Dozens of colorful fabrics, thousands of tiny stitches, and the hands of many women created the beautiful quilt you see here.
Handmade quilts were valued household items in 18th- and 19th-century America, providing both warmth and beauty. This quilt was not meant to keep anyone warm, however. It was made to display the talent of the women who sewed it and to be an admired gift, decorated with emblems of friendship and civic pride.
Women in the 19th century were skilled at sewing. Trained from girlhood, they stitched useful household items and clothing and also decorative pieces (including quilts) for display. During the 1840s, album quilts became fashionable. The name refers to the popular autograph albums of the time similar to the scrapbooks of today in which young ladies collected signatures and mementos from friends and family. An album quilt was a collection of many designs sewn by different women and then joined to form one large quilt. Sometimes the makers even signed their names.
Creating album quilts gave women a chance to socialize and to demonstrate their artistry. Made as gifts, the quilts were presented to important people in the community, such as a minister or soldier, or given to mark a special occasion like a wedding or the birth of a child.
Many squares make up an album quilt, each sewn by a different woman.
Quilting brought women together in many places around the country, including Minneapolis, Minnesota. A number of different women each contributed a square to make this crazy quilt.
Women in Baltimore, Maryland, made album quilts that looked quite different from those made in other parts of the country. These unusual quilts became known as Baltimore album quilts.
The vining border along the edges of this quilt is characteristic of Baltimore album quilts. It acts as a frame, focusing attention on the rows of individually designed squares. To create their designs, the quilt makers used a challenging technique called appliqué. They cut small shapes out of fabric, layered them on top of a larger background fabric, and then carefully sewed them down with tiny, even stitches. Another type of stitching, called quilting, joins the front, middle, and back layers of the quilt together. Thousands of these minute stitches give texture to the entire quilt.
Baltimore album quilts are remarkable for their dazzling variety of fabrics. In the mid-1800s Baltimore was a bustling port city, with markets that sold dry goods of all kinds. Cloth from Europe and from America's growing textile industry flooded into Baltimore in a sea of colors and patterns. In other regions of the country, album quilts were often made with scraps of leftover material or bits of worn-out clothing. Baltimore quilt makers, however, selected fabrics carefully and purchased them specially for the quilts. They chose cloth that was new and unusual and often costly. Baltimore album quilts were not for everyday use. They were meant to be displayed and admired.
Quilting stitches in contrasting patterns create texture on the white background fabric.
Miniature white stars were carefully sewn onto this patriotic shield design.
Fabrics of different colors and patterns give shape and texture to the fruit and flowers.
Many men and women in 19th-century Baltimore belonged to clubs and organizations. Baltimore album quilts often include squares decorated with symbols used by those groups. Two charitable organizations popular with men of the time are represented in the designs on this quilt. The symbol of three linked rings standing for the virtues of friendship, love, and truthwas (and still is) used by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The square and compasses is an emblem used by the Freemasons (or Masons).
Other images on the quilt are symbols of friendship and kindness. The pineapple represents hospitality, and the cornucopia indicates generosity. Scales symbolize justice. The anchor stands for hope, and the harp for music. The design of two hearts pierced by an arrow clearly means love; the hand holding a heart symbolizes friendship; and the pear signifies affection.
Many Baltimore album quilts also include emblems of national pride. In this quilt's bottom right corner, a cannon and red-and-white-striped swag are patriotic references to Baltimore's Fort McHenry and the 1812 battle that inspired the national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.
A symbol of the Freemasons organization, the square and compasses reminded members of the virtues of good judgment and fairness.
The heart in hand is a symbol of charity and friendship used by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
Patriotic images like this cannon are common on Baltimore album quilts.
Learn more about another Baltimore album quilt at Mia by checking out this story! Compare the details of the quilt and quilt top. What do they have in common? How are they different?
In the 1840s, making album books and album quilts was a way to record memories and save small tokens of friendship. What kinds of albums do people keep and cherish today? Write an essay explaining how today's albums are like or unlike the album quilts of the 1800s.
The Baltimore album quilt at the Minneapolis Institute of Art contains many symbols of friendship and love. Research other symbols or come up with some of your own that communicate these ideas. Draw your symbol on a square piece of paper. Sign the square and add a message of friendship or love. The squares you and your classmates create can be assembled into a classroom album quilt for display.
Use the search function on Mia's website to see the huge variety of quilts from around the world in the collection. Find quilts that you like from at least three different countries. Share the images with others. If you do this as a class, check to see if you selected any of the same quilts!
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