(Part 1 tells the background of a quilt inscribed with many names, and how I started my search for the details of its history.)
Families with several children have been most useful for narrowing down the dates. The Dorchesters, Chester O. and Edith G. nee Kimball, for example. Their daughter Alice Jean was born in 1896, and her name is on the quilt. Their son Kenneth was born in 1899 and is not on the quilt. Similarly, Eva and Harry Thompson's daughter Virginia, born in 1891, is on the quilt, as is their son Kenneth, born in March 1897.
Between the Pickles (their story is in Part 1), the Dorchesters, and the Thompsons, I had pretty quickly placed the date between later in 1897 and sometime in 1898. I will toot my own horn and say that my first guesstimate on the age of this quilt was late 1800s or early 1900s, or perhaps an older top that was finished some years later. This was based on the old-fashioned, 19th-century-style penmanship being combined with the polka dot backing and ties rather than fancy quilting, which point to something a bit more recent.
Also, I found that the great majority of the names appear on census pages for a town called either Melrose City or Melrose. So now, I am sure the quilt was made in Massachusetts, and can add that to the search criteria.
Nearly every person I've found via Ancestry.com has hints of an intriguing story in their census records. This process is incredibly fun!
Spinster sisters Lizzie and Christie Lunt shared a house. Lizzie's occupation was "crocheting."
Gertrude Jones and Walter DeHaven Jones had been married in 1885 at the M.E. Church in Melrose, MA by......John D. Pickles!
Newlyweds Ralph and Elisa Wilbur, just married in 1898, were living with Ralph's mother and sister.
Jenny Howes was a widow in 1880 when she was 37 years old. She lived with her father and 12 year old son. In 1885 she is listed in the Melrose directory as owner of a millinery shop in nearby Upham, located "opposite the Baptist church." Jenny Howes is so far the only female business owner I've come across.
Here's a sad story. There are four Eversons named on the quilt - Charles, Georgina, Lucy, and Grace. Charles and Georgina are husband and wife. They appear on several census forms with their children Lucy and Charles, but never a child or mother or aunt named Grace. I finally did find Grace, but only as a death record. She was indeed Charles and Georgina's daughter. She lived from March 1897 to September 1898. I feel that maybe her short life has been given at least a little bit more meaning, by helping with more precise dating of this quilt. (Charles was born in 1902, after the quilt was made.)
In 1900 Sarah Hanson was 72 years old. She was living with her daughter and son-in-law, and with their daughter, son-in-law, and 9 month-old grandson. So Sarah was a great-grandma, and all the generations were under one roof.
George A. Whidden was a carpenter, 59 years old in 1900, married to Susie Whidden. He had fought in the Civil War and was wounded in 1861. His sister Angelina and her husband George Anderson are also on the quilt. By the 1920 census, George, Angelina, and George were sharing a home.
I can only wonder at the story of Mary Peirce. She is listed in 1880 in Boston at age 38 in her father-in-law's household, along with her husband, two teenage daughters, and brother-in-law. In the Profession column, Mary is noted as "in insane asylum." In 1900, the family is found in Melrose. At this point, her husband was living with one of the daughters. The two of them are on the quilt. I have found no further mention of Mary.
Sarah Lavender was 73 years old on the 1900 census. She had been married to John R. Lavender, a sea captain and had 5 children. She was living with her youngest daughter Carrie and her husband Russell Sawtelle and their daughter Dorothy, who are also on the quilt. Dorothy was born in 1895. Their other children, born in March 1898 and 1899, are not on the quilt.
Frederick Saltmarsh was a sewer inspector on the Melrose 1900 census. By 1910, he and his family had moved to Solano, CA, where he had become a submarine inspector for the US Navy. By 1920, his career is listed as "shipfitter, helper." A few years later, he and his wife returned to Massachusetts, this time living in the town of Waltham.
Part 3 tells the story of the Phinney, Dyer, and Hersey families. Part 4 has general observations on life in the late 1890s. Part 5 sums up my research. Part 6 shares the first information from librarians and historians in Melrose. And a little aside about the fun of being able to look at original records online.