Essay

Images


Freedom Quilt
(1976-1999)


Eagle and Flags Medallion
(1876-1900)


Eagle and Flags Medallion
(1876-1900)


American Eagle Kit
(1876-1900)


The Great Eagle Quilt
(1957)


Proud to be an American
(August, 1991)


All American Medley
(1976-1999)


American Eagle
(1994)


Molly Pitcher
(1975)

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Whig's Defeat
(1975)


Harrison Rose
(1850)


Harrison Rose
(1895-1900)


Harrison Rose-detail
(1895-1900)


Whig Rose
(1850-1870)


Whig Rose-detail
(1850-1870)


Martha Washington's Flower Garden
(c. 1860)


Martha Washington's Flower Garden - detail
(c. 1860)


Democrat Rose
(ca. 1865)


Democrat Rose-detail
(ca. 1865)


President Polk in White House
(1876-1900)


Garfield's Monument
(1900 - 1930)


Unnamed
(c. 1900)


Unnamed
(c. 1900)


Roosevelt Rose
(1939)


Roosevelt Rose-detail
(1939)


Democratic Rose
(1950-1975)


War Between the States
(1940)


Medallion Quilt
(ca. 1830)


Eagle applique
(ca. 1848)


Eagle Quilt
(19th Century)


Eagle Medallion
(1850-1875)


Eagle Medallion
(1850-1875)


Eagle Medallion
(1850-1875)


Unnamed
(1870)


Applique Original Design
(1850-1875)


Applique Original Design
(1850-1875)


Patriotic Quilt
(ca.1865)


Patriotic Quilt Variation
(ca.1865)


Flag Quilt
(1861)


Flag Quilt - detail
(1861)


Patriotic Flag Quilt
(1865)


Four Eagles on Cheddar
(1876-1900)


Centennial Quilt
(1876)


Centennial Quilt - detail
(1876)


Centennial Quilt - detail
(1876)


Centennial Quilt
(1876)


Crazy Quilt
(1889)


Flag tobbaco flannel
(1915)


Tobacco Flag Quilt
(1915)


Four Appliqued Eagles with Appliqued Starburst Center
(1920 - 30)


Our George's Cherry Tree
(1920 - 30)


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


Colonial Quilting Bee - Detail
(1935-40)


Colonial Quilting Bee - American flag quiltmaker
(1935-40)


NRA QUILT
(1933)


Four Freedoms
(1943)

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Victory
(1930-1949)


When I Put Out to Sea
(1948)


In God We Trust
(Timespan)


Hawaiian Flag
(1901-1929)


Unnamed
(Timespan)


Flag quilt
(1876-1900)

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Aloha Hawaii Our Crest
(1876-1900)


Hawaiian Flag Quilt
(1876-1900)


Unnamed
(1876-1900)


Unnamed
(1876-1900)


Hawaiian Flag Quilt
(1876-1900)


Spirit of '76
(1974)


BiCentennial Presidents
(7/6/1976)


First Ladies Quilt
(1984)


Stars of America
(1984)


Bicentennial
(1976)


Bicentennial
(1976)


Employee Bicentennial Signature Quilt
(1976)


Children's Bicentennial Quilt
(1976)


Red, White, and Blue Bicentennial
(1976)


Bicentennial Quilt
(1976)


Bicentennial Pillow
(1976)


Bicentennial Quilt
(1976)


Bicentennial Quilt
(1976)


Bicentennial Flag
(June 1976)


Flag Quilt
(1979)


Women's Suffrage Quilt
(1993)


The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue
(c.1979)


Patriotic String Quilt
(c.1979)


Patriotic String Wall Hanging
(c.1979)


Patriotic
(c.1979)


U.S. Flag
(c.1979)


Beautiful America
(2004)


Heart Flag
(2003)


Patriotic Rabbit
(2004)


Every Vote Counts: Election 2000
(2000)


So Many Twin Towers
(2007)


Flag Quilt
(October 2001)


God's Blessings
(October 2001)


Navy Signature Quilt 1941-42
(1941-42)

American Quilts of Patriotism and Political Commentary

Sikarskie, Amanda Grace

Introduction

In the foreword to Deborah Harding’s book, Stars and Stripes: Patriotic Motifs in American Folk Art, Paul D’Ambrosio wrote, “Folk art did not just reflect patriotism; it fostered a continual or renewed sense of patriotic duty, reverence for national heroes, awareness of national history, and an ever-present affirmation of American values.  And, importantly, folk art brought national culture into virtually every aspect of community life.” 
 
The quilts represented in this essay survey three centuries of American political life, spanning from quilts celebrating the birth of the Republic to quilts reacting to the events of September 11, 2001.  The meanings and visual rhetoric of these quilts were shaped by wars, presidents and policies, new contacts with other cultures, innovations in design and technology, and changing social relations.  Through all of these changes, women (and men) in America have given voice to their patriotism and political views through quilts.
 
Political Pattern Names

In its first 150 years, the United States saw many political and social changes.  These changes were reflected in the ways in which patriotism and political sentiment were expressed through quilting.  There is ample evidence to suggest that quilts were a popular place for political and patriotic rhetoric, if one only looks at many pattern names from the period.  Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, patterns with political names abounded.  Political and patriotic quilt pattern names that appear in the Quilt Index include:
  • Dewey’s Victory
  • Dolly Madison’s Star
  • Garfield’s Monument
  • Harrison Rose
  • Lincoln’s Platform
  • Martha Washington’s Flower Garden
  • Mayflower
  • President Polk in the White House
  • Roosevelt Rose
  • Sherman’s March
  • Tippecanoe
  • War Between the States
  • Whig’s Defeat
  • Whig Rose / Democrat Rose
  • Yankee Puzzle
While some of the pattern names are nostalgic and whimsical, for example Dolly Madison’s Star, others are charged with meaning.  The War Between the States quilt on the Quilt Index, for example, was made for a northern soldier in the Civil War by the wife of a veteran of Sherman’s March (another event from American history that was immortalized as a quilt pattern name).  Significantly, the colors of the quilt are those of the North (blue) and South (gray), along with a patriotic red framing the blocks.
 
Patriotic Quilts through the Civil War Era

Political and cultural events such as the Civil War shaped patriotic quilts not only through pattern names such as “War Between the States,” but more also by changing their styles and vocabularies over time.  From the birth of the Republic through the antebellum period, the American eagle of the Great Seal was the most popular patriotic motif and original designs featuring the Federal Eagle in appliqué were very popular.  Fine examples of this are the Garnhart Quilt, a medallion quilt from Maryland dating to circa 1830, and an eagle quilt from Illinois made by Helen Gilchrist Ferris dating to c. 1848.  Further, before the Civil War, it was uncommon for individual families and businesses to fly the American flag (this was usually reserved for government buildings and the military), but from the beginning of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, flying national flags became extremely popular in both the North and South, and the flag became the chief patriotic motif in folk art. Patriotic Quilt Variation and Patriotic Quilt, both dating to around 1865, the final year of the American Civil War, show a transitional period in patriotic folk textiles.  Patriotic Quilt Variation features the older federal eagle motif within a central medallion on the newer style, the American flag quilt.  Patriotic Quilt, however, features the stars and stripes alone, an expression of patriotism that has maintained its popularity in quilting to the present day. 
 
Patriotic Quilts: 1876-1945

A common patriotic motif in quilts, especially around and just after 1876, the year of the United States centennial, is the ‘four eagles’ type.  The four eagles on these quilts surround a central medallion, and represent a nostalgia on the part of late nineteenth century quilters for the early years of the Republic.  Harkening back to the folk art of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in America with its federal eagle and Great Seal, these quilts display a nostalgic patriotism for the founding of the United States.  Deborah Harding notes that these quilts are so similar in design, a published pattern was likely the source of the four eagles quilt, though no published pattern has been found.  Four Eagles on Cheddar, the example in the Quilt Index, is typical of the style, especially in its use of bold colors.  The eagles hold in their beaks a bunch of berries or cherries, rather than the more common stick or olive branch, a variation on the part of the quilter.  The chrome orange, or cheddar, color seen in the piece is very common in quilts of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
 
The popularity of flag quilts in the United States seen during and immediately after the Civil War has been revived many times during periods of American national celebration, war, and national tragedy, including the 1876 centennial, which gave rise to a brief flurry of Centennial quilts, the Spanish American war, the two World Wars, and Sept. 11, 2001.  As styles changed, however, so did the visual interpretation of the American flag.  Wildly popular in the wake of the Japanese pavilion at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, crazy quilts became another form in which the American flag was celebrated.  A patriotic crazy quilt Crazy Quilt made by Lena Lardner in 1889 features American flag motifs pieced in with typical ‘crazy’ arrangements of various fabrics.  It is also inscribed with a poem celebrating the passing on of the American flag through generations and battles won.  The popularity of American flags in this period can also be seen in tobacco flannels, bits of fabric given away as marketing gimmicks in packages of cigars and cigarettes in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  These flannels were often traded among women and pieced into quilts.  The Flag Tobacco Flannel shown here was made by Hattie Fishel in 1915 for her grandfather, William Milton Holmes, who was a Civil War veteran.
 
In the 1920s and ‘30s, the Colonial Revival in the decorative arts, as well as the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth, led to a flurry of neo-colonial patriotic appliqué quilts, including Hungarian-American quiltmaker Mary Gasperik’s masterpiece, “Colonial Quilting Bee.”  Quilts were also made to celebrate or comment upon New Deal social programs and other government agencies during the Great Depression.  Quiltmaking fell off sharply during World War II, as many women began to work outside the home for the first time and materials were scarce.  Nonetheless, American quiltmakers continued to express their patriotism through quilts on patriotic themes, such as the Four Freedoms enumerated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, quilts supporting the war effort and celebrating the victories in Europe and Japan, and quilts honoring loved ones lost during the War, such as the poignant “When I Put Out to Sea.” 
 
Hawaiian Flag Quilts

Hawaiian flag quilts represent a longstanding tradition in American folk art.  Hawaiian flag quilts feature symbols of the Hawaiian monarchy, as well as patriotic slogans of Hawaiian autonomy, and have been made since before the US overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.  A Hawaiian Flag quilt from circa 1930s, alternately titled “Kuu Hae Aloha (My Beloved Flag),” shows the patriotism and independent streak of the Hawaiian people.  Later, Hawaiian flag quilts combined Hawaiian nature and monarchical motifs with symbols of American patriotism such as the bald eagle.  Lately, there has been a resurgence of Hawaiian flag quilts.  One example in the Quilt Index dates to 1997 and was made by Harriet Soong and Sharon Balai. The inscription on the quilt, UA MAU KE EA O KA AINA I KA PONO, is the state motto of Hawaii.  Meaning “the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness,” the motto is said to date back to the 1840s, to King Kamehameha III.  This quilt expresses patriotism for both Hawaii and the United States.
 
Spirit of ’76: The United States Bicentennial

The decline in popularity in quiltmaking that began during the Second World War continued through the 1950s and into the ‘60s, but the American Bicentennial lead to resurgence of quilting, sometimes referred to as the Quilt Revival, as patriotic interest in the early days of the American Republic mingled with a new interest in the history of the American vernacular arts.  A vast amount of quilts were created across the United States in the years around 1976 to celebrate the American Bicentennial.
 
Two representative examples are Ellen Raymond’s Bicentennial Flag and Eugenia Mitchell’s Flag Quilt.  Created by Ellen Raymond in 1976, Bicentennial Flag features the dates 1776 and 1976, as well as many flags flown at different times in the United States, including the original thirteen star flag and the confederate flag.  Like many quilts of the period, Bicentennial Flag is visually more a revival of late nineteenth century rather than late eighteenth century quilting traditions.  Note the absence of the federal eagle, the most common motif in the patriotic folk art of the early Republic.  The Quilt Revival of the 1970s and a renewed interest in and appreciation for veterans led to the creation of Flag Quilt.  This work was pieced and quilted by Eugenia Mitchell in 1979 with a combination of a flag from a World War II era Fourth of July bandstand and smaller flags gathered from veteran’s graves after Memorial Day.  This quilt stands as a testament to the patriotism of its maker. 
 
Quilts as Feminist Political Commentary

Before women’s suffrage, women used quilts to express their political views and ideals since they could not at the polling place.  In the nineteenth century, pattern names such as “Whig’s Defeat” suggest that women, denied their right to suffrage, voted with a needle and thread rather than a paper ballot.  The Women’s Suffrage Quilt, made by Margie Mudd of Colorado in 1993, celebrates the Women’s Suffrage movement, which culminated in women gaining their right to vote, first in the State of Wyoming in 1890 and then nationally with the ratification of the nineteenth amendment in 1920.  Depicted on the quilt are notable women involved in the suffrage movement and historical images of Colorado women entering polling places.  In the center of the quilt is the Great Seal of the United States of America.  Another strongly feminist quilt, “The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue,” was made by the quilting group The Seamster’s Union in 1979 and makes use of the traditionally innocuous Sunbonnet Sue pattern as a vehicle for darkly humorous political commentary on events of the period such as the Vietnam War, Skylab and Three Mile Island.
 
Contemporary Patriotic and Political Quilts

Contemporary quilts of patriotism and political commentary show a broad spectrum ranging from whimsy to sharp political satire.  Showing the whimsy common in many patriotic quilts today are Louisiana quiltmakers Treabie McDonald’s patriotic string quilts and Mary Lynn Cook’s “Patriotic.”  Another Louisiana quilt on the Quilt Index from 2003 simply reproduces the American flag.  Other contemporary patriotic quilts feature a whimsical mixture of flag motifs with appliquéd animals, hearts or flowers.  Playful, though a bit satirical as well, is Elaine Spencer’s quilt Every Vote Counts: Election 2000.  Recalling the recount in Florida in the 2000 presidential election, with its infamous paper ballots with hanging chads, the quilt is a visual reminder of the political process gone awry.  The border of the quilt is fraught with ambiguous meaning.  Do the red, white and blue balloons printed on the border fabric patriotically suggest that the quilter believes that in the end, every vote was indeed counted in Florida, or do the balloons comically satirize the outcome of the election?
 
In stark contrast to the levity of Election 2000, two quilts in the Quilt Index deal with the very somber and emotionally-charged subject of September 11, 2001.  Diana N’Diaye, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, while mourning those lost on September 11, urges non-violent American diplomacy through her quilt So Many Twin Towers.  She wrote of the quilt:
 
“This piece was created as a gut response to the bombing of Afghanistan and other inhumane and inappropriate reactions to the bombings on 9/11. These actions and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, have added innumerable innocent deaths and ruined lives to the toll of the tragedy of the twin towers.”
 
Another quilt created as a reaction to the deaths of September 11 is JoAnn Newton’s Flag Quilt (9/11).  In the autumn of 2001, Newton created over 60 for families with young children who had lost a parent in the attacks, and sent them to New York for the holiday season.  Flag Quilt (9/11) features, very simply, an American flag with three stripes and nine bars.  This piece reflects the high level of patriotism in the United States following the attacks.  There is no visual allusion in the quilt to the attacks; instead, simply a very hopeful and patriotic focus on the United States. 
 
Quiltmakers have also continued to respond to other events with patriotism and community spirit, such as the quilt God’s Blessings, made by the Quilting Queens of Minden, Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  The central medallion of the quilt depicts the State of Louisiana and hopefully proclaims “God Bless Louisiana.”  Ultimately, all of these contemporary quilts represent the same achievement as federal eagle quilts and flag quilts of the Civil War; they bring national culture and political discourse into community and domestic life.


Date: 2011