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Mary Gasperik (1888-1969): Her Life And Her Quilts
By: Merikay Waldvogel
With Research Assistance from Susan Krueger Salser
Mariska Mihalovits (left) in Hungarian costume in Chicago, circa 1905
Mary Gasperik (second from left) with Tuley Quilt Club members and her Laurel Wreath Quilt, 1936
"I came to America on January 6, 1905, and arrived to Chicago to my sister, Annuska...".
The journey from Hungary set in motion a transformation—from Mariska Mihalovits, a teen-aged immigrant arriving in the bustling city of Chicago in 1905, to Mary Gasperik, a middle-aged woman in 1936, beaming with pride as she stands with her fellow club members in front of her prizewinning quilt. Clearly, quilts played a major role in Mary Gasperik's journey to find her place in American society.
Mariska Mihalovits arrived in Chicago from Hungary at the age of 16 in January 1905. While earning a living as a household servant, she met and married fellow Hungarian Stephen Gasperik. They moved to Burnside, a Hungarian immigrant community on the South Side of Chicago, where Stephen later bought and managed a grocery store and ran a milk delivery business. Mary and Stephen raised three children in the living quarters behind the market—Stephen, Elsie and Elmer.
With her children grown, Mary discovered quilts at the age of 45, when she saw the Sears Contest quilts displayed at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair Century of Progress Exposition. Soon after, she joined a quilting club at a neighborhood park (Tuley Park Quilting Club) where she received instruction, advice, ready access to the latest patterns, and an opportunity to display her handiwork at club exhibitions.
That first year, she made six quilts—all carrying an embroidered reference to the 1933 Century of Progress contest. Competing for prizes and displaying her quilts in public motivated her to work quickly. Over the next 33 years, she won many prizes and ribbons at exhibits sponsored by The Detroit News and at state fairs in Illinois and Indiana. Her appliqué and quilting caught the attention of the judges. However, when she entered an originally designed quilt "Road to Recovery" in the 1939 New York World's Fair contest, it was returned without a ribbon. Today, it is one of her most enchanting quilts.
She also enjoyed making quilts for her children and grandchildren, often using the same design, but making some adjustments for each child's quilt. Fortunately most of the Gasperik quilts are still held within the family circle. Her only daughter, Elsie, supported and encouraged her mother's quiltmaking interests as she grew older. Mary died in 1969. Elsie died in 1988. Before Elsie died, she distributed her mother's portion of quilts among the three adult siblings. In 1991, Elsie's three daughters Karen, Linda, and Susan divided up the quilts that belonged to their mother. Soon after, they decided to try to organize an exhibit of Mary's quilts in California where Karen and Susan lived.
In 1992, the grandchildren, by then dispersed throughout the United States and raising children of their own, reconnected to display their quilts at the Ravenswood Historic Site in Livermore, CA. They had the quilts professionally photographed and prepared a catalog with the information they remembered about the quilts. Those who did not travel to the show received catalogs and albums of the quilt photographs. The family's appreciation for their grandmother and her quilts grew. Susan Salser embarked on a personal quest to research her grandmother and her quilts. Her findings are now being shared with a much larger audience via the internet.
This online collection of The Mary Gasperik Quilts marks the first private collection of quilts to be incorporated into the Quilt Index. Granddaughter Susan Salser and other family members conducted meticulous and ongoing research into family accounts and published sources. This passionate research effort has resulted in a rich set of stories and details about the quiltmaker's life and family as well as nearly unparalleled depth and accuracy about the quilt and quiltING patterns.
What Sets This Collection Apart?
What sets Mary Gasperik apart from other quilters and makes her worthy of study are her expert needlework skills in appliqué, embroidery and quilting. Her quilts balance overall form and innovation with intricate and detailed handiwork. These quilts are gems to examine up close as well as from across the room.
Moreover, hers is an immigrant's story. Through the lens of her quilts, we gain a glimpse of her personal acculturation. Though she may have been isolated with limited English language skills, Mary Gasperik took something purely American and made it her own. We see how her American quilts are often embellished with Hungarian flowers, emblems and flags.
What makes her quilts valuable to quilt historians is that the 80 quilts were made by one person, in one community, during a specific time period. The fact that her hometown was Chicago, site of the important and influential 1933 Chicago World's Fair Sears National Quilt Contest and home to many companies that published the quilt catalogs and needlework patterns which fueled America's resurgent interest in quilts, makes her quilt epiphany at the Fair and ensuing career all the more significant.
She incorporated and experimented with just about every quilt design source available to her. We can approximate the dates of her quilts by examining the sources of her patterns and searching for those patterns or kits in dated advertisements, newspapers, or copyright booklets. Susan remembers the tall stacks of quilt- and needlework-related popular magazines and catalogs in the dining room, which was her quilt work-room. Mary paid close attention to the latest in quilt ideas and fashions, providing further clues to help decipher the order in which she made her quilts.
This story proves how important those "boxes under the bed" are. Quiltmakers often leave a paper trail to follow. In Mary Gasperik's case, her box included correspondence with Edith Crumb of The Detroit News, photos of her quilts on display at Tuley Park, prize ribbons and quilt caption cards, stencils, hand-drawn appliqué and quilting designs, and much more.
How Waldvogel and Salser Met: Research Roads Merged
In 1992 when Barbara Brackman and I were collecting background stories and quilts for our book Patchwork Souvenirs of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair (Rutledge Hill Press, 1993), we chose Susan Salser's Star Arcturus – Century of Progress by her grandmother Mary Gasperik. Although the quilt was not made for the contest, the pattern was a published pattern that commemorated the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. When we learned that Gasperik's quiltmaking career began when she saw the contest quilts, we decided to add a chapter on the aftermath of the contest. Her quilt toured with the other quilts featured in the book to eleven museums throughout the United States.
Susan Salser decided to research all her grandmother's quilts. Her sisters supported her efforts. Over the next years, she traveled to Hungary to see her grandmother's homeland and meet her relatives. While there, she learned of another "Indians" quilt her grandmother had sent to a relative in Hungary. She later corresponded with the owner (one of the four brothers to whom it was given after the war), who sent several photographs of this much worn quilt. She located a Gasperik quilt at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that her grandmother had given to a niece who later donated it to the museum. Susan began corresponding with this niece, who, in addition to sharing memories, gave Susan old family photos which had belonged to Bruland's mother -- Mary Gasperik's oldest sister Anna (Annuska), who had sponsored her emigration.
I helped her identify Mary Gasperik's quilt designs using commercial kits and published patterns I own. Together we also searched state quilt books and online quilt auction sites for examples of quilts made in kits and patterns that Gasperik used. On ebay, she found and later purchased a sample block of Star Arcturus, which her grandmother sent to a fellow member of The Detroit News Quilt Club in Michigan some 70 years earlier!
Together we unraveled the story of how Mary Gasperik connected with The Detroit News Quilt Club. According to a News quilt column, she was attending a 1935 World Series game between the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago Cubs in Chicago and picked a copy of The Detroit News left by a fan of the opposing team. Inside the newspaper, she saw a notice of the upcoming 1935 quilt exhibit in Detroit. Within weeks she sent quilts and took the bus to see the quilt show.
Through the Library of Congress, Salser ordered microfilm rolls of The Detroit News from the 1930s and 40s. They arrived via interlibrary loan at her local library. To the delight of both of us, she located the baseball story in three places—in October 1935 when Mary surprised Edith Crumb, director of The Detroit Quilt Club, by coming in person, having sent one quilt top which arrived too late to be hung and twice later when reporters described how this Chicago quiltmaker who won so many prizes first learned of The Detroit News quilt show.
By reading the quilt columns, Salser learned that her grandmother attended all the Detroit shows from the time she first discovered them: 1935, 1937, 1938 and 1940. Wondering why Gasperik didn't enter the 1936 show, Salser learned from the microfilm that it was not held and that Mary had written a club member asking about the 1936 show because she was ready to send five new quilts! Not only was she proficient and enthusiastic, she was also motivated by the chance to display her quilts and compete for prizes.
Coincidentally, I received a collection of Detroit News clippings from the 1930s. I was surprised to find a photograph and story of a quilt by Marjorie Miller ("Mrs. Arthur Miller") of Detroit that is similar in layout and appliqué designs to Mary's masterpiece quilt, Colonial Quilting Bee. I had assumed that Gasperik's quilt was an original design. Miller's quilt, photographed by The Detroit News in January 1936 featured two dozen quiltmakers with quilts on their laps sitting around a miniature crazy quilt on a frame. According to the newspaper story, the appliqué pattern for the quilting ladies were sold through the newspaper.
"Our little patchwork lady" as Edith called her, was the official symbol of the Detroit Quilt Show. This encouraged club members to make quilts with that logo. Mary Gasperik must have seen Miller's quilt and decided to make one herself. To personalize hers, she incorporated Hungarian and American flags and placed a miniature Star Arcturus quilt on the center quilt frame. After all, her career began with that quilt.
Another fortuitous discovery in the same collection was a sketch of Mary Gasperik's Double Feather Star on display at a 1937 Detroit News exhibit. The sketch was one of several hundred drawn by an Indiana quilt authority, Frances Purcell, for her quilt pattern library. She must have visited the exhibit in Detroit, sketched the quilt, noted the colors of the quilt and copied the caption card that noted the source of the pattern in a book by Marie Webster and Mary Gasperik as the quiltmaker. Purcell's annotated sketch helped Salser determine which of the three surviving Gasperik Double Feather Star quilts won a 1937 prize.
Obviously, luck and perseverance played a role in our combined efforts to authenticate all the design sources – commercial and folk – that this prolific quiltmaker used.
Our ultimate goal was to date the quilts. We knew the dates when particular quilts were made for Gasperik family members. Exhibition and contest information including: dates of exhibits, dated photographs, quilt caption cards, and prize ribbons were also mined for concrete evidence. We searched for the publication date of each quilt pattern or quilt kit she used, and yet, we know that she sometimes finished projects from the early years many years later. In short, this is our best estimate of the dates and pattern sources.
Mary Gasperik took to quilting as a rich creative endeavor, working from patterns and sources available to her at the time and playing with these in combinations to make them her own. As Salser notes, "Very few Gasperik quilts are faithful executions of someone else's instructions, although it is possible to identify some of her many instructors and resources, such as: Alice Beyers, Marie D. Webster, Ruth E. Finley, Carrie Hall, Rose Kretsinger, Nancy Cabot, Mary McElwain and a myriad of 1930s quilt pattern and kit companies."
Quilt competitions, in particular, became a forum for her best and most creative work. "There is a clear differentiation between quilts which were gifts to be used and those quilts which she wanted to be seen and judged by other quilters, as competitive examples of the quality of her needlecraft," Salser finds. "Not surprisingly, less creative energy went into the former than into the latter."
Styles and Sources
Mary Gasperik's quilts provide evidence of her personal growth as a quiltmaker, and since she worked at the height of the 1930s quilt revival and resided in Chicago, the home of so many commercial quilting enterprises, her work also reflects the impact of those forces on a beginning quiltmaker without a history of quilting in her background.
In her early quilts we see attempts to precisely follow pieced patterns, even though the instructions themselves were not always explicit. When she used packaged kit quilts, she often veered away from the appliqué and quilting designs stamped on the kit fabric and even transferred pattern components from one quilt to another. With Formal Bouquet she used a Wurzburg quilt kit but added her own appliqué motifs and attached a border from yet another pattern source without much success. She left it unfinished.
Her Laurel Wreath quilt, for example, began as a syndicated Nancy Page quilt block series designed by Florence LaGanke that was published in newspapers nationwide in 1934. The series may have appeared in both the Chicago and Detroit newspapers, where she might have seen it. Gasperik reworked the prescribed layout and added floral appliqués that came from yet another source—the Chicago Tribune's Nancy Cabot quilt pattern column.
Floral appliqué and embroidery filled her quilt surfaces. These designs, often used in kit quilts in the 1930s and 40s, may have reminded her of the Hungarian embroidery she had been taught as a young girl. She was obviously attracted to them (she made quite a few), but she often added extra appliqué touches that the kits did not include, such as the appliqué birds that were not included in this kit Wild Flower Wreath (Paragon kit #01010).
It was the custom among expert quiltmakers in the 1930s to duplicate antique quilts. Marie Webster's book Quilts: Their Story and How To Make Them was one of the earliest quilt history books that contained photographs of actual quilts. Gasperik owned a copy of the book. She made her own patterns for her Double Feather Star Quilts and for Indian Feather Star using Webster's photos. In the case of Double Feather Star, only a portion of the quilt was visible in the b/w photo in the book. From this rudimentary design source, Gasperik re-created the quilt and made at least two other versions.
Indiana Wreath, of which she made four copies, was also based on an antique red-and-green appliqué quilt in Marie Webster's 1915 book, but Gasperik chose not to reproduce the round wreath of the antique quilt; instead she shaped an elongated oval wreath. However, even Gasperik's adaptation might have been inspired by a commercial pattern. McCall's Needlework (Winter 1937-38) featured the Indiana Wreath (Pattern #524) with a slightly oval shaped wreath inside a rectangular quilt.
The original antique quilt was square. Other quilt designers and book authors in the 1930s created patterns for that same antique quilt. These included Carrie Hall and Rose Kretsinger in Romance of the Patchwork Quilt (1935) and Mary McElwain in Romance of the Village Quilt (1936). Gasperik may have borrowed from a number of them. Notice she added hovering blue birds, which did not appear in any of the sourced designs mentioned above.
Quilts Made for Family
Quilts made for her grandchildren in the 1940s often began with commercial quilt kit packages that included stamped cloth for appliqué, embroidered stitching lines as well as quilting lines. Kits for children's quilts were popular and inexpensive. Most cost about $1.95 in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Gasperik used Paragon kit #01013 "Farm Design" to make twin bed quilts for granddaughters, Karen and Linda Krueger. She appliquéd their names on the quilts and added the boy on horseback which was not part of the original kit design to represent their father University of Chicago economics instructor, Maynard C. Krueger, as a Missouri farm boy.
For her own adult children, she also made quilts to celebrate weddings and anniversaries. Bridal Bouquet made for son Elmer and his wife Doris's 1944 anniversary contains Mary's favorite lily bouquet and white bowknot appliqués.
Quilt projects made for specific family occasions and for specific children make assigning dates to the quilts much easier, and they also aid quilt historians who value such information to confirm the date of manufacture of particular quilt kits.
Her Masterpiece Quilts
At the outset of this research project, I thought these three quilts were Mary Gasperik's own designs: Road to Recovery, Colonial Quilting Bee, and Hungarian Harvest Festival. In fact, it is now obvious that she made these quilts the way she made her others by starting from a design source that was not her own. It was interesting to discover those sources—Road to Recovery with its winding road to the New York World's Fair was based on a kit design with a similar winding path. The layout of Colonial Quilting Bee is an exact duplicate of a quilt designed for The Detroit News by another "club" member – Marjorie Miller. Hungarian Harvest Festival has as its border design the scalloped and concentric borders of Bucilla kit #2004 "Morning Glory."
Nevertheless, Gasperik has improved upon others' designs. Her needlework expertise raises her work above the standards of quilts being made in the 1930s and 40s. More importantly, these three quilts taken together reflect her immigrant's voyage from stranger to citizen. Her Colonial Quilting Bee, in particular, represents her quilt journey. At the center of Gasperik's quilt is a miniature quilt with a Star Arcturus - Century of Progress block, and one of the quiltmakers working on a Star Arcturus quilt (seen at right) is thought to be a self-portrait. The source of all this good fortune came from her visit to Chicago's 1933 Century of Progress Exposition where she saw some quilts that changed her life. In seeking a way to make similarly beautiful and expressive quilts, she found a group of supportive and enthusiastic quiltmakers eager to make her one of their own.
—Merikay Waldvogel, September 2008