Quilting & Genealogy: Treasured Family Heirlooms

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary writes about a family treasure of particular interest to genealogists: heirloom quilts.

Heirloom quilts and coverlets are comfort for the soul. They tell many a tale of family history, so it comes as no surprise that genealogists and quilting go hand in hand.

Perhaps an heirloom quilt has passed down through your family, as some have in mine.

Emalena’s Quilt

One such quilt in my home was made by Emalena, our family baby sitter.

She was a single woman who remained single until late in life. She treated us like her own children, and gave us many of her beautiful quilts. This one, fashioned in the traditional wedding ring pattern, became a present for my parents.

photo of a family quilt from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

Photo: family quilt from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

One has to assume she made a quilt for the kind widower she married. Perhaps one of her quilts “sealed the deal” with the marriage proposal. We certainly hope so!

Jacquard Coverlets

Two family treasures that came through my family were matching Jacquard coverlets.

Notice that this one, which belongs to my aunt, has the name Sophronia W. Seymour inscribed on it, along with the year 1834. Sophronia was my second great grandmother, and in 1834 would have been 20. Perhaps it was part of her trousseau, an old tradition in which items were collected for a girl to take into her marriage.

photo of a family coverlet from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

Photo: family coverlet from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

For many years, I thought that a family member had been a talented weaver – but now I know from historical research that this was probably not the case. Around 1820, a special loom was invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard which truly revolutionized the world of weaving.

article about the Jacquard loom, Evening Post newspaper article 29 October 1833

Evening Post (New York, New York), 29 October 1833, page 2

As Jacquard’s loom was programmable, it was much like an early computer. Intricate fabric patterns were made much quicker than before, and often in a double weave motif. The coverlet above, and another matching eagle and heart patterned example that also came through the family, are black on white on one side, and white on black on the other.

Not every quilt or coverlet contains names and dates – but when they do, they are wonderful genealogical gems (click this link for examples.)

Jacquard died in 1834, and it is a shame that so many people today do not realize the impact his loom had on the world.

obituary for Joseph Jacquard, Daily Atlas newspaper article 29 October 1834

Daily Atlas (Boston, Massachusetts), 29 October 1834, page 2

Textile Research

Newspapers offer a fine opportunity to research heirloom quilts and coverlets. Many of the newspaper articles are rich with detail. Not only can they help you date your treasures, but you can even find patterns to help you make your own family heirlooms.

One of the earliest newspaper reports that I could find regarding a quilt dates to 1752.

Margaret Rogers, a young girl apprenticed to Alice Dodd of Philadelphia, ran away. The runaway ad detailed Margaret’s garments, along with a light blue homespun quilt that she took with her.

runaway ad for apprentice Margaret Rogers, Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper article 12 October 1752

Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 12 October 1752, page 7

Looking through 19th century newspapers you’ll find various quilting and sewing advertisements, some even detailing the machines our ancestors used.

ad for sewing machines, New Orleans Tribune newspaper advertisement 23 October 1866

New Orleans Tribune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 23 October 1866, page 3

By the 20th century, quilting had become all the rage. Quilting patterns appeared in newspaper articles, including this pretty Star Center Quilt block “stolen” from a neighbor’s laundry line. News articles frequently detailed color patterns and tips to assemble the quilts. For this one, red, white and blue were suggested:

Any house w[h]ere there are many children would be apt to furnish easily the blues and whites, and even if the red had to be bought for the purpose the cost would be very slight.

quilt block pattern for the Star Center Quilt, Broad Ax newspaper article 18 July 1903

Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), 18 July 1903, page 3

A favorite of modern quilters are patterns, of which there is no shortage in newspapers. Many of the famous Laura Wheeler designs were published, including this basket applique quilt design from 1936.

quilt patterns by Laura Wheeler, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 15 January 1936

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 15 January 1936, page 3

This 1937 newspaper article detailed the activities of Miss Minnie Eldridge, a home demonstration agent from Texas. She educated various Louisiana farm women on how to fashion quilts and taught them about the flower pot pattern fashionable among the mountaineers of Tennessee.

article about quilting, State Times Advocate newspaper article 11 August 1937

State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 11 August 1937, page 13

Quilting is no lost art in Louisiana, not even a decadent one, if the enthusiasm and interest registered by hundreds of farm women at a quilting lecture Wednesday morning may serve as a basis for determining the quilting status in the state.

Other Resources for Quilting Examples

Don’t forget to explore social media, and in particular Pinterest, for quilting examples. A favorite of mine is the Library of Congress, where I found this lovely picture of quilters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

photo of Jorena Pettway sewing a quilt, Gees Bend, Alabama, c. 1937

Photo: sewing a quilt, Gees Bend, Alabama, c. 1937. Shown are an unidentified girl, Jennie Pettway, and quilter Jorena Pettway. Credit: Arthur Rothstein; Library of Congress.

Hope this inspires you to research your textiles, quilts and coverlets in newspapers. Be sure to share your finds in the comments.

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Earlier Women of War: Nurses, Camp Followers & Red Cross Volunteers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to find the stories of women who served during some of our nation’s earlier wars—as army nurses, camp followers, and Red Cross volunteers.

There are numerous groups that celebrate the lives of (mostly men) veterans from America’s past wars, but many of us wonder: what about the women? Certainly women on the home front were supportive of their husbands, fathers and brothers at war—with sewing, cooking and other tasks to contribute to the war effort and stability at home.

But many women during wartime did much more—even making the decision to assist as military “camp followers” ready to tend to the needs of the soldiers. If you were a wife or mother who had sent a spouse or sons to war, what would you do?

Would you remain at home, or would you want to be close at hand, making sure the men were well fed and nursed in the event of battle injuries? Of course, most women did continue to raise their families, work the fields and keep the household running—but some went off to war to support the troops.

Most of these brave women’s war stories have never been told, as history books make scarce mention of them. Firsthand accounts of these women camp followers and soldiers’ wives are few—but with a little help from historical newspapers, we can get a glimpse into the lives of these forgotten women of war.

Elizabeth Dodd, Revolutionary War Camp Follower

In this 1849 obituary we can read the life story of Elizabeth Dodd, who led quite an eventful life in her 111 years. As the obituary comments: “In the death of this aged person, there is a volume of history lost. Living in great retirement, the relict of a forgotten age, few knew the stories she could tell of the brave old days.”

obituary for Elizabeth Dodd, Weekly Herald newspaper article 4 August 1849

Weekly Herald (New York, New York), 4 August 1849, page 248

Dodd was a camp follower during the American Revolutionary War: “During the first American war, she followed her husband through the principal campaigns; was at many of the hardest fought battles; at Monmouth, White Plains, Yorktown, &c.”

Susannah Clark, First Army Nurse Pensioned

Another fascinating account is that of Mrs. Susannah D. Clark who, according to this 1899 newspaper article, nursed American soldiers in two wars and has the distinction of being the first army nurse pensioned in U.S. history.

According to the old newspaper article: “As a bride of a few days, she cared for the suffering and dying during the Civil War, and as a gray-haired grandmother she looked after and nursed back to good health two of her grandsons during the late Spanish-American unpleasantness.”

Mrs. [Susannah] Clark Nursed Soldiers of Two Wars, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 4 September 1899

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 4 September 1899, page 4

Officers’ Entourages

Officers typically had an array of camp followers—some there to directly assist the officers with many varying roles, including baggage handling, while others came along to sell their wares.

This 1792 newspaper article discusses General Abercrombie and the Grand Army, reporting that he “sent off all his baggage that was on the out side of the fort, to Mysore, under an effort of cavalry, and accompanied by his camp followers.”

Grand Army [under General Abercrombie], Daily Advertiser newspaper article 3 September 1792

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 3 September 1792, page 2

British Camp Followers of the “Paper Army”

Military camp followers have participated in almost every war, here and abroad. This 1885 newspaper article gives an account of a British “Paper Army.” It reports that during a recent inspection, the actual number of men was much lower than official reports had indicated, so “cooks, servants, and camp followers were hastily crowded into the ranks to satisfy the inspectors.”

A [British] Paper Army, Wisconsin State Journal newspaper article 13 February 1885

Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wisconsin), 13 February 1885, page 5

Red Cross Camp Followers

This 1911 newspaper article gives a report from the Mexican War. After one battle, supply wagons that had been left on the battlefield were inspected by Americans protected by a Red Cross flag.

The historical newspaper article reports: “However, after the Americans demonstrated that it was safe to approach the wagons, the Mexican commander sent a detail under protection of machine guns to bring the wagons into camp. The supplies were evidently a welcome addition to the commissary department of the federals, and were received with handclapping on the part of the women camp followers.”

article about the Mexican War, Salt Lake Telegram newspaper article 10 April 1911

Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 10 April 1911, page 6

Clara Barton, the “Angel of the Battlefield”

One female camp follower who did achieve fame was Clara Barton (1821-1912), founder of the American Red Cross Society.

pictures of Clara Barton, from the Trenton Evening Times 13 April 1912 & the Fort Worth Star-Telegram 12 April 1912

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 13 April 1912, page 3 (left);
Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), 12 April 1912, page 1 (right)

Because of her nursing work on the front lines during the Civil War, Barton was known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.” After the war, she traveled to the infamous Confederate prisoner-of-war camp Andersonville in Georgia, where she researched the graves of thousands of Union soldiers, identifying the dead and writing letters telling Northern families what had happened to their missing loved ones. (See National Park Service article at www.nps.gov/ande/historyculture/clara_barton.htm.) Later, she provided nursing services in Europe during the Franco-Prussian War, then came home to promote formation of the American Red Cross.  Barton’s long career of service began as a nurse camp follower.

As the following 1912 newspaper obituary mentions, Clara Barton “gave her life to humanity, and humanity mourns at her death…Not till she was 40 years old did Miss Barton start upon her notable life work. Then came the conflict between the American states, calling every patriot to duty. Miss Barton could not shoulder a musket, but she could and did [do] what was as essential; she went to the front as a nurse.”

The Death of Clara Barton, Plain Dealer newspaper obituary 13 April 1912

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 13 April 1912, page 6

Eleanor Guckes, My WWII Red Cross Ancestor

This photograph of my grandmother Eleanor (Scott) Guckes shows her wearing an American Red Cross uniform in 1942 during WWII. According to our family records, she assisted in the war effort by driving an ambulance while her husband was serving with the Navy in the Pacific Theatre.

photo of Eleanor Guckes

Credit: from the photographic collection of Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Do you have a female family member who served in the Red Cross or assisted as a camp follower during one of our nation’s wars? If so, please share your ancestor’s story with us in the comments section.