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Essay

Images


Hungarian Harvest Festival
(Finished quilt competed in May 24-26, 1940 Detroit News Quilt Show)


Road to Recovery
(1939)


Colonial Quilting Bee
(1935-1940; possibly finished for a post-1940 7th Detroit News show never held.)

Collection: Gasperik Collection

American Quilts Empowered Immigrant Women

Salser, Susan

Quiltmaking was a significant form of women's empowerment especially for the immigrant women who arrived in the United States from various parts of Europe in great numbers at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. An excellent example of this is the Hungarian-born Chicago quilter named Mary Mihalovits Gasperik. An extensive body of her work (96 different pieces) can be seen on The Quilt Index (Mary Gasperik Quilts) at http://www.quiltindex.org/gasperikgalleries.php

Chicago was a primary destination for Hungarian immigrants at the end of the 19th century. A community called Burnside, located on Chicago's south side around the intersection of Cottage Grove Ave. and 95th Street, was a particularly popular destination. Hungarians comprised 25-40% of the residents on some of Burnside's streets, which were crowded with Hungarian shops. One of these was the meat market and grocery store of Stephen Gasperik at 9314 S. Cottage Grove. Stephen had immigrated from Hungary with his family as a young boy. His wife, our future quilter, had arrived as sixteen-year-old Mary Mihalovits, along with her eighteen-year-old sister Elizabeth, in January 1905. The Mihalovits girls came from Otelek, a small village in Transylvania. The eldest children in this large family were all girls, and their father had fallen into debt, limiting marriage prospects in Hungary.

The eldest daughter, Anna, married in Hungary with the intention of moving to America, to Chicago in particular. This couple sponsored the next three sisters, who were sent to Chicago to find housekeeping jobs - and hopefully, husbands - from among its large Hungarian-born population. Elizabeth and Mary Mihalovits met and in 1906 married the brothers Geza and Stephen Gasperik. The girls were probably employees of the Gasperik household. Trained as a butcher, Stephen also worked as a milk deliveryman. After marrying, he bought his own store, a small combination meat and grocery market, and continued to deliver milk. Mary worked in the store and set about raising their growing family. They prospered enough to sponsor, in 1913, the immigration of Mary's remaining family from Otelek.

As a child in Hungary, Mary's schooling had ended after the third grade. She and her sisters worked at home, sewing to help bring in family income. Lacking in formal education, they excelled at needlework. According to Mary's daughter, my mother, their grandfather was a tailor by profession; and it is supposed that it was he who taught the Mihalovits sisters their sewing skills. They would have been familiar with traditional Hungarian embroidery techniques as well.

By the beginning of the 1930s American popular culture was undergoing a resurgence of interest in quilts. With her three children nearly grown up, Mary was ready to apply the needle skills she had learned in Hungary to this new American hobby, quiltmaking.   Chicago was an especially fortunate location to fall under the spell of quilts.  In addition to selling quilt patterns and fabrics, its large department stores sponsored quilt lectures and quilt exhibits. The Chicago Tribune published patterns and quilt columns by that most prolific of newspaper quilters, Nancy Cabot. Chicagoans learned about quiltmaking on their radio, from broadcasts by quilt entrepreneur Mary A. McElwain.  Many of the nation's growing number of quilt-related catalogs were published in the Chicago area. In 1933 the Sears Quilt Contest was held with much fanfare and publicity, and its prizewinning quilts were exhibited at Chicago's Century of Progress World's Fair on Chicago's south side.  In 1934, quilts were also displayed at the Fair in a Chicago Parks District Exhibit of crafts. There Mary Gasperik must have learned of the existence of a city-sponsored quilt club at Tuley Park, the public park located just blocks from her home above and behind the Gasperik market at 9314 Cottage Grove. She became a very active member of the Tuley Park group.

An examination of 1930s issues of Needlecraft - The Magazine of Home Arts, a very popular women's magazine, shows that European ethnic needlework traditions were featured alongside marketing of contemporary American quilt patterns and kits. It was a very natural thing for immigrant women to turn their needlework skills to quiltmaking, which was at the time being widely promoted as the quintessential and historic American tradition. The vast and growing industry of women's magazines, mail-order patterns, art needlework catalogs and kits selling what was promoted as colonial or historically American quilts must have held great appeal to immigrant women wanting to become more American. These widely distributed materials were offered with much colorful illustration and little instructional English text, making the latest in quilting fashions and patterns quite accessible to non-English speakers. That many of these women arrived from Europe with very already well-developed sewing skills must have added to their appeal.

In 1934 Chicago's Park District published a manual called Quilting for use by its municipal quilting clubs. It was part of The Leisure Hobby Series promoted by The National Recreation Association. These booklets were written to provide instruction in various crafts at public facilities. In the depressed economic times of the 1930s it was felt to be a civic responsibility to promote hobbies and skills. The Tuley Park quilting club, in Mary Gasperik's local park, was one of two Chicago park clubs featured by the Park District's Quilting manual. This manual presented instruction in all aspects of quiltmaking, and did it in a way "to portray as simply as possible the essentials not only of pattern, but also of process. Editors have striven to avoid the indefiniteness of text, employing instead the simplicity of picture". In other words the book was designed to be useful to non-English speakers, i.e. Chicago's immigrants.

The Chicago parks quilting clubs, under the direction of Alice Beyer, author of the Quilting manual, were serious endeavors - participants were instructed to meet twice a week for two and one-half hour periods! Mary Gasperik became a devoted member of her Tuley Park group, and it was there that she both learned and honed her quilting skills. Her quilts were featured in shows at the Tuley Park Field House. The family has a number of 1930s Chicago Park District photographs featuring the Tuley Park quilt club and including Mary Gasperik and her quilts. The number of quilts she completed per year during this period - up to 5 - indicates the seriousness of her endeavor. Quilt and quilting patterns Gasperik used in a number of her quilts can be found in Alice Beyer's manual. Especially important examples are the Gasperik quilts called "Snowflakes" and "Tulip Basket".

Mary Gasperik discovered, by picking up a discarded Detroit News newspaper at a Cubs/Tigers 1935 World Series baseball game, probably on October 4 when the first game in Chicago was played, that there was a quilt club sponsored by that newspaper which invited quilters across the country to join and exhibit quilts in their annual show and contest.  She immediately responded and sent quilts to Detroit to qualify for the October 12 deadline. Bringing one last - perhaps just finished - quilt with her, she took a bus from Chicago to attend in person the October 18-20, 1935 (Third) Detroit News Quilt Show. In a press photograph taken at that show Gasperik's "Tulip Basket" quilt can be seen hanging at the end of a display row. The Director of that quilt show, Interior Decorations editor of The Detroit News and Quilt Club Corner Director, Edith B. Crumb, wrote about Gasperik and her enthusiasm for quilts and The Detroit News Quilt Club Corner in the next day's newspaper. Several months later she featured in her quilt club newspaper column a photograph of the Gasperik quilt which had arrived too late to be included in the show (presumably the quilt Mary carried with her on that bus). Edith described how Mary had, with her daughter's help, designed that quilt from the picture of an antique American quilt published in a book. She told the story of the happenstance of Mary's discovery of Detroit's quilt club at the World Series. She described Mary's current quilt project - a wedding quilt. These are things that Crumb must have learned by talking with Gasperik at the show. Most of Crumb's columns published information that the newspaper received from club members by mail. Gasperik, with her limited English, could not have communicated easily by letter. Edith Crumb, like the Leisure Series hobby manual writers, went out of her way to be inclusive of a non-English speaker, an immigrant. My Hungarian-speaking grandmother became a welcome and active participant in a quilt club located hundreds of miles from her home.

Mary sent to Detroit quilts she had made while working with her Tuley Park quilt club group.  She also sent samples of  work-in-progress.  One, a sample block of Gasperik's 'Star Arcturus' quilt (a quilt which Gasperik made in 1934) went to  Detroit News quilt club member Emma Zawatski living in Sturgis, Michigan.  Seven decades later I saw and bought that very sample on eBay, when it was included in quilt effects sold at an estate sale.  Another block sample (of the Hungarian peasant girl Gasperik designed for her Hungarian Peasant Girls/Harvest Festival quilt and sent to The Detroit News) was featured by Edith B. Crumb in her October 22, 1938 quilt column.  Two months later, local Detroit News Quilt Club member Lena Seles (a very Hungarian name)  showed up at the Friday afternoon quilt club meeting with her own Hungarian peasant boy appliquéd quilt block, designed to match the Gasperik block.  Judging by the names included in Quilt Club Birthday Lists published by Edith Crumb in the Detroit News, many, many of the club's members were immigrants.  From reading the Detroit newspapers I learned that Mary Gasperik's fellow Chicago quilters joined her in taking the bus to Detroit to see all the quilts in that large national quilt show and to see how their local competitor - Mary Gasperik - fared.  Some of them were with her in Detroit when she won her highest prize there  (a first prize for appliqué) at the October 1938 Detroit show.   The annual quilt shows sponsored by The Detroit News, although not very well known today, were very large affairs, often attracting crowds of 50,000 and exhibiting 2000 quilts contributed from across the nation.   The first one was held in 1933 and last one was held in 1940.

I have found thirteen different Detroit News quilt columns by Edith B. Crumb which mention Mary Gasperik and her quilts.  However, my grandmother was probably unaware of the extent to which Edith Crumb featured her.  She kept only two Detroit News quilt show clippings.  These were from newspapers which she would have picked up while in attendance at the 1938 and 1940 Detroit shows.  The remaining columns appeared between, not during, Detroit News Quilt Shows, when Mary was back at home in Chicago.  A November 1940 quilt column mentions that one Detroit Club member, Mary Sorensen, visited Gasperik when she happened to be in Chicago.  She reported on Gasperik's latest quilt work, which was of great interest to the Detroit quilters,  when she returned to the next Friday afternoon quilt club corner meeting at The Detroit News.  Edith Crumb wrote about this in her Saturday quilt column.  Gasperik did not need to be able to chat in English in order to be a full-fledged, participating club member.  This isn't quite the historic image of an American quilting bee, but it is certainly a functioning social gathering in which the language and ethnic status of the participants is irrelevant.  The Gasperik quilt which Mrs. Sorensen observed in the making was probably Gasperik's Colonial Quilting Bee quilt.

The Leisure Hobby series and the public recreation facilities which taught various crafts were intended to help acculturate immigrants; and that is exactly what Chicago’s manual Quilting and the Tuley Park quilting club did for Mary Gasperik.  Detroit welcomed her to its quilt shows and quilt club.  Gasperik met passionate fellow quilters at those shows with whom she shared patterns and ideas.  These connections outlasted the Detroit Quilt Shows themselves, which ended with its sixth show, held in May 1940.

Mary Gasperik learned how to be a modern American woman by making quilts.  She turned out to be exceptionally good at it.  In the end, her body of quilt work is estimated to approach one hundred finished quilts, and her interest in quilting remained her life’s passion as long as she could manipulate a needle, from the time she began quilting, in 1933 - when her quilts bore the inscription “Century of Progress”, the theme of the Chicago World’s Fair - until her death in 1969. Gasperik's association with the Tuley Park quilters ended when, following Stephen’s stroke in 1948, he and Mary left Burnside and moved away to retire in East Hazelcrest, a Chicago suburb.  A January 1949 Chicago newspaper clipping describes the quilt exhibit being held in the Tuley Park fieldhouse (sponsored by the Woodfield Women’s Club), an exhibit which included many Gasperik quilts.   It mentions that Mary had moved away from the neighborhood.

Mary Gasperik did NOT have comfortable language skills in English, a formal education (in her native Hungary, much less in America), or even the ability to independently drive herself about, things which undoubtedly helped most of her fellow quilters successfully participate and compete in the quilting world.   Although our families visited regularly, I never really had a conversation with my grandmother, much less a conversation about quilts.   She preferred to converse in Hungarian with my mother.   In late 1968, when her younger brother Alex heard about Mary’s declining  health, he sent a letter to my mother explaining that he wished he could send his best wishes directly to his sister, but he had long forgotten his Hungarian and he knew that Mary couldn’t read English.   Mary spoke Hungarian with her husband and children and did not seem to have many English-speaking friends.  Where she did have such connections, these tended to be fellow quilters and admirers of her quilts.  Other than the Tuley Park quilting club, she worked in isolation.  To a remarkable extent, this does not seem to have inhibited her passion for quilting; although it clearly inhibited her ability to participate in quilt competitions and thereby help make her work known.

In spite of difficulties which might have isolated her from the larger world,  Mary became a member of the American quilting community,  she became a master quilter and won many blue ribbons for her quilts, both in Detroit and at Illinois State Fairs.  Tuley Park exhibited her quilts, but they did not hold competitions or offer prizes.  There is no doubt in my mind that Mary Gasperik might well have achieved greater recognition for the quality and beauty of her quilts had she not suffered from these disadvantages.  Exacerbating the problem was the fact that her favorite quilt show venues shut down during World War II.  The Detroit News quilt shows ceased altogether after America declared war.  Tuley Park quilt shows also stopped during the war years, resuming in December 1945.  The Illinois State Fair was not held in the years 1942-45.  This is the very period when the body of Mary Gasperik’s quilt work was at its best and most prolific.  Those were the venues she knew how to navigate.  By 1949, after her husband’s stroke and retirement, she was physically removed from the quilters in Chicago with whom she might have associated or who might have sought her out.

Gasperik lived in Chicago at a time when that most American of traditions, quiltmaking, was being rediscovered and actively promoted by a vastly expanding publishing and needlework supply industry.  Attractive color printing and inexpensive delivery by the US Postal Service helped this along. Chicago’s public transportation system gave Mary, a non-driver, access to its prolific department stores and needlework supply shops.  A tempting universe of richly illustrated women’s magazines was available to her, even though she never achieved comfort with her adopted country’s language.  She became an American through her quilts, employed its cultural symbols in her quilts, while at the same time expressing and maintaining Hungarian traditions (colorful flower embroidery, representations of birds and wheat, for example).  In an especially empowering and finely executed quilt called ‘Colonial Quilting Bee’, she symbolically honors both her native and adopted country through her appliquéd Hungarian and American flagmakers.  At the same time this quilt presents the iconic symbol of her beloved Detroit News Quilt Club (the seated quilters in  high-backed chairs, some in colonial mob caps, some in modern slanted and feathered hats) and even the iconic symbol – Star Arcturus - of the place where she discovered her love of quilts, the Century of Progress Worlds Fair.  This is the quilt which Gasperik herself regarded as her “best” work.   Ironically it was completed after the last Detroit News Quilt Show was held, and it never had a chance to compete for the grand prize in that national contest, an award which she surely desired to win.  The collection of quilts made by Mary Gasperik, their self-expression, fine workmanship and creativity, demonstrate empowerment though quilting.

Having first encountered America’s passion for quilts at a time - the early 1930s - and a place – Chicago - which made it possible for her become an expert maker of American quilts without the personal example and guidance of a quilting mother, grandmother or aunt, without the aid of written texts, without a grounding in American history or tradition, Mary Gasperik produced a major body of quilt work through sheer self-motivation and determination and hard work.  Making quilts was her empowerment, her greatest passion.  That she did not receive, in her lifetime, recognition for that body of work does not diminish her achievement.

I believe that my immigrant grandmother, Mary Gasperik, was unusually fortunate in that she could afford to be a quilter, thanks to the financial and moral support of her shopkeeper husband.  This not only allowed her to purchase and accumulate a vast supply of quality fabrics, patterns, catalogs, magazines and books, but, perhaps more important,  also allowed her to spend her time pursuing her passion for creating quilts.  She did not have to work in the grocery store.  She did not have to sell her quilts.  She did not have to quilt for hire, an exercise which might have brought in income, but which would have rendered her work anonymous.  She kept her quilts; and we are now blessed to be able to preserve, examine and share this skillfully made and extensive collection which records more than three decades of quilter Mary Gasperik's creative life.

Credits: By Susan Salser (grand-daughter of Mary Gasperik; mid 20th century Chicago quilter)

Date: 2011