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Piecing Together the Past: The Quilts of Florence Peto

Sorrell, Mary Evelynn

Historical Quilts
Piecing Together The Past: The Quilts of Florence Peto
By Mary Evelynn Sorrell
 
The pastoral village of Shelburne in the beautiful state of Vermont has been swallowed by the burgeoning textile-manufacturing town of Burlington. Escaping this suburbanization is the eccentric estate of Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960) now named the Shelburne Museum. Rather than one museum building, it is a village consisting of 19th century architecture, art, and artifacts. More about the museum later in this article – first about their quilts and a particular quiltmaker!
 
Piecing Together the Past: The Quilts of Florence Peto on view at the Shelburne Museum this summer (May 17th till October 25th) was a special treat for quilt lovers because it was entirely devoted to a woman who has reached almost mythical status as a quilt scholar, quiltmaker and an intrepid tracker of beautiful quilts of old. Florence Cowdin Peto (1880-1970) is highly regarded for popularizing quilts and quilt-making beginning in the 1930s. The story often repeated is that Mrs. Peto bravely knocked at the doors of friends and strangers in New Jersey, her home state, asking if the family had any quilts stored away in trunks or the attic. In this manner, she collected some of the finest quilts in the United States, including the famous “Rising Sun” quilt by Mary Totten, now in the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.).
 
Florence Peto carefully documented all the family history pertaining to those quilts. Shelburne Curator Jean Burks who organized this exhibition said Florence Peto’s “goal was to show that this true form of folk art was as historically meaningful as the written word. She worked tirelessly to bring attention to quilts as an important and integral part of our heritage.”
 
Peto was an influential collector, but also a quiltmaker who designed and created quilts in the 1940s and ‘50s using antique fabrics. According to curator Jean Burks, Florence “developed a distinctive style using antique copperplate, roller-printed calicoes, chintzes and toiles over a homespun background. Her artistic technique is distinguished by signature floral vine appliqué borders, elaborate broderie perse work and fussy cut flowers.” Her “Calico Garden,” in the Shelburne, was selected as one of the 20th Century’s Best American Quilts!
 
As she did with many quilt-makers and collectors all over the United States, Florence and Electra Webb became friends. She helped create the Shelburne’s exceptional collection of more than 400 quilts. Art of the Needle: 100 Masterpiece Quilts from the Shelburne Museum shows many of them (http://www.shelburnemuseum.org/books.html).
 
Florence, called Florrie by her friends – and she had so many quilt-making friends – was a prolific writer of books (Historic Quilts in 1939 and American Quilts and Coverlets in 1949), magazine articles and letters. She corresponded with many known and unknown quiltmakers including prize-winning quilters Bertha Stenge in Chicago, Emma Andres in Arizona, Mary Shafer in Michigan, and Maxine Teele in Ohio. (See their work at www.quiltindex.org). She freely advised her quilt-making friends, often offering them antique fabrics for their quilts and promoting the medallion-style she loved (it was more prominently used in Europe and the British Aisles).
 
How heartening is it to know that this woman, who quilt historian Virginia Avery calls the “renaissance woman of the mid-century,” was such a fast friend of many quilters. Maxine Teele wrote of her in Nimble Needles Treasures (winter, 1973), “Because she gave herself so freely, we are inspired to do likewise. Because of her many of us have had our intellect challenged, our horizons widened, our knowledge deepened and our hearts warmed.”
 
Mrs. Electra Webb, the sole heiress of H.O. Havemeyer’s fortune, so unlike her parents who were major collectors of the fine arts (including 2 Rembrandts, Corots, Courbets and many major impressionist paintings), loved the folk and functional art of America. The Ticonderoga, the typical country general store, a one-room jail, a lighthouse, sawmill and the quickly disappearing covered bridges of Vermont were all as important to her as her collection of dolls, miniatures, glass canes, cigar store Indians, weathered weather vanes, and even her much-loved collection of rare hatboxes.
 
Electra Webb’s decision to create this unusual museum started with her husband’s family’s quandary over the future of their many antique carriages, sleighs, and wagons. Electra Havemeyer Webb completely understood the Webb’s desire to keep artifacts of our past. She purchased her first antique – a Cigar Store figure – when she was only 19.
 
The Shelburne believes it is the first historic house museum to exhibit quilts as art rather than as accessories. Every year the curators prepare an exhibit of about 30 of the magnificent quilts. They are usually exhibited in the Hat and Fragrance Textile Gallery also widely known for Mrs. Webb’s enormous collection of antique hat boxes, hooked rugs, coverlets, costumes, and miniatures.
 
Come to visit the Shelburne Museum in northwestern Vermont (only 100 miles from Montreal in Quebec, Canada). It is only open in the warm months from Spring to Fall. And bring the family with you.
 
The Shelburne offers something that will fascinate everyone.
 
Visit the Shelburne online at www.shelburnemuseum.org. The Shelburne Museum address is PO Box 10, Shelburne, VT 05482. The phone number is 8002.985.3346 or email lwright@shelburnemuseum.org.
Credits: By Mary Evelynn Sorrell, freelance writer for Quiltmania Magazine.