American Quilts in the Modern Age

American Quilts in the Modern Age

American Quilts in the Modern Age

The quilts featured in the new exhibition American Quilts in the Modern Age, 1870-1940 showcase diverse examples of quilters' creations from a time of disenchantment with modern life.

Quilts reflect the times in which they are created, often mirroring societal shifts and transformations. Rapid change, bringing conflict between technological progress and nostalgia for a simpler time, impacts today's culture. The same tension also shaped America's "modern age": the period between 1870 and 1940 when America was growing at an unprecedentedly rapid pace and struggling to come to terms with what it meant to be a modern, industrialized nation. Curators Marin Hanson, Patricia Crews, and Jonathan Gregory chose quilts from the collection of the International Quilt Museum to illustrate some of the responses quiltmakers had to these feelings of conflict and unease.

From pieced block to Crazy style to Colonial Revival examples, as well as one-of-a-kind creations, the full array of style and design appears in this exhibition covering seven decades of quiltmaking. The curators pay special attention to the modern and anti-modern tensions that persisted throughout this era of America's coming of age, from the Civil War to World War II. They also address the textile technology and cultural context of the times in which the quilts were created, with an eye to the role that industrialization and modernization played in the evolution of techniques, materials, and designs

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Works in the Exhibition

Works in the Exhibition

Square in a Square
Maker/location unknown
Cottons, 68” x 80.5”
1997.007.0051, Ardis and Robert James Collection

 Although we don’t know who made this particular quilt or where it was made, by inspecting every aspect of its materials and techniques we can deduce quite a bit about its history.

Most of the fabrics date from the 1860 to 1890 era. Many of them are “madder-style” prints, produced using a colorant called alizarin, extracted from natural madder root or synthesized from coal tar. When applied in combination with various mordants (fixing agents), alizarin creates different hues ranging from reddish brown to dark brown to rusty red to pink.

One row, however, is different from the rest. You can find it by looking for fabrics with vibrant, saturated colors and unconventional designs—hot pinks and bright greens on black backgrounds, for instance. These types of fabrics, sometimes called “eccentrics,” are a defining style of the 1890s and early 1900s and the bottom row of this quilt is full of them. Therefore, we theorize that the top seven rows were created before 1890, but remained unfinished for many years, and the bottom row was added around 1900, perhaps to make the quilt longer to fit a particular bed.

We find further evidence to support this supposition in the quilt’s construction. The blocks in the bottom rows were sewn entirely by hand, while the blocks in the top row were pieced and attached to the lower section by machine. Perhaps the maker completed the top row after she acquired a sewing machine. Or maybe a member of a subsequent generation added the top row.

Imagine working on a project that was started decades or even generations earlier. Do you think you would be able to match up all the materials precisely? Would you want to?

Broken Circle (New York Beauty).
Maker unknown
Possibly made in Pennsylvania or Maryland, 1880—1900
Cottons, 79” x 83.5”
2003.003.0153, Jonathan Holstein Collection

Reminiscent of the regular, jagged edges of motorized gears, the quarter-circle fans of this quilt echo a major theme of the Modern Age: mechanization and technological progress.
Block-style quilts such as this are symbols of the Modern Age in another way: their proliferation was largely due to the growing availability of inexpensive fabric and sewing machines after the Civil War. The long seams joining the blocks together were much more efficiently and quickly done on a machine than by hand.

The basic fan design of this block has long been a challenge to the expert piecer, whether working by hand or machine. When the block is sashed with complex pieced strips, it is known today as New York Beauty or Rocky Mountain. This simpler version, a block isolated by broad blue bars, was called Broken Circle or Suspension Bridge in the 1933 Ladies Art Company catalog—a standard pattern source during the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s.

Split Nine Patch
Maker unknown
Probably made in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, 1890—1940
Cottons, 84” x 74” 
2003.003.0129, Jonathan Holstein Collection

Can you find the repeating unit in this quilt? 
Due to clever diagonal placement of dark and light materials and the number of square pieces and varieties of fabrics, this quilt appears to be a unique and complicated patchwork. Finding the simplest repeating construction unit reveals, however, that it is a nine-patch block, not a one-of-a-kind design. 
The pattern requires that two squares be constructed from two half-square triangles, one dark and one light. Due to the placement of those split squares at opposite corners of the Nine Patch, the block can be shaded into a dark half and a light half, similar to the Log Cabin designs so popular between 1870 and 1910.

Although it is fairly easy to construct, the Split Nine Patch remained a regional pattern. It hailed solely from southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. One regional custom required the quiltmaker to piece 100 blocks and arrange them in a ten by ten grid. This quilt has 224 blocks, more than double the goal! 

Sampler Album
Maker unknown
Possibly made in Pennsylvania, 1900—1920
Cottons, 80” x 68” 
1997.007.0338, Ardis and Robert James Collection

Quilt patterns at the turn-of-the-twentieth century are well represented in this Sampler Album. The forty-two blocks are an ambitious design workbook that illustrates the plethora of patterns quiltmakers could choose from newspapers, magazines, or mail order catalogs. With innovations such as cheaper wood pulp paper for newsprint and the invention of mechanized type came an increase in newspapers and magazines. Editors realized that quilt patterns would make their publications more popular with women readers, and some periodicals even gave quilt patterns as a premium for buying a subscription. 
Do you think this quilt was made by a young girl? The simple patterns are what might be classified as “beginner” blocks today. The maker’s needlework skills were far from expert. By the 1890s, a generation of girls raised with a sewing machine in the house acquired fewer hand sewing skills. On the other hand, it’s also possible that an adult with little talent or experience made the quilt during a time when needlework skills were at a low ebb and the impressive patchwork and quilting styles of earlier decades had become the exception.

Kansas Sunflower
Mary Adams Abercrombie (1832—1909), Ella Abercrombie Harnan (1867—1963), Ruth Harnan Gutherless (1904—2004), and Gayle Gutherless LeGrand (1932— )
Made near Gothenburg, Nebraska, 1905—1965
Cottons, 89” x 77”
2004.012.0001, Gift of Gayle LeGrand

Passing down valued objects from generation to generation is common practice. Perhaps you own a quilt or a piece of furniture passed down from a parent or grandparent. But you would be lucky indeed to have contributed to the completion of an heirloom started by an ancestor, as is the case with this quilt.

Mary Adams Abercrombie started her quilt on a Lincoln County, Nebraska, ranch around 1900. Grandmother, mother, daughter, and granddaughter worked on the quilt, adding their individual skills and sense of design. 

The quilt itself tells a lot about the timeline of its creation. Many of the fabrics in the Sunflower blocks are typical of the late 1800s and early 1900s and point to Mary Abercrombie as the maker. A few other blocks display fabrics clearly from the 1920s and 1930s, one of which contains rayon, which was not widely commercially available until the late 1920s. These later Sunflowers were probably made in the 1930s by Ella Harnan, Mary’s daughter. Perhaps she wanted to make a larger quilt, and decided to supplement with her own blocks.

Ella set the blocks into the bold orange and green striped sashing. Her daughter Ruth Gutherless held a quilting bee around 1940 to do the quilting. Evidence of many hands can be seen in the differing quality of stitches. Gayle LeGrand finished the quilt around 1965 by binding it with a bright fabric.
The International Quilt Study Center is lucky to have such a well-documented quilt. In fact, we are fortunate that the quilt still exists at all. In 1936, Ella Harnan’s home near Brady, Nebraska, burned to the ground, but with the help of neighbors, she was able to save several household items, including the cedar chest in which this quilt was stored

Hattie Ellen (Broadbent) Vermillion (1872—1960), possibly with contributions by Easter Ann (Keicher) Vermillion (1842-1925)
Madison County, Indiana, c. 1938
Cottons, 86” x 76.5”
1997.007.0527, Ardis and Robert James Collection

The rapid pace of technological change today often makes us look to our past for comfort. Documenting family heirlooms is one way of connecting with the past, and the popularity of television shows like “Antiques Roadshow” demonstrates our interest in our ancestors. Past generations were also fascinated with their own history and sometimes documented heirloom objects. Often they left out vital pieces of information that make it difficult to piece the story back together.

An unsigned note that accompanied this quilt states, “Grandmother Vermillion's quilt. Blocks pieced by Easter An Vermillion, died Jan 1925. Quilted by Hattie E. Vermillion." We do not know who wrote the note. Does “Grandmother” refer to Easter or Hattie? 

Easter Keicher married Chancey Vermillion in 1863 in Madison County, Indiana. They had seven children. Their eldest son, Willis, married Hattie Broadbent, daughter of a locally prominent doctor, in 1890. Easter was known as a fine quiltmaker and passed along her quiltmaking and crochet skills to her daughter-in-law, Hattie. 

The note states that the blocks were made by Easter, but evidence in the fabric points to Hattie as the likely sewer. Many of the prints and colors are more consistent with the late 1920s and 1930s, after Easter had died. 

Other evidence also argues for Hattie having made the quilt. According to her great-grandson, who has read many of her Bible entries and personal letters, the penciled markings that read “May 28, 1938” and “May 31, 1938” are in Hattie’s hand. The family does not know what the dates signify. Perhaps they indicate a finishing date for the quilt. Another penciled inscription that is not in Hattie’s hand reads “MURL.” Once again, the family does not know who may have written it nor to what or whom it refers

Log Cabin, Barn Raising setting
Maker unknown
Possibly made in Hastings, New York, 1870—1890
Silks, 81” x 80.5”
1997.007.0031, Ardis and Robert James Collection

Although Log Cabins more often were made in cottons and wools, silk versions were highly fashionable during the 1880s when they were considered by some as an alternative to the extraordinarily popular Crazy quilt. As noted in an 1884 Arthur’s Home Magazine, “Old patterns, and modifications of old ones, are continually coming to the front in silk quilts, so that when the Crazy quilt has had its day there will be plenty of styles to supplant it. A variation of the log cabin is very pretty.” The article describes a quilt similar to this one, with only two colors of silk on either side of the center square.

This quilt’s black and tan silks display extensive evidence that they were recycled, likely from a woman’s garment. In many places, the fabrics contain a row of evenly spaced holes along each side of a crease, indicating that they had once been folded and sewn, perhaps to create a series of gores or pleats in a skirt. In addition, many of the individual “logs” have angled seams running through them, suggesting that the maker cut right across any seams she encountered in the recycled fabrics. Similar to today’s trends towards recycling, women of the late 1800s also felt the need to reuse materials in new ways. Silks at this time, while more plentiful than in past generations, were still expensive enough to merit giving them a new life beyond their original purpose.

Log Cabin, an original setting
Maker unknown
Possibly made in York County, Pennsylvania, 1870—1890
Wools, wool-cotton mixtures, 90” x 75.5”
1997.007.0127, Ardis and Robert James Collection


Because standard Log Cabin blocks are divided diagonally into halves—one dark and one light—a seemingly endless array of overall patterns may be created. A simple change in a quilt’s setting completely alters its appearance by creating a wholly different overall pattern. While typical settings, such as Barn Raising, are among the most common, the Log Cabin block may also be used to make one-of-a-kind arrangements, as this quilt demonstrates. The maker combined several of the most common settings into an interesting amalgamation. Elements of Barn Raising, Streak of Lightning, and Light and Dark are all present. Can you find all three? Use these drawings to help identify the different settings.

The fabrics create a secondary group of patterns. The fabrics have a shared aesthetic, suggesting that they might have come from the same manufacturer. There are only a small number of individual designs among these fabrics, but each is printed in two to four colorways. Each colorway is placed so that the fabric placement is mirrored along both the horizontal and vertical axes (quadrilateral symmetry), a design decision that gives this unique setting even greater cohesion.

Log Cabin, Pineapple variation
Anna Hazel Burmeister (1875—1959)
Waukesha, Wisconsin, c. 1894
Cottons, 85” x 75”
1997.007.0933, Ardis and Robert James Collection

Anna Hazel Burmeister was no stranger to determination or accomplishment. She was born on a farm in rural Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, to German immigrants William and Sophie Mueller Burmeister. Anna became a dressmaker in Waukesha and shared a business with her sister, Elsie, a milliner. When Anna entered this quilt in the 1894 Wisconsin State Fair, she won first place in the Log Cabin Quilt Division, receiving a premium of $4.00.

Anna carefully planned her quilt. The outer round of logs on the four corner blocks, made of double pink calico prints, establishes the quilt’s boundaries. The darkest fabrics in the quilt, several indigo cottons with white polka-dots or scattered stars, are consistently placed near the center of each block. The number of pieces (3,641) the carefully planned design, and the hand-piecing upon a foundation indicate the maker’s intent to produce a show piece.

By December, 1905, Anna had moved to Chicago and gained work as the head of a department in the dressmaking section of Marshall Field’s department store. While there she decided to pursue a career in dentistry. She attended dental school at Marquette University in Milwaukee and graduated in 1912 as one of the first female dentists in the United States. A May 26, 1912, Milwaukee Journal article quotes Burmeister: “It has been hard work. The money didn’t come easy and my course took a lot. But I did no more than other girls have done and can do. All that is required is the determination. I made up my mind to get my dental degree and I went after it with all the power in me.

Crazy Quilt
Maker unknown
Possibly made in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, dated 1884
Silks, 76” x 63”
1997.007.0552, Ardis and Robert James Collection

Many people in the late 1800s and early 1900s felt uncomfortable with the pace of change in American life. Looking to exotic, less industrialized, Asian cultures for escape and inspiration, they borrowed images and ideas from the East. Several of the motifs in this quilt go beyond the characteristic Japanese fans and cranes to give it the exotic appeal that was an essential characteristic of Crazy quilts. A detailed depiction of a dancing gypsy, with head scarves and a tambourine, adds a lively, reckless character. In contrast, standing prim and proper is a Japanese geisha, proof that depictions of Japanese characters were popular even prior to the 1885 debut of Gilbert and Sullivan’s hugely successful operetta, “The Mikado.”

Patterns for Crazy quilt embellishments were widely available from magazines and stamping companies. A great number of the typical motifs are represented: owls, swallows, dogs, moons, and a host of naturalistic flowers. More interesting, however, is the amusing assortment of everyday objects embroidered on it. Can you find: a sled, a pair of scissors, a baby’s pram, a pair of glasses, a knife, fork and spoon set, a violin, and a multi-blade pocket knife partially opened?

The quantity and variety of silks represented in this quilt is amazing. They range from taffetas to brocades to satins to pile fabrics that resemble fake fur. During the 1880s, sources for silks were plentiful—through mail order, dry goods stores, and from recycled garments. Recycling was fictionalized in an 1884 Godey’s Lady’s Book story entitled “The Career of a Crazy Quilt.” In it, a young woman has become obsessed with obtaining as wide a variety of silks as possible. In a letter to a friend, she confesses, “Papa was in a fearful rage this morning because I cut the lining out of his spring overcoat . . . I wish I’d never begun this crazy quilt.”

Crazy Stars
Maker/location unknown, 1890—1900
Cottons, 86” x 82.5”
1997.007.0742, Ardis and Robert James Collection

This quilt may look like a “true” Crazy quilt, but it is only masquerading as one. Behind its haphazard appearance is a surprising amount of structure. To find the pattern, look at one of the eight-pointed stars. Notice that it is part of a larger star made up of eight irregular (kite-shaped) string-pieced diamonds. These are set together with small diamonds and large octagons of what we today call “cheater” cloth—a cloth printed to look like it is pieced, appliquéd, embroidered, or all three. Here it is printed with Crazy quilt patches and stitches, as well as a wide variety of fanciful images. The effect is convincing and from afar the quilt appears to be a real Crazy quilt. 

In addition to a staggering number of embroidery stitches, the printed Crazy fabric reveals a fascinating mix of images. Can you find a fat spider stalking a small insect on her web, a little boy roller skating with arms akimbo, a hive of bees buzzing with activity, and a frog climbing a ladder up onto a large rock?
The pre-printed Crazy patchwork is merely one among many interesting fabrics in the quilt. Other trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) designs appear as well. One, printed to look like delicate black lace on a white background, is betrayed as a fake by the word “POCKET” that is printed directly above it, giving the impression that it was taken from a pre-printed garment pattern, perhaps for an apron or smock. Other fabrics have faux dobby or brocade weaves or are printed in imitation of woven stripes and plaids. The overall effect is one of almost overwhelming patterning

Hexagon Star
Maker unknown
Possibly made in Kentucky, 1860-1880
Wools, 81” x 66”
1997.007.0178, Ardis and Robert James Collection

While block-style patterns dominated American quiltmaking between the mid-1800s and mid-1900s, other patchwork formats also persisted during this period. Mosaic patchwork—or piecing small repeating shapes together with the aid of paper templates—remained popular in a few regions and among people who liked more old-fashioned styles. This technique also surged in popularity in the late-1800s, around the same time as the Crazy quilt fad. 

The earliest examples of mosaic patchwork, from 1700s England, were typically made from lighter-colored silks. Later, during the third quarter of the 1800s, dark-colored silks predominated. Their availability, and the paper-piecing technique, spread widely throughout the United States. Some quiltmakers also used woolen goods to create mosaic quilts, particularly in states further inland such as Kentucky, where this quilt is thought to have originated. The fabrics in this paper template-pieced quilt include delaines and challis—dress-weight woolens—some in solid colors and others printed in a variety of geometric figures, dots, florals, and paisleys. Heavy woolens would have been unwieldy for wrapping over paper templates and forming crisp edges, but these lighter-weight dress fabrics were easily manipulated.

Mary Ann Grosh Stoner (1834—1899)
Paradise Hill, Ohio, dated 1887
Cottons, 77.5” x 65.5”
1997.007.0907, Ardis and Robert James Collection

Mary Ann Grosh was the third of nine children of Joseph Conrad and Magdalena Greiner Grosh. In 1838 the Grosh family loaded up its belongings and left Warwick, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in a large covered wagon pulled by four horses to begin a new life in Ohio. Mary Ann was four years old at the time. In 1860 she married Jacob Stoner, a carpenter, in her parents’ home.

 According to family tradition, Mary Ann made this quilt for her second daughter, Anise Barbara Stoner, in honor of her marriage to Justus Fox on September 6, 1884. The date 1887 is quilted into the center hexagon of the quilt, which might suggest that its construction took place over a period of at least two or three years. 

The large number of different printed fabrics in a quilt is often an indication of a charm quilt, one in which each fabric is used only once. There are only a handful of repeats in this quilt, which suggests that the maker, indeed, intended this to be a charm quilt.

The fabrics include a variety of print styles and colors from the 1870s and 1880s. Mary Ann also included a few earlier prints from the 1840s, which she may have inherited from her mother. Strategically placed in one corner is a piece of fabric printed with the date “1776,” a souvenir of the nation’s Centennial celebration of 1876. 

Star and Chintz Album
Maker unknown
Possibly made in Pennsylvania, 1935—1955
Cottons, 85.4” x 82”
1997.007.0387, Ardis and Robert James Collection

This charming Colonial Revival quilt exemplifies what mid-twentieth century quilt historian and author Florence Peto called a successful “melding of the old and new.” During the Colonial Revival, an era when designers and architects attempted to re-create an early American style, the antique and the modern inevitably were mixed together. The maker of this quilt gave a nod to tradition by recycling antique pieced stars and by replicating the method of chintz appliqué found on quilts dating from the late 1700s and early 1800s. The hand-pieced six-pointed stars with hexagon centers are joined paper-template fashion with overhand stitches and are carefully attached to white background squares. They embody a variety of high-quality fabrics from the 1840-1860 period.

To alternate with her star blocks, the maker created blocks with hand-appliquéd motifs cut from Colonial Revival chintz fabric. The reproduction chintz fabrics of the early 1900s must have inspired quiltmakers to try their hand at the type of appliqué their grandmothers sometimes called “broderie perse” work.

Florence Peto and other tastemakers of her day encouraged modern women to use antique quilt designs and historic techniques in new ways. “Making something out of nothing,” was a phrase Peto and others of her generation had heard often from their mothers and grandmothers. It was particularly appropriate in the Depression era and war years of the 1930s and 1940s when women had to make the most of what they had for both economic and patriotic reasons, and sometimes for sentimental or historical reasons as well.

Burgoyne Surrounded
Probably made by Addie I. Fish Woodhouse (1861—1943)
Probably made in Newark, Wayne County, New York, c. 1928
Cottons, 88.5” x 72”
1997.007.0485, Ardis and Robert James Collection

The Burgoyne Surrounded design interprets historic weaving patterns found on woven coverlets from the early 1800s. Like quilts, these coverlets were highly desirable for furnishing a bedroom in the Colonial Revival style. Harkening back to early America through the display of antique-looking textiles was used as an antidote to the stresses of modern-day America.

The pattern name commemorates the surrender of British General John Burgoyne to American forces on October 17, 1777, following the battle of Saratoga. The large American force surrounded and captured Burgoyne’s troops, which had taken refuge on the heights of Saratoga, north of Albany, New York. This decisive victory was a turning point of the American Revolution.

Eulalie E. Woodhouse’s name and the dates 1891-1928 are boldly emblazoned on this vibrant quilt. It features Eulalie’s maiden name even though she was married and widowed before it was completed. According to her granddaughter, Andrea Coleman, Eulalie was not a quiltmaker. Coleman believes the quilt was made for Eulalie by her mother, Addie Fish Woodhouse. Addie may have started it in 1891, when her family moved to Newark, New York, from Phelps, New York. Perhaps she completed it in 1928, when she was 67 years old, as a gift of love and support for her recently widowed daughter. 

Coxcomb and Berries
Cora Arabelle Eckles Dinsmore (1904—1983)
New Castle, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, 1925—1935.
Cottons, 79” x 79.5”
1997.007.0942, Ardis and Robert James Collection

This Coxcomb and Berries quilt is one of several passed down in the Dinsmore family, which lived in New Castle, Pennsylvania. As people in this area were familiar with the antique red and green appliqué quilts made by their pioneer grandmothers, it would have been easy to find a design to copy or adapt as this style came back into fashion. The stiff and stylized arrangement of the berries in the border, the choice of grayed shades of red and green, and the simple quilting pattern, clearly reveal that this quilt is a modern revival of the popular red and green appliqué quilts of the mid 1800s.

According to family descendents, the Coxcomb and Berries appliqué quilt was made by Cora Arabelle Eckles Dinsmore. Cora graduated from New Castle High School in 1923 and taught in a county school for three years before her marriage to Marvin Bell Dinsmore on June 7, 1926. Cora probably learned to quilt from her mother, Mary Anna McConahy Eckles. Both were active members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and they worked together on a DAR pattern quilt in the 1940s. Thus it is not surprising that Cora prized this quilt as well as the ones she inherited from her mother and from her husband’s family—several of which are now in the International Quilt Study Center’s collections. 

Sawtooth Diamond
Maker unknown
Possibly made in New Jersey, 1890—1910
Cottons, 89.5” x 89.5”
2004.016.0032, Linda Giesler Carlson and Dr. John V. Carlson Collection

This striking four-block quilt is almost identical to a pattern published in the October 1894 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal. There are only a couple of small deviations from the published pattern, mainly in the placement of the triangular “teeth” surrounding each square. Can you find where the red and white colors have been reversed from the drawing? 

The maker of this quilt may have been inspired by The Ladies Home Journal article, which reported that a “revival of patchwork quilts is at hand.” By 1893 The Ladies Home Journal printed 712,000 copies per month and enjoyed the largest circulaton of any periodical in America. Numerous women chose to get “busy placing the blocks together in new and artistic patterns, as well as in the real old-time order,” as the article encouraged them to do. As people recognized that “old-fashioned” was now the new fashion, the Colonial Revival movement gained momentum. 

The Ladies Home Journal columnist Sybil Lanigan told her audience that “a well-made quilt will last in constant use for many years.” This quilt has been washed and used by its owners, but it remains an eye-catching and dramatic example of quilts made in the era when women began to embrace Colonial Revival themes. Ornate silk Crazy quilts lost their favored status as quiltmakers returned to the more functional patchwork quilts, intended to be used on beds to provide warmth and comfort as well as beauty and up-to-the-minute “colonial” fashion

Alphabet and Eight-Pointed Star
Ladies Art Company patterns Nos. 421—446 and No. 450
Maker unknown
Possibly made in Cooke County, Illinois, c. 1910
Cottons, 91.5” x 77.5”
1997.007.0324, Ardis and Robert James Collection

Red and green on white was a common Colonial Revival color scheme; imitating the look of mid-1800s appliqué quilts was one way of celebrating and romanticizing our national past. New dye formulations, however, sometimes meant that the colors did not last as intended. Many synthetic greens from the turn of the 20th century were unreliable, fading to tan through washing or exposure to light. While the red in this Alphabet quilt has stayed true, the green has lost much of its original color. 

This quilt top was based on patterns in the Ladies Art Company catalog. A full page of letter block designs plus four new appliqué and pieced blocks, including the Eight-Pointed Star used in the four corners, appeared together in the company’s mail order catalog of 1906. The cost was 25 cents per block, with lower prices charged for multiple block orders. 

Established by H. M. Brockstedt in 1889 in St. Louis, Missouri, the Ladies Art Company advertised in women’s magazines throughout the nation in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Ladies Art Company’s catalog of hundreds of quilt patterns was one of the largest in print at the time. The company’s impact on twentieth-century quiltmaking, through its efforts to provide a large and diverse pool of pieced and appliqué designs, was significant and lasting.

Rose Bower
Nancy Cabot, Chicago Tribune pattern
Rose Modjeska (1877—1962)
Downers Grove, Illinois, c. 1935
Cottons, 85” x 72”
1997.007.0638, Ardis and Robert James Collection

Like many people of the Modern Age, Rose Pagers of Chicago was born to immigrant parents. Rose’s parents, from Bremen, Germany, were among the roughly 5 million Germans who came to America between 1850 and 1930. In 1900 Rose married Alexander Modjeska, a Russian immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1882. 

Rose likely saw this quilt design in the newspaper. It is a Nancy Cabot pattern called “Rose Bower,” published in the Chicago Tribune on October 20, 1935. One design change—the use of a black sateen foundation instead of the suggested “pastel green” background—produced a dramatic impact. Rose made other changes to the pattern that add to its charm. She added French knots to accent the flower centers, used bias tape for the stems, and designed a quilted wreath for the center area. She also added rose buds around the central open area. Like many quilters of the era who adopted commercial patterns, she added touches to make it her own.

The Nancy Cabot column—one of the most popular quilt pattern sources of the 1930s—had an unlikely beginning. Twenty-six-year-old Loretta Isabel Leitner, the young secretary to the Sunday editor of the Chicago Tribune talked her boss into letting her organize a column. She adopted the pen name Nancy Cabot and her column grew to include over 2000 patterns. These patterns were syndicated and appeared in, among others, the New York Daily News, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Grit, and Progressive Farmer.

Horn of Plenty
Priscilla Publishing Company pattern No. 19-27-62
Josephine Justus (1885—1959)
Trenton, Missouri, c. 1920—1930
Cottons, 91” x 81.5”
1997.007.0642, Ardis and Robert James Collection

Josephine Ripper Justus, maker of this Horn of Plenty quilt, was a prolific quiltmaker according to her family. Born December 12, 1885, in Seymour, Iowa, she married Charles Justus, a railroad engineer, on July 4, 1900. They settled in Trenton, Missouri, and she died there on October 2, 1959. 

Although it is unclear exactly when she made this quilt, it was many years after her marriage. The pattern appeared as early as 1919 in the magazine The Modern Priscilla, and in the early 1920s in pattern book compilations put out by the Priscilla Publishing Company of Boston, Massachusetts. The editors suggested a color scheme of red with orange centers for the medium and large flowers, except for one that was to be navy blue. In 1928, the pattern was slightly simplified and was included with several other “Favorite Old Quilt Blocks” in the August 1928 issue as well as the January 1930 issue of Modern Priscilla. 

Josephine’s quilt matches the 1919 pattern design, but she chose violet and pink fabrics instead of the red, orange, and blue recommended by the pattern book editors. This suggests that she made the quilt sometime later in the 1920s or early 1930s when the quiltmaking color palette became lighter and more pastel. 

Dresden Plate
Kit source unknown
Louise Thonstad (1885—1974)
Deadwood, South Dakota, 1930—1940
Cottons, 97” x 76.5”
1997.007.0681, Ardis and Robert James Collection

Louise Thonstad, who was born in Norway in 1885 and immigrated with her family to the Dakota Territory, made this quilt around 1935. Louise lived most of her life in Deadwood, South Dakota. 
Like countless other women of the Modern Age, it appears that Louise purchased a kit to make this quilt. How can we tell? Often, as is the case with this quilt, the fabrics provide the first clue. The fabrics in this quilt are a veritable sampler of Depression-era prints. There are no older, vintage fabrics, such as one would expect to see if the fabrics were from a scrapbag. Also, while a wide variety of fabrics are included, there is repetition from plate to plate. Further, some of the fabrics are printed in different colorways of the same print. Die-cut quilt pieces were often cut from stacks of scraps left over from ready-to-wear garment construction, so finding the same print in different colors is a clue that points toward a kit origin.

Louise added an individual touch to her Dresden Plate quilt. She carefully cut circles out of one of her fabrics, each with the same printed flower in the center. She then appliquéd the circles to the white centers of the plates and outlined them with a running stitch of black cotton embroidery floss. It was not unusual for quiltmakers to modify or embellish kits to suit their own needs or tastes. 

The Dresden plate pattern was popular during the Depression era. It was included in nearly every catalog of kits along with Lone Star, Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Double Wedding Ring, and others. The name comes from the fine china produced in Dresden, Germany.

Marie Webster’s Practical Patchwork Company pattern
Maker unknown
Possibly made in Indiana, c. 1912
Cottons and linens, 93” x 81”
1997.007.0807. Ardis and Robert James Collection

Marie Webster of Marion, Indiana, was a quintessential Modern Age designer, credited with permanently altering the look and style of American quilts. Influenced by modern design movements particularly Art Nouveau, Webster made her highly original quilts in pale, soft colors that would soon dominate the 1920s and 1930s palette. The central medallion layout seen in some of her best-known quilts, such as this popular Poppy design, was derived from her study of early American quilts. This design layout was a marked innovation compared to the geometric repeating blocks quiltmakers had been accustomed to making for the previous half century. 

Webster’s quilts first came to public attention thanks to Edward Bok, the editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal, who included four of her quilts on a full page of the January, 1911, issue of the magazine. This was the first time quilts were published in color. The caption under the quilts read: “Transfer patterns cannot be supplied for any of these four quilts, but Mrs. Webster will be glad to answer inquiries regarding them if a stamped, addressed envelope is supplied.”

Four more quilts by Marie Webster were published in the Ladies’ Home Journal’s January, 1912, issue. The Poppy Quilt, of which this is a fine example, was included in the group along with Dogwood, Morning Glory, and Sunflower.

Three years later, Marie Webster published the first American full-length text on quilts. Her book, Quilts, Their Story and How to Make Them, was a historical study of quiltmaking. 

As interest in quiltmaking increased, Webster’s quilts were sold widely through department stores and fine linen shops. In a 1931 booklet, Webster’s Poppy Quilt was offered in three formats: as a kit, a partially finished quilt, or a finished quilt. The design came in two shades of pink or yellow, with green leaves and stems. The costs were: Stamped—$10.00; Basted—$40.00; and Finished—$90.00

State Flowers
Ruby Short McKim pattern series
Eda R. Sharpe (1885—1981)
Noblesville, Indiana, dated 1932
Cottons, 83” x 78.5”
2004.021.0001, Purchase made possible through Robert and Ardis James Foundation Acquisition Fund

In 1932, Eda Sharpe of Noblesville, Indiana, finished this exceptional quilt using the “State Flowers” set of quilt patterns designed by syndicated quilt columnist Ruby Short McKim. Eda’s local newspaper, the Indianapolis Star, published the quilt blocks that year at a rate of one per week beginning in September 1931. At the end of the series, the newspaper hosted a contest and exhibition of its readers’ completed quilts. 

McKim was particularly known for her series quilts that were a standby in the popular newspaper quilt pattern market. A prolific designer, McKim was one of the many newspaper contributors who helped feed the nearly insatiable appetite for quilt patterns in the early to mid-1900s.

There is no record that Eda entered a contest with her State Flowers quilt, but her work is meticulous and she might well have won if she had entered. The quilt exhibits her high level of sewing and quilting skills such as intricate, even quilting stitches, mitered corners, and a scalloped edge bound with a double binding in green and lavender. 

An American Home
Maker Unknown
Possibly made in New England, 1890—1910
Cottons, 74” x 58.5”
2003.003.0170, Jonathan Holstein Collection

By the 1870s some printed cottons were sold for as little as a few pennies per yard. Improved manufacturing processes and distribution made them more widely available, thus American women were offered many options for affordable quiltmaking materials. That, and the widespread adoption of the sewing machine, produced an extraordinary outpouring of creativity. A style that first appeared in the nineteenth century, called generically “postage stamp” quilts, used very small squares—sometimes thousands of them—stitched edge-to-edge mosaic fashion. Usually these thousands of squares were arranged in a random, allover fashion; but on a rare occasion the small pieces were organized to produce large overall images. 

Look closely at this quilt for an image to surface. It may help to take a few steps back or to squint at the quilt. 

Eventually, one may discern a house and a carriage house or barn with a large door behind it (to the left)—a typical American architectural configuration of the period. One can also see a shade tree with light sifting through the leaves and branches, shadows, interior space, and, in the foreground, a man sitting on what is probably a buckboard wagon seat. 

The image for this quilt may have come from the photographs taken by itinerant photographers. During the second half of the 1800s, they traveled the rural byways of America, offering to take a portrait of one’s home for a reasonable fee, and send, some months later, a finished, framed photo. Homeowners would often assemble their families and hired help outside for the picture, and the scene sometimes included a sewing machine, a prized wagon, or a favorite horse.

A Century of Progress
Ida M. Stow (1875—1957)
Park Ridge, Illinois, dated 1933
Silk crepe, 91.5” x 76”
1997.007.0947, Ardis and Robert James Collection

Ida Mae Schulte Stow and her mother, Carolyn Schulte, made this quilt in 1933 in response to the Sears Century of Progress Quilt Contest call for entries. The Sears Contest was not the first quilt contest, but it was the largest in terms of number of entries (over 24,000) and size of the grand prize ($1000). Ida and her mother took up the challenge to make a special quilt on the theme of the “Century of Progress.” In addition to the grand prize, a $200 bonus was promised to a progress-themed winner.

Ida’s design, including the typefaces she used, was based on the modern Art Deco aesthetics of the 1930s, rather than traditional forms. Her choice of colors was also significant— blue and gray were the official colors of the Century of Progress. The official fair logo in the center represented the world in its progress around the sun. Her quilting designs denote one hundred years of achievements and advancements—from sailboat to ocean liner, biplane to zeppelin, and Conestoga wagon to automobile. Unfortunately, the only prize Ida received was an Honorable Mention ribbon. 

Displeased with this result, Ida wrote a letter to the contest judges complaining that the Century of Progress theme quilts were being overlooked. She protested that, 

“I understand that the Century of Progress quilts or those featuring the progress of the last century are not being considered or given recognition over colonial designs.” 

Apparently, 1933 was still too early for judges to favor “unusual” patterns over time-honored ones, even though Sears had announced the bonus prize to encourage the submission of original designs. Instead, the judges chose, for the most part, traditional pieced and appliqué patterns that exhibited extremely fine hand work

Tobacco Premiums quilt
Maker unknown
Probably made in Michigan, 1915-1925
Cottons, cotton-silk mixtures, 86.5” x 69.5”
1997.007.0198, Ardis and Robert James Collection

Shortly after the Civil War, James B. Duke took over his father’s tobacco business. It grew so rapidly that by the late 1880s his company virtually controlled the U.S. tobacco industry, and in 1890 he founded the American Tobacco Company. Duke is credited with introducing collectible cards as premiums to promote sales of cigarettes, a gimmick adopted by competing firms. In the 1890s printed silk premiums began to replace the cards, which by this time were waning in popularity. Such ploys, which encouraged people to buy more cigarettes so they might own complete sets of a particular subject matter, initiated an era in which millions of premium inserts on a wide range of subjects were included with tobacco products. Tobacco product manufacturers began to include premiums with subject matter designed to appeal to women, images nicely printed in different sizes on silk fabrics and cotton flannel. Women soon began to use them in quilts. 

The diversity in both size and subject matter is represented in the 385 “silkies” (a common name that has been given to tobacco premiums) appliquéd to this quilt top. Subjects include, among other things, national flags and anthems, soldiers of different nations, Canadian Mounties, various styles of national dress, bathing beauties, butterflies, Japanese geishas, and animals, birds and flowers. Also pictured are the royal or elected leaders of several nations. American President Woodrow Wilson (in office 1913-1921), Japanese Emperor Taisho (ruled 1912-1926), Swedish King Gustav V (ruled 1907-1950), and English King George V (ruled 1910-1936) are all present, providing an impressive assemblage of world leaders from the early twentieth century. The practice of putting such premiums in cigarette packages came to an end after World War I as tobacco companies turned to other forms of advertising

Deer in Wedgewood
Bertha A. Meckstroth (1875—1960)
Glencoe, Illinois, dated 1932
Blue linen and white cotton, 68” x 68”
2003.003.0361, Jonathan Holstein Collection

Although kits and patterns were a prevalent source of new quilt designs in the 1930s, some women with artistic skill chose to make one-of-a-kind quilts. A cloth tag on the back of this quilt connects it to one of the most original, but least known, quilt designers of the twentieth century. The information on the label reads: “Bertha A. Meckstroth, Glencoe, Ill., Casa Tranquilla. 1932.” Bertha Amelia Meckstroth lived in this suburb of Chicago with her sister Anna Sears, widow of the founder of Sears Roebuck & Co., in a Spanish-style villa they called “Casa Tranquilla.” 

Born in 1875 to German-immigrant parents, Bertha entered Radcliffe College in 1902, at the age of 27. There she studied art and sculpture. She set up a studio in the early 1920s and began to make quilts, but as she was a sculptress at heart, she found herself drawn to trapunto, reverse appliqué, layered appliqué, and embroidery which created what she termed “sculpted cloth.” 

By 1933 she had made more than 140 quilts. She was invited to display her quilts and lecture at the Illinois Pavilion at the Century of Progress Exposition on July 15, 1933. Despite the public showing of her work, Bertha’s designs never gained wide acceptance. No magazine editors paid to use her design patterns nor did she enter contests to receive compensation and adulation. Her work was all but forgotten until the early 1980s when she was rediscovered as one of the twentieth century’s most unique quiltmakers and designers.

This quilt is probably one of Bertha’s “Wedgewood” quilts—a series based on Wedgwood china, a distinctive style that features white decoration on a blue ground. Without the identification label on the back, it would have been difficult to link the quilt to Bertha Meckstroth since photos of her work published since her death do not include any examples of her Wedgewood series.

Works in the Exhibition

Gallery Photos

Gallery Photos
Gallery Photos
This exhibition was made possible through funding from the Nebraska Arts Council and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. The Nebraska Arts Council, a state agency, has supported this exhibition through its matching grants program funded by the Nebraska Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. Visit for more information. Additional support provided by Friends of the International Quilt Museum.
Event Date
Saturday, May 23, 2009 to Sunday, November 15, 2009