By Elise Couture-Stone
We’ve all seen them: quilts. Everyay, mundane objects meant to serve a function, a purpose. In our mind’s eye we can trace the contours of the shapes, the unique patterns and kaleidoscopic colors. However, what we may not know is that each individual stitch and piece of fabric woven together represents a cultural transition; a change in function; a change in mindset—a shift in consciousness. The colors of the materials reverberate in these works, echoing stories of eras long past, and summoning up pain long since forgotten. The fabrics, the textures, the thread, indeed all of these materials, reflect centuries of non-idol hands—fingers possessing the most refined dexterity and vision to create. The detailed elements in each finely woven stitch bear open souls long since deceased.
More than just commonplace objects, quilts have a great deal to tell us about women’s lives and daily activities. Legally and socially discouraged from participating in the public—masculine—arenas of politics, education and trade, women during the nineteenth century were confined to the activities of the home—a singularly female domain. For women, quilts became a medium for expression, exceeding their original commonplace function. Where their thoughts on politics and social reforms were not openly accepted, women used quilts to give voice and agency to their shifting roles within society and in the home. Women who gathered in sewing circles and parlor craft communities were able to control, and indeed, infuse meaning into their circumscribedlives through their collective creativity in cloth. As historian Elaine Hedges put it, “Their needles became their pens,”and their cloth, paper [i]. It is through this expanded view of the documented experience that quilts were not just artifacts of the home, but rather, historical records: first-hand accounts of personal experiences set within a given framework of social and political circumstances. Because, while not all women of the nineteenth century were taught to read and write, they were however, nearly all taught to sew [ii].
If we use the framework of the agrarian society as the baseline, or foundation for understanding the value of women’s activities at the beginning of the century, and how quilts and quilting played a major role in this activity, then we can better understand how the value of women’s work and their contributions to the family unit became devoid of value by the middle of the century with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. It is under the restricted conditions of the burgeoning sex-separate spheres and the effects of the Industrial Revolution that we are able to see how women came to organize and commune under the pretense of cloth.
Prior to large-scale industrialization, both female and male productivity in and around the home impacted the success or failure of the home and its ability to sustain a family. [iii]Thus women experienced direct gains for their efforts and were equal partners within the agricultural family unit. All members of the family—including children—contributed to the work product of the home. Sewing, weaving, darning socks, making clothes, blankets, and other household textiles were a major part of the household productive economy [iv]. When the productive economy shifted outside of the home and into urban centers that focused on factory-work, women were largely excluded from the new sources of compensation, and thus their work was devalued in a social system that increasingly regarded monetary payment as a measure of individual worth. [v]Industrialization drew wage-seeking men out of the home, which left women to assimilate into largely self-regulated domains that developed their own set of values, rituals and modes of communication. [vi]
To further compound the restricted realities women faced during these decades, women had limited-to-no access to education, they could not vote, they could not hold assets, they were the legal property of a male family member, and they had little-to-no opportunity to work outside the home. Children produced within a marriage did not legally belong to women–they belonged only to their husbands. As men were increasingly drawn out of the home to seek out wage-based work, women became more and more dependent on their male family members to financially support them—making marriage (and re-marriage) an imperative phase of their lives. Women held no autonomy under the law or the social constructs of the nineteenth century.
It was under these strained conditions that a subculture of womanhood emerged within the private confines of the home. With its own set of values and rituals that emphasized enfranchisement and prioritization of self—women infused meaning, and dignity, into their daily lives. [vii] Records of women’s life-cycles and the major events that commonly occurred in their lives were stitched into cloth when women gathered in these communities. These records include their birthdays, declarations of friendship, engagement and bridal events, birth recordings, and bereavement cloths that defined their years of widowhood [viii]. These quilts also often recreated their communities with special attention to landmarks, buildings, and locations that in some cases did not survive into the new century, making them the only remaining record of such places. The existence of such communities not documented on paper, but rather sewn in cloth.
Quilts recorded women’s responses to the social and political environments in which they lived. Abolition, Civil war, temperance, suffrage. Women pooled their thoughts, their tears, their attitudes, and their participation in tense, politically charged themes, and bonded them into their quilts. Where women could not themselves participate in the public sphere, quilts surreptitiously moved outside the domestic realm and into a kind of political commentary. According to Hedges,
[…] women used their quilts and other textile products to help create for themselves a new, more public role. From their church and missionary work through their participation in Civil War relief to their work in such major reform movements as abolition and temperance, women used their sewing and quilting skills to assert their agency in the world outside of the home, to claim and secure for themselves more public and political space. [ix]
The next time you see a quilt, look with particular consideration at the patterns, the colors, the stitch work—the stories. With each subversive stitch resides a thread of history—herstory: woman—whose anxious hands told us of her daily struggles, her politics, her pride, her city—her life. Publications set in cloth, their pages still echo decades of turbulence, reverberations of struggle, and a hope for a better, more equitable life.
Elise Couture-Stone specializes in development, strategic planning, and exhibit-based learning for small historic sites and non-profits for the arts. Working for Boston institutions like the Nichols House Museum, Historic New England, Old North Church, The Fenway Alliance, and Historic Newton, a key component of Elise’s work is to establish and maintain infrastructures that support sustainable stewardship and educational public outreach programs. Elise attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studied medieval women’s history; she holds an Associates Degree in art history, and she is a Certified Fundraising Executive through Boston University. Elise currently serves on the Boston Preservation Alliance Young Advisors Board as the Chair of Events and is currently working on her first book, studying the bio-social construction of femininity and power between Victorian mothers and their Progressive Era daughters.
1. Susan Strong, “Great Seal” Quilt, 1825-1840, in the collection of the National Museum of American History
2. Mary Jane Moran, Bride Quilt, 1845, in the collection of the National Museum of American History
3. Susannah Pullen, Civil War Quilt, 1863, in the collection of the National Museum of American History