Today in History

Today in History: October 29

Quilting

Quiltmaker Lora King's Hands
Lora King's Hands,
Terry Eiler, photographer,
September 14, 1978
Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978-1996

African-American folk artist Harriet Powers (external link), nationally recognized for her quilts, was born in rural Georgia on October 29, 1837. Using a traditional appliqué technique, Powers recorded local legends, Bible stories, and astronomical events on her quilts. Considered among the finest examples of nineteenth-century Southern quilting, Powers' work is on display at the Smithsonian Institution and is featured in the online exhibition Seven Southern Quilters (external link).

In 1938, one hundred years after Powers' birth, Mayme Reese shared her own memories of quilting in turn-of-the-century South Carolina with a Federal Writers' Project interviewer. Just as the beauty of Powers' work transcended race and class, Reese's recollections suggest fine quilting was a skill that Southern women of all classes appreciated. Reese remembered:

Sometimes rich white women would hear that such and such a person had won the prize for pretty quilts, they'd come and ask that person to make them a quilt…Sometimes they'd make it and sometimes they wouldn't…If they did make it, they'd get around five dollars…Sometimes they'd furnish the scraps and sometimes they wouldn't. Most of the time, though, they'd buy pieces of goods and give it to the person who was making the quilt to cut up.

"Mrs. Mayme Reese," New York City, September 21, 1938.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

Although prized for their beauty, quilts were necessities of life for pioneer families. Quilts not only adorned beds, but also served as makeshift doors, windows, and cloaks. Patching quilts to keep large pioneer families warm was one of many housewifely duties. Writing about newly wed Anne Janette Kellogg, Gerald Carson characterized the lot of the early Michigan wife:

Thus began another woman's life in pioneer Michigan—the hanging of the almanac from the clock shelf, the childbearing, the round of baking, sewing, washing, canning, threading dried apples on strings, the interminable making of carpet rags; quilts and comforters; filling bed ticks with oat straw; of ironing, patching and mending.

Gerald Carson, Cornflake Crusade, pages 85-86.
Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910

Sewing a Quilt
Sewing a Quilt, Gees Bend, Alabama,
Arthur Rothstein, photographer,
April 1937.

Making a Quilt from Surplus Commodity Cotton
Making a Quilt from Surplus Commodity Cotton in Greensboro, Greene County, Georgia,
Jack Delano, photographer,
October 1941.

Grandmother from Oklahoma with Grandson, Working on Quilt
Grandmother from Oklahoma with Grandson, Working on Quilt,
California, Kern County,
Dorothea Lange, photographer,
February 1936.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: FSA/OWI Photographs, 1938-1944.

During the Depression, the handcrafting of quilts from scraps and surplus materials helped rural Southerners survive hard times. Photographers of the Farm Security Administration documented quilting activities in small towns throughout the United States. These photographs also reveal the social and intergenerational nature of the pastime.

Sharing the work of quilting with friends and neighbors lightened the burden and created an occasion for fun and conversation. New Englander Ella Bartlett recalled the quilting bees of her youth for a WPA interviewer in 1938:

We would think we'd got everybody quilted up, when some mornin' there'd be a knock at the front door and some boy or girl would be there to say that 'Ma sent her compliments' and would I come to her quiltin' bee, and then we'd know another of the girls had got engaged.

"Ella Bartlett,"
Brookfield, Massachusetts,
December 19, 1938
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

Contemporary quilters continue to carry on this American craft tradition, creating quilts in the classic patterns and developing innovations as well. The online collection Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978-1996 contains materials from American Folklife Center field projects documenting quiltmaking as it is practiced in the United States today. The collection includes 181 sound recordings of quilters talking about their work and their quilting methods.

Portrait of Mamie and Leonard Bryan on Porch in Front of Quilt
Portrait of Mamie and Leonard Bryan on Porch in Front of Bedspread,
Lyntha Scott Eiler, photographer,
September 10, 1978.
Listen to Mamie Lee Bryan.

Bertha Marion at Quilt Frame
Bertha Marion at Quilt Frame,
Terry Eiler, photographer,
August 1978.

Sabe and Donna Choate
Sabe and Donna Choate Standing in Front of Quilt Draped on Fence,
Geraldine N. Johnson, photographer,
September 25 and 26, 1978.
Listen to Donna Choate.
Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978-1996

Carl Schurz

The sun has risen bright and clear, and the view spread out before me presents so cheerful and sweet a picture that I am distinctly encouraged to hope we shall be very happy here.

Carl Schurz to Margarethe Meyer Schurz,
October 29,1855,
Intimate Letters of Carl Schurz, 1841-1869.
Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910

On October 29, 1855, recent German immigrant Carl Schurz wrote his wife, Margarethe Meyer Schurz, expressing hope for their future happiness. A political refugee from the tumultuous revolutions of 1848 (external link), Schurz soon gravitated toward political life in the United States. Exactly five years later, Schurz corresponded with his wife from Lincoln’s presidential campaign trail.

Carl Schurz
Carl Schurz,
M. B. Brady, photographer,
1877.
The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

Although Schurz initially supported William H. Seward for the Republican nomination, he welcomed the prospect of a Lincoln presidency and assured the nominee that

. . . I shall carry into this struggle all the zeal and ardor and enthusiasm of which my nature is capable. The same disinterested motives that led me and my friends to support Gov. Seward in the Convention, will animate and urge us on in our work for you, and wherever my voice is heard and my influence extends you may count upon hosts of true and devoted friends.

Carl Schurz to Abraham Lincoln,
May 22, 1860
Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress

Schurz's efforts on behalf of Lincoln and his commitment to the nascent Republican Party resulted in his appointment as envoy to Spain. A year later, Schurz returned to America to serve as a brigadier general in the Union Army during the Civil War.

After the war's conclusion and Lincoln's assassination, Schurz toured the South on behalf of President Andrew Johnson. In his report to Johnson, the former abolitionist urged extension of the franchise to freedmen as a condition for the South's readmission to the Union. Johnson ignored his recommendations

After a stint as a journalist, Schurz served as a U.S. senator from Missouri from 1869 to 1875. Over the course of his term, dissatisfaction with the corruption of the Grant administration and disappointment with its Reconstruction policies led Schurz to take an active role in the short-lived reformist Liberal Republican Party. By 1876, however, he was back in the traditional Republican fold advocating the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, who he believed would restore integrity to government.

My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.

Carl Schurz, speech in the Senate,
February 29, 1872.
A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875

As secretary of the interior under Hayes, Schurz had lasting impact on the American environment. For the first time, the Department of the Interior addressed conservation issues. During Schurz's tenure, the U.S. Geological Survey was officially established as a bureau within the department. Schurz himself urged the creation of forest reserves and a federal forest service. Although these recommendations were not enacted until 1891 and 1905, respectively, Schurz's administration is considered a turning point in the history of government participation in the American conservation movement.


First Official Investigation of Indian Grievances, Visit of Secretary Schurz to the Spotted Tail Indian Agency,
From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper,
1879.
History of the American West: Photographs from the Collection of the Denver Public Library, 1860-1920

After leaving government in 1881, Schurz returned to journalism. As an editor for national publications including The Nation and Harper's Weekly, he continued to influence U.S. opinion and policy and was recognized as perhaps the leading spokesman for German Americans. Never one to place party loyalty before principle, he urged reformist Republicans to vote for Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1884.

Continuing his early advocacy of clean government, Schurz headed the National Civil Service Reform League from 1892 to 1901. Though his anti-imperialism placed him strongly at odds with President Theodore Roosevelt, he lived to see the latter create the Forest Service in 1905 and vigorously expand the conservation policies he himself had advocated. Carl Schurz died the following year at age seventy-seven.