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Essay

Images


New York Beauty


President Polk in White House
(1876-1900)


Crown of Thorns
(ca. 1875)


Rails through the Mountains-detail
(1871)


Rocky Mountain Road
(1930-1949)


New York Beauty
(January 2002)

I Love New York Beauties: A Brief History of an Iconic Quilt Pattern

Jenison, Leslie

Necessity is the mother of invention, and patchwork quilts are no exception. The earliest American quilts were made from imported cloth used for broderie perse and whole cloth quilts. Although patchwork can be traced as far back as the early 1700s cloth was a commodity too precious to waste and almost every quilt for common use was constructed from repurposed scraps. Quilts of any kind were rare in New England in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and it is unlikely that New England women were making quilts in any number until at least the 1750s.[1]  Quilt styles followed closely on the heels of technological advances:  the cotton gin, improved production printing of cloth, and finally, the first power loom installed in Waltham MA (1814)[2] which began the first American production of cloth and thread. 
 
Pieced quilt block patterns, rather than whole cloth quilts, became increasingly popular.  It is no coincidence that Godey’s Lady’s Book[3] began to publish quilt patterns around 1830.  Quilt patterns reflected events in daily life, biblical references, and regional pride.  The pattern we now refer to as New York Beauty was first documented around 1850. 
 
Many block patterns have multiple names, making documentation even more challenging for the quilt historian. The New York Beauty quilt was known by several names in the nineteenth century: "Rocky Mountain Road", "Rocky Mountain", ”Rail Through The Mountains”, "Crown of Thorns", and "The Great Divide". In the 1930s, the “New York Beauty” title was adopted by Stearns and Foster Mountain Mist® company for an old quilt pattern to be published as a new design. It hadn’t been popular in New York in the previous century, but it was in Tennessee[4].  The Quilt Index comparison chart, after searching for New York Beauty, illuminates the similar features of these quilt styles.  The traditional design includes four quarter circles, or arcs, with points radiating outward from the curved seams.  It is widely considered to be one of the most advanced pieced quilt patterns.
 
The Mountain Mist New York Beauty

 In 1930, Mountain Mist, a division of the Stearns and Foster company, published a variety of quilt patterns to boost the sale of quilt batting. In the spirit of the Colonial Revival, designs were based on traditional patterns but were given new names. New York Beauty was one of these patterns.  The Mountain Mist New York Beauty is a very specific quilt. Its design features a diagonal set rather than a vertical and horizontal block, and the cornerstones are LeMoyne stars constructed from eight alternating diamonds in two colors.  Elements of the traditional pattern are maintained, but dramatically streamlined and modernized. The colors of the Mountain Mist New York Beauty are orange and yellow on white, and sometimes red and blue on white. According to the color chart, the orange and yellow on white would be "pleasing" and "complimentary to the modern bedroom" while the red and blue on white would produce "an exact replica" of the traditional quilt.
 
Compared with earlier Rocky Mountain Road or Crown of Thorns quilts, points are shorter, wider, fewer, and cut off at the tips. The Mountain Mist quilt has a simple, long strip border, often seen as a double strip border with yellow and orange fabric. The suggested quilting design is overlapping or intersecting circles.

 The design is described by Mountain Mist as "a very old pieced pattern dating from 1776" - a highly romanticized notion of quiltmaking in America - but the pattern name stuck. Since the 1930's, the name "New York Beauty" has been associated with all quilts made with the same basic design of spiked quarter circles wedged in the corners of square or rectangular blocks, and retroactively applied to pre-1930 quilts. In that regard, the Mountain Mist New York Beauty changed history.[5]
 
William Volckening has possibly the largest privately held collection of New York Beauty quilts.  His quilts have been featured in a short film documentary, created by nwdocumentary.org, which is available for viewing on his website (http://www.billvolckening.com/Bill_Volckening/%22Beauty_Secrets%22.html). 
“There are a lot of things that attract me to this pattern, and these are the same things that seem to resonate with Americans throughout the 150+ years it's been made. It is a rare and difficult-to-make quilt. The sunburst motif is central to the pattern's dazzling combination of visual elements, and the sun itself is an important icon in the history of visual and written expression. It is a pattern that speaks to the American landscape, from the sun setting over the Rocky Mountains to the crown of the Chrysler Building in New York.”

An exhibition of his collection of New York Beauty quilts is scheduled to open in August, 2011, at the Benton County Museum in Philomath, Oregon.  An exhibition catalog is planned to accompany this exhibit.

In the last two decades the New York Beauty pattern has been translated into the contemporary quilt movement by such artists as Karen Stone[6], Valori Wells[7], and Jean Wells Keenan.  The construction of the New York Beauty pattern using the foundation piecing method has been a factor in this renewed interest in this complex quilt style.

 


[1]Allen, Gloria Seaman, Quiltmaking in America:  Beyond the Myths, p 66.
[2] A Timeline of Quilting in America, http://www.reddawn.net/quilt/timeline.htm
[4] http://www.decorativeartstrust.org/tennessee_quilts.htm
[5] Volcherning, William, Beauty Secrets: 150 Years of History in One Quilt Pattern, 2011, self-published exhibition catalog
[6] Stone, Karen K, Karen K Stone Quilts, The Electric Quilt Company, 2004
[7] Wells, Valori, Radiant New York Beauties, C&T Publishing, Inc., Lafayette CA 2003


References

Anderson, Suzy McLennan. Collector's Guide to Quilts. Radnor, PA: Wallace-Homestead, 1991. ISBN: 0-87069-534-7

Bowman, Doris M. American Quilts. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1991. ISBN: 0-517-05952-5

Greenbacker, Liz and Kathleen Barach. Quilts: Identification and price guide. New York: Avon Books, 1992. ISBN: 0-380-76930-1

Texas Heritage Quilt Society. Texas Quilts Texas Treasures. Paducah, KY: American Quilt Society, 1986. ISBN: 0-89145-917-0

Larkin, Jack and Lynne Z. Bassett. Northern Comfort New England's Early Quilts 1780-1850. Old Sturbridge Village Publications, 1988.

Credits: Mr. Volckening is preparing an exhibition catalog featuring his 40 New York Beauty quilts. I hope to obtain the catalog, and would like to edit this essay, if possible, if I discover some important information. Mr. Volckening intends to add his collection of quilts to the Quilt Index, which I enthusiastically encouraged him to do. He has granted permission for me to link this essay to his short film documentary. He holds the copyright to the film. He has generously shared some of his text from the exhibition catalog for my use in this essay. Ms. Stone has granted permission to use the image of her New York Beauty quilt for this article.

Date: 2011