July 21, 2015

History Comes to Life on a Quilt - Part 1

This quilt was sent to me, in need of repair.  It's a special quilt, because all the white pieces are inscribed in ink with names.  I am thinking that it may very well have been a fund-raising quilt, since the names are all written by the same hand.  But there is no dedication or date, so there really is no way to know for sure.

The quilt has some tears at the edges, both on the front and on the polka dot back.  Most happily, none of the names are affected.

(Note the difference in the whites, between the yellower antique fabrics in the quilt, and the bluer modern sheet that the quilt is lying on.  This is why finding a match for old whites is a bit tricky, and why a light cream or pale tan may end up being the best.  This is also why an old quilt that looks a bit yellow is not necessarily dirty.)

There is one block where two small tears were previously repaired.

The Pattern Name
The pattern is now known as Old Italian Block.  I've posted about a gorgeous mid-1800s version, with a wonderful collection of prints.  

This time, I read more carefully in Barbara Brackman's Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns.  I noticed she has documented that name via the Nancy Cabot 1930's quilt pattern column, much after both these quilts were made.  The name she has for the time these 1800s quilts were made is either "Old Italian Design", published in the Farm Journal which began publication in 1877, or "Snowflake", published as pattern #277 in 1897 by the Ladies Art Company. 

Dating the Quilt
I mentioned to my husband how cool it would be to be able to know who all these people were and what their lives were about.  He reminded me that we've just signed up for a membership with Ancestry.com - and I started searching.

I hit pay dirt almost immediately!  What's proved most useful is choosing what appear to be the names of a husband and wife.  When I find that last name with the matching two first names, I can be more certain that I have the right folks.

I started with John D. Pickles and Elizabeth Pickles.  In the same block, there is also a Helen Pickles.  I found John and Elizabeth on the 1880 census, living in Lawrence, MA.  John was a minister, age 36, and Elizabeth was 32.  Elizabeth's maiden name was Seavey.  They had been married on June 14, 1877.

Then, on the 1900 census, I found John, living in Westfield, MA.  He had a daughter named Helen who had been born in 1885.  But instead of Elizabeth, his wife's name is given as Lucia, and there are two more children, Katharine born in 1899 and Marion born in 1900.

So I could deduce that the quilt was made at some point after Helen was born in 1885, and before Elizabeth (presumably) died and John remarried.  He most likely remarried at least a year before Katharine was born, so sometime before 1898.  So the quilt was made between 1885 and 1898 in Massachusetts!

I told all this to the quilt owner, who happily informed me that she had bought the quilt at a garage sale in Massachusetts!

So I was off and running.

End of Part 1.  Part 2 details how I've narrowed down the dates, and relates some of the interesting family stories I've been finding.  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.  I've written a little aside about the fun of being able to look at original records online.  And, since the quilt did initially come to me for repair, and I did eventually stop reading census forms and do the repair work, and wrote up the techniques and choices involved.  And then I went back to the research, and continued to find lots of great information.  And also, a summary on the occasion of the exhibit about the quilt, December 2018, in Melrose.  After the events, I described the homecoming experience and the exhibits, and wrote about the little quilt I made that was inspired by the historical quilt.  A set of summaries of the data and stories that brought the quilt to life.  And a very astonishing coincidence with another quilt and a family tree.  I was given a photo of one of the people named on the quilt. 


  1. This is interesting, Ann. I'm looking forward to Part 2.

    1. Thanks! Part 2 will introduce several more townsfolk!

  2. Your blog story of this quilt top has been a fascinating read. The idea this could have been a fundraiser rings true.

    Your delved deep in this several part topic, with a devotion worth high praise. Your use of the background life stories to date the quilt proves quite precise.

    As a fundraiser, perhaps by a church group, one wonders how long the project took from start to finish. For some reason in the cobwebs of my mind I seem to recall donations of $.25 per person/signature a common amount. Sadly I have no idea what era that price applies to anymore.

    When your dates range over at least six months, it seems it may have taken that long to have done the fundraising, so it could easily be this project spanned a year. If there was a finiacial goal, could it take even more than six months to "sell out" all the spaces? Not all who signed may have been so readily able to cough up this additional commitment. If this were fund raising for a church these members may have considered their tithing their primary donation.

    What a great investment in the future it was for the group, church or otherwise. It has brought them recognition they could not have remotely imagined in another Millenium.

    Bravo of the quilt work, both repair, restoration and electronic sleuthing.

    1. Thanks so much for all the support! I'm thinking it's not a church group quilt, because there are names of clergy from several different denominations. But yes, I'm sure it took quite a while to complete the quilt - which is true of most all quilts anyway, right? :-) Also - I love your online name and your blog is a gem of historical resources. I always love looking at old ads!