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Patchwork Lives

Patchwork Lives

Building a Home

While some nineteenth-century women pursued non-traditional roles, home was the primary focus for the vast majority. Pioneer reminiscences abound with personal accounts of "making do" and "doing without," as women strove to provide a "civilized" atmosphere for their families. In spite of the privations they encountered, women found ways to bring beauty and artistry into their homes as well as to mark milestones like marriages, births, and, sometimes, deaths. One of the most enduring of these ways is represented in the American quilt.

"While the broom corn was drying Fred & J. T. completed one room of our new sod house and took the cupboard he had made from the floor and set it in the wall as part of the partition between the two rooms. They plastered the wall with a light colored clay. . . we put in a board floor."
Luna E. Kellie Reminiscences, MS 3914, Nebraska State Historical Society

"Each young girl should piece one quilt at least to carry away with her to her husband's home, and if her lot happens to be cast among strangers, as is often the case, the quilt when she unfolds it will seem like the face of a familiar friend, and will bring up a whole host of memories, of mother, sister, friend, too sacred for us to intrude upon."
Good Housekeeping, 1888

Wagon Wheels
Maker, location unknown
Circa 1915-1925
76" x 88"
International Quilt Study Center, Holstein Collection, 2003.003.0315

Quilt patterns often reflected the reality of women's lives. The Wagon Wheels quilt may have been inspired by the many long journeys rural women made in their day-to-day lives or as they traveled to the western frontier. The red and white combination, a style widely produced in the first decades of the twentieth century, may owe its popularity to the increased accessibility of brilliant turkey red fabric, a favorite among quilters.

Lone Star

Maker unknown, probably made in Midwestern United States
Circa 1870-1890
44" x 44.5"
International Quilt Study Center, James Collection, 1997.007.0401

The zigzag border that frames the intricate star pattern of this crib quilt helps to identify it as being made by a Mennonite quilt maker. One of the earliest immigrant Mennonite groups to settle in Nebraska, the "Kleine Gemeinde," settled in Jefferson County, Nebraska, in 1874.

Maker, location unknown
Late Nineteenth Century
28.5" x 20"
Nebraska State Historical Society, Source: Gertrude Eaton Collection, North Bend, Nebraska, 6063-103

After fighting for the Union in the Civil War, John Eaton headed west to North Bend, Nebraska, in 1867 and claimed a homestead. A year later John returned to New Hampshire to marry Francena Sawyer. The Eatons had one child, a daughter named Gertrude, who ended up managing her father's farm after his death in 1921. This nine-patch doll quilt belonged to Gertrude and was likely used by her as a child growing up on the homestead.

Rob Peter to Pay Paul
Maker unknown, probably made in Kansas
Dated 1895
83" x 73.5"
International Quilt Study Center, James Collection, 1997.007.0925

Many pioneer families struggled to make ends meet, juggling payments in a way that reflects this quilt pattern's name, Rob Peter to Pay Paul. In actuality, the name is drawn from English history - apparently, King Edward VI ordered St. Peter's church in Westminster to sell some of its land in order to pay for the repair of St. Paul's in London. In the quilt design, some of the pieces the quilter cuts from the white fabric are "robbed" to form the design in another square.

Postage Stamp

Emma Herring, Kansas
74" x 61"
Nebraska State Historical Society, Source: Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Curtis, Denver, Colorado, 9487-18

Before her daughter's 1896 wedding, Mrs. Robert E. Herring pieced and quilted this cotton Postage Stamp quilt by hand, but when it came time for binding the quilt, she used her sewing machine. Mrs. Herring used both 1876 U.S. Centennial commemorative fabric and a conversational print with images of tiny sewing needles in her quilt. Can you find them?
Mrs. Herring's daughter brought the quilt with her to Firth, Nebraska, when she moved there after her wedding.

Log Cabin, Barn Raising Variation
Maker unknown, probably made in Midwestern United States
Circa 1870-1890
81" x 78.5"
International Quilt Study Center, James Collection, 1997.007.0305

Their homes might be made of sod, but frontier women still made Log Cabin quilts. While the origin of this popular pattern has not yet been determined, some textile historians believe it originated in the East as a fabric representation of log cabin construction. Can you see the "logs" of fabric stitched around the center square? The center square is often red and may symbolize the hearth.

Lone Star,
Mary Mook Norris, Sandusky County, Ohio
Around 1895
76" x 78"
Nebraska State Historical Society, Source: Senator and Mrs. George W. Norris, McCook, Nebraska, 9173-413

The maker of this quilt, Mary Mook Norris, was widowed in 1864 - while she was pregnant with her twelfth child. She took over the family's Ohio farm and made the sacrifices necessary to see that her children received an education. When her son, future Nebraska Senator George Norris, decided to establish a law practice in Nebraska, Mary deeded him eighty acres of land in Johnson County, near Tecumseh. George's oldest daughter, Hazel, received this quilt from her grandmother - a woman who not only overcame personal loss and hardship, but also found time to create beauty.

Cotton Crazy Quilt,
Maker unknown, made in Nebraska
Circa 1915-1925
88" x 79.5"
International Quilt Study Center, Holstein Collection, 2003.003.0247

This unknown quilt maker took squares of fabric and overlaid them with odd pieces of red, white, and blue cotton fabric to make crazy quilt blocks. Once they were stitched together and sandwiched with batting and backing, she hand quilted an arc pattern over the entire face of the quilt. While this faded quilt says frugality and function, it might also say patriotism.

Name Quilt
Mary Ann Knorr Hohnbaum, York County, Nebraska
77" x 69"
Nebraska State Historical Society, Source: In Memory of Melvin Charles Hohnbaum, 11478-1

Mary Ann Knorr Hohnbaum, came to Nebraska with her husband Charles after the Civil War and settled in York County on 160 acres of land. Mary is known to have made at least five quilts, which she gave to five of her eight sons. This quilt bears the names of her husband, Charles, her uncles, Joseph Knorr and Clarkson Skadden, and William, her brother-in-law.

Double Wedding Ring
Maker Unknown, possibly made in Missouri
Circa 1915-1925
83" x 65.5"
International Quilt Study Center, James Collection, 1997.007.0639

The Double Wedding Ring pattern is one of the most widely recognized quilt patterns today. The pattern may have become popular because it was an effective way to use small scraps of fabric left over from dressmaking. This example of a Double Wedding Ring quilt reflects the quilt maker's own personal sense of design in her choice of a black instead of the more common white as the background.

Peony Variation or Sweet Gum Leaf Variation
Sarah Cass and Sarah Spealman, Kansas
73" x 67"
Nebraska State Historical Society, Source: Sarah Spealman Smith, Colton, California, 9229-2

Quilt makers from every generation have marked significant life events with their needlework. This Peony or Sweet Gum Leaf Variation quilt was an 1875 wedding gift to Sarah Cass Spealman, pieced by Sarah's mother, Sarah Cass, and quilted by her mother-in-law, Sarah Spealman. This family settled in Marysville, Kansas, in 1866 and eventually moved to Wymore, Nebraska.

Maker, location unknown
Circa 1890-1910
80.5" x 68"
International Quilt Study Center, James Collection, 1997.007.051

Though easier and faster fabric production led to lower prices for cotton in America after the Civil War, women saved every scrap that remained from sewing clothing and household items. This quilt illustrates the economy of means often seen in American quilts as the quilt maker used a variety of fabrics from her scrap bag to create detailed, dynamic blocks.

Tied Quilt
Christina Deines, Friend, Nebraska
Circa 1910
72" x 79"
Nebraska State Historical Society, Source: Jane Geske, Lincoln, Nebraska, 11243-3

One way pioneer women practiced time management is demonstrated in this piece - tying rather than hand quilting could provide more bedding in less time. Christina Deines of Friend, Nebraska, made this tied quilt (also called a comforter) using fabric from men's pants.

Log Cabin, Streak of Lightning variation
Maker unknown, possibly made in Jackson County, Missouri
Circa 1865-1885
76" x 66.5"
International Quilt Study Center, James Collection, 1997.007.0572

Many women's diaries mention the unleashed fury of sudden lightning and thunderstorms. This quilt maker selected exactly the right fabrics to visually express streaks of lightning exploding across a darkened sky. Part of the great appeal of the now classic Log Cabin quilt pattern is the potential for almost endless variation. Some of the better-known Log Cabin patterns like "Barn Raising," "Straight Furrow," and "Streak of Lightning" speak to the lives of early settlers.

Rose Wreath
Mary A. Peterson, New York, and Mae Williams Glasson, Kansas
Circa 1850 and 1920
76" x 68"
Nebraska State Historical Society, Source: Muriel Glasson, St. Petersburg, Florida, 10802-2

Teenaged Mary A. Peterson of Albany, New York, used bleached flour sacks to make the foundation for this Rose Wreath appliqué quilt destined for her hope chest. As a tied quilt, it covered her children in their trundle bed in Salem, New York, and came to Furnas County, Nebraska, with the family in 1883. When Mary's daughter Mae moved to Almena, Kansas, to homestead with her husband, the quilt went along. Mae removed the ties and quilted the Rose Wreath in the 1920's.

Cotton Crazy
Maker, location unknown
Circa 1890-1910
83.5" x 74"
International Quilt Study Center, James Collection, 1997.007.0453

Though easier and faster fabric production led to lower prices for cotton in America after the Civil War, women saved every scrap that remained from sewing clothing and household items. At first glance, the thousands of pieces stitched together in this crazy quilt appear to be randomly placed. A closer look, however, reveals very detailed planning: the maker constructed individual parallelograms of scraps of fabric, which were then pieced together to form horizontal strips. The strips were sewn together to create the quilt's top.

Log Cabin, Straight Furrows
Clarinda Bush Graham, Lyons, Iowa
89" x 79.5"
Nebraska State Historical Society, Source: Miss Mabel and Miss Grace Souther, Lincoln, Nebraska, 8189-158

This quilt's story spans several generations of one family. Mabel McIntosh Souther remembered watching her grandmother, Clarinda Bush Graham of Lyons, Iowa, work on the quilt around 1878. It was never finished and no backing was attached. In the 1940's, Clarinda's great-granddaughters, Mabel and Grace, made a bed ruffle to use with the quilt.

Museum Exhibits

Patchwork Lives

Inspiring the Future


Building a Home


Providing Income


Showing Off


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Last updated 28 October 2005  

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