hackett (1817–1896) was born in England and moved with her family to New York State, where she married William A. Grow, a minister. They subsequently moved to Plymouth, Michigan, where this quilt was made, and then to Pennsylvania. The quilt was obviously cherished over the years and descended in Mary’s family.
Taken individually, each one of the blocks in this exuberant quilt holds sufficient visual interest to comprise a quilt pattern of its own. Together, they constitute a virtuoso display of color, design, and creative imagination.
This fundraising quilt commemorates Admiral George Dewey, hailed as a naval hero after the Spanish-American War in 1898. Although no specific connection has been established between Dewey and the Indiana church for which the quilt was made, he was a popular figure, and multiple quilt patterns bearing his name were published in the early 20th century.
The quilt is thought to have been purchased in Indiana not long after its making by a Vermont-based family, the Griffins, who may have been especially drawn to the Dewey theme because of the Admiral’s Montpelier origins. In an amusing quirk – perhaps the quiltmaker’s error – the D’s have been incorporated backwards relative to the orientation of the central inscription.
This quilt can be read as a visual pun, its reiterated spool block pattern making a playful reference to the quantity of thread and the repetitious labor involved in such a project. Although simple in concept – making use of just three colors and a single block design, tied together with bright pink knots – the offsetting black background and the dynamic alternation of spool direction make for an especially appealing result. Made during the Great Depression for the purposes of church fundraising, the quilt not surprisingly took top prize at a local fair. It was raffled off to the Massar family, whose name can be found multiple times across the surface of the quilt, memorializing their engagement with the church community.