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