20 Mar Chapter 9: Evaluating Accessories, Textiles
Introduction: OK, enough stories. If you’ve read this far, you’re surely tired of them and most likely have your own. It’s time for me to stick my neck out and offer whatever advice I can on how to evaluate a few of the things I hunt for here in California. Odds are I won’t cover what specifically interests you since the list of things that might be evaluated is endless and my knowledge limited. So if your passion is dolls, fishing lures, baseball cards, model trains, Boy Scout collectibles, porcelain trade signs, teddy bears, postcards, Mexican folk carvings, decoys, flags, landscape paintings or vintage clothing, to cite but a few examples, you can go back to doing whatever you were doing. Nor will you find much here in the way of glass (e.g., depression, carnival, pattern, cut, etc), art deco or art nouveau decorative items, including art pottery and porcelain such as Weller, Rookwood, Roseville, van Briggle, and so on. It’s not that I don’t appreciate this stuff, but I don’t collect it and don’t know much about it. And if what stirs your heart are things like beanie babies, McDonald’s happy meal toys, collector plates and Hummel figurines, go find something else to read – I’m amazed you’ve read this far. But even if we cast aside 20th century mass-manufactured ‘collectibles’, the collector of early American decorative and country things from the 18th and 19th centuries has a problem that those who collect or decorate with European antiques of the same vintage don’t have. As I’ve noted several times already, if you wander into an antiques shop specializing in English or Continental antiques you’ll find yourself surrounded by things no ordinary 18th or 19th century Englishman, Frenchman, German or Italian ever owned (if they did, it’s only because they pilfered it from whoever they worked for). Enameled snuff boxes, miniature portraits on ivory, beautifully crafted Swiss music boxes, porcelain vases, bronze sculptures, sterling tea sets and so on were not the sort of thing to be found in even the average person’s home or what might have passed for Europe’s middle class at the time. In contrast, if you wander into an antique shop specializing in Americana, you’ll realize that America was a tad different. Regurgitating a bit of what I wrote in the Introduction to this volume, we tend to think of “consumerism” and the advertising excesses associated with that notion as a 20th century invention that needed television to come to full fruition. In fact, consumerism as we see it today was not only largely an American invention, but it began if not in the early 19th century, then even earlier. In my Introduction I took special note of the lowly apple peeler. Now if you’re prone to bake apple pies or strudel on an ongoing basis, the odds are you know what one of these gadgets does – clamped to a table with an apple impaled on a forked spike of some sort, a turn of the handle will both peel and core the fruit in a flash (don’t try it with Granny Smith’s … they’re a tad too soft). And you don’t have to be an antique nut to find one of these devices – just head off to any store specializing in baking supplies or housewares. Apple peelers of the type sold today, though, have been around for at least two centuries: The first image in Figure 9.1a shows a common 19th century version alongside a contemporary design and demonstrates that while cast iron has been replaced by aluminum and steel, the basic operating principle has been a constant: The apple turns on its spit while a blade rests against it with just the right tension so as to peel away the skin. My Introduction also noted the multitude of companies that manufactured this device in the 19th century along with the hundreds of US issued patents. With the primitive and obviously hand made late 18th century peeler in Figure 9-1b as evidence, it might seem that America was obsessed with apples or at least with apple peeler design. Clearly, by the later part of the 19th century, peelers had become a ubiquitous feature of the American home. And here I emphasize “American”, since the average housewife in Europe was lucky to have a worn down knife to do the job. Thus, while today’s pseudo-educated snobs look down at the “great unwashed masses” with the presumption that they buy what they buy because some slick advertising agency made them want what they didn’t know they wanted, 19th century American housewives were ardent consumers of labor and time saving gadgets long before advertising agencies were a gleam in anyone’s eye. It should hardly come as a surprise, then, to discover an apple peeler of some sort in a general purpose antique shop or antique mall since when anything exists in sufficient variety, there will be collectors in the hunt.
Fig. 9-1a: Apple Peelers, Then and Now
Fig. 9-1b: Apple Peeler before Mass Manufacturing (late 18th early 19th C)
If you don’t like this example because you’ve always gotten your apple pies at the local bakery or grocery store, consider again the Singer Sewing Machine company and its success at sweeping aside the competition by introducing the idea of buying their machines on time. What opened the door for this marketing innovation was Singer’s ability to take advantage of something the company’s European competitors didn’t have at their doorstop: An American middle class populated by housewives willing to nag their husbands until they sprung for a machine. Long before housewives latched onto microwave ovens, blenders, and Swifter pre-lubricated floor mops, they were into anything that lifted the then considerable burdens of maintaining a home, raising the kids and putting up with the old man – and it didn’t matter whether they lived in a fine Pennsylvania Victorian home or a sod hut in Wyoming. Along the same lines, ever see an early (1890) Sears, and a few years later, Sears & Roebuck, catalogue? In 1894 that catalogue exceeded 500 pages – a virtual Amazon.com of consumer products. There was no comparable thing in Europe – the mail order catalogue is another 19th century American invention, born of a flourishing consumerism. Taking advantage of the transportation system being built across the continent by the nemesis of left-leaning do-gooders — money-grubbing profit-seeking capitalists such as Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbuilt, Colis Huntington, Leland Stanford, James J. Hill and Jay Cooke — Sears was merely expanding on a marketing tool employed by other more specialized firms. How about J.W. Fiske’s 1893 hundred and forty page weathervane catalogue, its 1875 cast iron garden ornament catalogue, Dover & Co.’s 1869 catalogue of tinware or the 1883 hundred page Westervelt vane catalogue? Need a stove? There’s Enterprise’s forty page 1877 catalogue. Getting married and need some flatware? Try Reed & Barton’s 224 page 1877 catalogue of silverplate. Need a new mattress? Try Hall’s sixty five page 1888 catalogue wherein you can choose between horsehair and feather.
Heck, let’s go back in time even further. How many homes do you think had a tall case or mantle clock in England in the early or even mid-1800s? Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady surely had several, but I doubt that Eliza’s father, who worried about getting to the church on time, did. Ebenezer Scrooge had one to tell him when his ghosts were scheduled to appear, but poor Bob Cratchit couldn’t afford a decent Christmas goose, never mind a clock. European clocks were hand crafted, made one at a time by a master craftsman, and if you could afford one, you probably didn’t need to know what time it was unless it was to harass an employee for showing up late to work. Enter the Connecticut clockmaker Eli Terry who in 1806, at a time when a skilled clock maker could make less than a dozen clocks per year, contracts to manufacture 4,000 (!) tall case clock movements in the space of three years and who, along with other crafty Connecticut clock makers, go on to refine their product (notably, developing a movement that allowed for a short pendulum and thus a weight driven mantle clock) and their manufacturing skills so as to make their contribution to the development of the then space age technology of interchangeable parts. Thus, while your typical European still had to rely on the sun to tell time, Connecticut clockmakers, spurred on by any number of retailers looking for things to sell, manufactured some 511,000 clocks in 1850 alone. Now ask this question: Why in heaven’s name would Terry even think of agreeing to manufacture 4,000 clocks in 1806 (actually, it was Edward and Levi Porter who perceived the demand and contracted with Terry to make the clocks) and why didn’t some European clock maker (and there was surely an ample supply of them) beat him to the punch? The answer is that Terry and/or the Porters perceived a pre-existing but untapped American consumer market — maybe not a “clock on every mantle and an apple pie in every oven” but something akin to that.
One might think that what fed this consumerist society was American genius and its invention of the concept of the interchangeable part – the concept that made mass production possible and that once possible, slick entrepreneurs figured out how to make consumers want what they manufactured. If you’ve gotten this far in this book you already know, though, that the ideas of mass production and interchangeable parts were NOT invented by the likes of Terry with his clocks. Those ideas actually originated in Europe before Terry set up shop. The initial impetus for mass manufacturing technologies came from governments who wanted to equip their armies with standard issue guns. Europeans were anything but adverse to going to war with each other or against those in far off lands that seemed ripe for the plucking, and what better way to equip an army than with guns of the same design, using the same ammunition and repairable with a box of replacement parts? But it was in America that the technologies of mass production took firm root and seeped into other fields of manufacture. There are multiple explanations for this, but the most important one is that Europeans who wanted and could afford a clock (or a gun or an apple peeler) didn’t want a mass-produced product any more than some Wall Street whiz today wants to drive a Honda Civic. They wanted the Lamborghini of clocks or the Ferrari of guns. God forbid your local Earl or Countess would have to lower themselves to buy something of which there were 4,000 copies and more on the way. So it was in America that notions of tolerances were worked out and the technology of mass production and interchangeable parts refined and put to use on things us ordinary folk might want and thus it was in America that everyday products of every description were manufactured and destined a hundred or two hundred years later to become collectibles.
I should add that European manufactures of X, Y and Z failed to make full use of the technology of interchangeable parts and mass production not because they were a stubborn stuck in the mud lot. The multitude of factors at work here include an entrenched European guild system that saw mechanization and automation a threat to its existence (sound familiar?). Surely the French inventor Barthelemy Thimonnier thought twice about pursuing the manufacture of sewing machines when disgruntled workers, threatened by his patent of the device, in 1830 burned his factory to the ground. But consider one factor in particular by looking at the circumstances of, say, a clock maker in Europe as compared to his American counterpart. Suppose a French, British or Dutch craftsman sought to expand his enterprise by bringing an apprentice into the business, starting him off by, for instance, casting pendulums. What do you do with him after he’s mastered that task? Answer: You move him on to making some other part – gears, casements or perhaps letting him learn the fine craft of making a clock cabinet. And what does that apprentice do? Answer: He learns whatever you teach him in the hope that he too will become a master craftsman and can sell his wares to the rich and famous. More than likely, moreover, he’ll practice his craft near where he learned it – unless, of course, one of Europe’s wars or a decision by some ruler to persecute his religion drives him elsewhere. It’s either that or go back to raising pigs or cleaning a landlord’s stables. But now, zip across the Pond to Connecticut and suppose that apprentice’s clone just graduated from pendulums and is learning how to cut and file a gear. Like his European counterpart, he also might choose to master all aspects of the clock making craft and, subsequently, open a shop of his own down the road. But there’s an alternative. After accumulating a few coins, he can pack up and head West, over the Alleghenies to where there’s something he can’t get in Europe or England – LAND! Thus, the Connecticut craftsman who brought an apprentice into his business often had a problem – the ingrate disappeared. This leaves him with three choices. First, he could himself head West as the Connecticut-born and later Cincinnati clockmaker Luman Watson did. Second, he could recruit new apprentices from the mass of immigrants flooding our shores. The problem here is that those immigrants have unpronounceable names, spoke in unintelligible tongues, wore funny clothes and ate smelly food. And dammit, when they got a few coins together, they too could take off for the West. The final option is to search for a substitute for apprentices. And that substitute is a machine that cuts or stamps out the same gear time and time again. The advantage here is that all he need do to expand the business is train someone with oil can or wrench in hand to maintain a machine, which generally requires fewer specialty skills than teaching someone how to cut and file a gear so that each tooth is precisely placed relative to all others. And like Henry Ford decades later, our craftsman, now an entrepreneur and capitalist, learns that making countless copies of the same thing allows him to mass merchandise his product, regardless of whether that thing is a clock, a gun, an apple peeler or a sewing machine.
If you don’t now mind a small diversion into a bit of American history (and you shouldn’t if your true love is Americana), let me ask: What’s the connection between Samuel Colt’s firearms, Eli Terry’s clocks and the First Amendment to the US Constitution? Bet that one has you stumped. OK, here’s a fact: During much of the 19th century, essentially half the newspapers in the world were published in the good old US of A (our citizenry was, once upon a time, quite literate having been taught to read and comprehend the Bible). The explanation for this fact is, once again, land. We already know why the likes of Colt, Terry and countless other American entrepreneurs were open to technologies that made them less dependent on skilled apprentices. But when an apprentice headed West, he didn’t just wander into the wilderness with family in tow. More than likely he was responding to an ad put up by some land speculator or railroad that by hook or crook acquired vast acreages of wilderness that would otherwise be worthless unless it could be divided up and sold. While there may have been a few Daniel Boone’s among those moving West, most preferred to bring their families to where there was the semblance of civilization (and the relative absence of grumpy Indians). And what better suggests “civilization” than a local newspaper (along with a schoolmarm who taught the kiddies how to read that Bible)? So with the encouragement of land speculators, railroads and settlers who might like a neighbor or two to commiserate with, newspapers, schools (and more than a few saloons and brothels) sprung up like pimples on a teenager. You weren’t a town – you couldn’t even claim to be a village – unless you had a newspaper (along with a dry goods store selling apple peelers). But the proliferation of newspapers made something difficult for the powers that be in government to do what those in control of the state always try to do – control the news. Russia’s Vladimir Putin along with today’s over-zealous proponents of political correctness would have met only frustration in 18th and 19th century America. There were just too damn many newspapers to control if one sought to control the news. But if you can’t control the news, you sure as heck don’t want anyone else to either. The solution is to see to it that the First Amendment is enforced – to wit that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”
OK, enough of history, and by now you’re surely asking what all of this has to do with the subject of this chapter? Well, think back to those 1930s Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers movies. If you took them as your model of how people lived then, you’d conclude that the poor unemployed slob selling apples on the corner during the Great Depression returned in the evening to a home with closets full of tuxedos and absolutely alluring fluffy gowns along with a spiral staircase and a dining room that could substitute as a dance hall. This of course is nonsense. Hollywood was offering escapist entertainment and wasn’t trying to provide social commentary or a look in the mirror as to who we are. The same is true in a way if you collect 18th and 19th century European antiques, since you almost certainly are decorating with things that only the rich, famous or infamous owned. Nothing wrong with that, but your collection will not give you any more of a sense of how most people lived back then than is an Astair-Rogers flic a window into the lives of Americans in the 1930s.
Things are different if you collect 18th and 19th century Americana. There are, of course, Tiffany vases and lamps for the homes of the well-to-do as well as family portraits by European-educated artists, tall clocks made by clockmakers that rivaled any European competitor, and silver tea sets for a successful entrepreneur. And surely no Yankee peddler loaded Newport block front desks on his Conestoga wagon and set out to the Ohio valley in hopes of finding customers. But at the same time, there are a great many things to collect and decorate with from 18th and especially 19th century America that allow you in some way to connect to the people who were hacking out log cabins, opening a village’s first dry goods store or advertising their wares in one of those local newspapers. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of things you might collect were intended for what then passed as America’s middle class. You might not have had a Tiffany lamp, but the odds are you owned an apple peeler, a sewing machine, a variety of pantry boxes, perhaps a commercially made weathervane on the cupola of your barn, some early wrought iron or Sandwich glass lighting, a copper tea kettle, one or more guns, a clock, an assortment of stoneware canning jars and jugs and, if you had a young daughter, some hand made dolls along with the sampler she’d made under the guidance of the village’s school mistress. Those dry goods stores that spread like measles across a continent during the 19th century advertised themselves with today’s collectible trade signs and stocked their shelves with boxes and labeled cans that collectors today lust for. And you needn’t have been rich to let one of America’s itinerant portrait painters put you, your wife and your kids’ images to canvass. In other words, if part of your attraction to antiques is to understand and connect to our past, there are countless categories of things to occupy your attention.
Of course, this volume can only survey a tiny portion of those categories, and before proceeding, let me eliminate one specific category from consideration altogether: Chinese antiques, despite the fact that they (primarily Chinese export porcelain) were often accents to an early American décor. Unfortunately, the time to become an expert in this category was before that country’s capitalists began building some of the worlds tallest buildings, which is to say before the Chinese themselves could afford the stuff. But it’s not just price that today is a roadblock to collecting here. The simple fact is that the Chinese have been reproducing (ok, to hell with political correctness – faking) their own antiques for centuries and are damned good at it! So unless you’re already an expert or have one in the family, you’re looking for trouble if you’re starting from ground zero in your collecting. And there’s no way in hell I can get you out of trouble in the space of a few pages of text.
Now as for the organization of the chapters that follow, if you looked at this book’s table of contents you’ll notice that I’ve divided my presentation of “accessories” into three chapters. I’ve done this for two reasons. The first is simply to avoid an overly long chapter. OK, I realize that’s a flimsy excuse. But the second reason is my attempt to differentiate between folk art and commercially manufactured accessories and collectibles. Now I’ll admit that in several instances it’s impossible to classify a category. For example, virtually any survey of classic American folk art will include a discussion if not an entire chapter on weathervanes. This is done despite the fact that the vast majority of antique vanes on the market today were commercially manufactured in great quantities. Pick up a Fisk catalogue and notice that in addition to choosing the image of your heart’s desire, you can choose its size as well. Want an copper eagle weathervane? Well, you better be more precise and tell me whether you want one with a 14, 12, 10, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 or 1 foot wingspan. Or maybe it’s a horse. But do you want it modeled after Ethan Allen, Mountain Boy, Goldsmith Maid, Washington or Black Hawk? And is it just a horse that you want or one pulling a wagon or a surrey or jumping over a rail? On the other hand, there are those hand made unique vanes that unquestionably fall into a folk category regardless of how you define terms. Somewhat arbitrarily, then, I will include a discussion of weathervanes in Chapter 11, along with commercially made accessories such as coffee mills and Stafffordshire historical pottery. Conversely, I will include in this chapter a discussion of woven coverlets despite the fact that nearly all you’ll encounter were made commercially by professional weavers. While perhaps a share of the early ones were the product of women working at home, once we get to post-1830s Jacquards with complex designs that required complex mechanized looms, the pros took over (can you imagine the Jacquard loom in Figure 9-2 being something the average housewife in, say, 1830 would want to have occupying space in her home? If you’re unsure how to answer this question, let me add that the loom is a bit taller than the average person.). Nevertheless, it seemed appropriate to include this discussion in a chapter devoted specifically to textiles that unambiguously qualify as folk art: Quilts, hooked rugs and samplers. I’ve relegated a discussion of firkins, pantry boxes and mixing bowls to Chapter 10 as opposed to 11 despite the fact that nearly all the examples you’ll find were commercially made and, in the case of firkins, also packed with a commercial product such as lard (there, does that juice you up to collect a stack of them?). But it’s the paint typically applied later that adds real value to such pieces – hence, into my second “folk art” chapter they go. Conversely, I’ve stuck stoneware in the “industrial” Chapter 11 even though what people value here is the hand applied and often idiosyncratic cobalt decorations applied at the kiln to various crocks and jugs. All I can say is if you don’t like how I’ve somewhat arbitrarily classified things, you’re free to cut and paste the sections of the next three chapters as you wish or even make them a single chapter.
Fig. 9-2: Jacquard Loom
One final comment now about the pictures that follow (as well as nearly all of those in the preceding chapters). They are almost uniformly of things I’ve found here in California at estate sales, auctions and flea markets (much to my regret whatever I might have found earlier was without the benefit of digital photography). It will be evident, then, that things one might label “museum quality” are few and far between. If you thought you’d find pictures of stuff of that quality, forget it; and if that’s what you want, then forget about this book. Get yourself a copy of Stacy Hollaner’s American Radiance, Robert Bishop’s American Folk Sculpture or Dean Fales’ American Painted Furniture 1660 – 1880 so you can drool until your mouth runs dry. If I found stuff like that frequently enough to write a book about it, I wouldn’t be writing this book – I’d be sunning myself on the deck of my yacht somewhere in the Caribbean or South Pacific. So you’ll have to make do with more pedestrian things of a sort you might find if, like me, you choose to spend your weekends shopping the shops, estate sales and flea markets and saying to hell with the weeds in your yard and the drip in the kitchen sink.
Coverlets: Prior to the development of an American textile industry, only the relatively well-to-do could afford cotton fabric in excess of what was required for clothing since what they could buy was imported from England, or via the East Indian Company, from India itself. Francis Cabot Lowell didn’t open his mill in Waltham Massachusetts until 1814 and the average consumer had to wait a bit later before machine woven cotton cloth became an unexceptional commodity. The idea, then, of keeping warm in the winter with a cotton quilt was a luxury for the average America throughout the 18th century and into at least the first few decades of the 19th, at least when compared to the alternative: wool. Wool was, of course, somewhat coarser than cotton, but it along with flax could be readily woven on small looms at home or by itinerant weavers. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised that while early 19th century American cotton quilts are as scarce as proverbial hen’s teeth (and most are either in museums or in known private collections), woven wool coverlets dating to the early 1800s can be found at almost any antiques show or flea market. I’m speaking here of those wool bed covers classified as either Overshots or Jacquards. Overshots, which predate Jacquards by upwards of 30 years (the ones you’re likely to find at the flea market typically date from around 1810 whereas the average date of a Jacquard’s manufacture is something like 1840), are generally woven in geometric patterns with but a minor flourish as a border (such as something that passes for pine trees). Jacquards, in contrast, were produced on looms (invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1804) that were automated literally by something akin to a long sequence of IBM data cards as shown in Figure 9-2 above (remember those things with their little punched rectangular holes? I’m sure you do if you voted in Florida in 2000) whereby elaborate patterns could be produced with a programmed control of warp and weft threads – flowers, birds, eagles, trains, houses, trees and so on. Compare, for instance, the relative complexity of the Jacquared in Figure 9-3b with the far simpler pattern of the Overshot in Figure 9-3a. The variety of Jacquard patterns can be astounding. For example, Clarita Anderson’s American Coverlets and Their Weavers offers fifty two beautiful full page color images of Jacquard coverlets while Carleton Stafford and Robert Bishop’s America’s Quilts and Coverlets document upwards of forty seven designs. Yet even a haphazard search for Jacquards at flea markets here in California yield examples not covered by these two authoritative volumes (see, for example, Figures 9-5a and 9-6e). In any event, with technology came professionalism – the weaver who, after investing in his loom (and perhaps a wagon and team of horses so he could haul it around from village to village) would weave his name into the pattern, generally at the corners (sorry, but once the pros took over, commercial weaving was a man’s domain), a date or the name of whoever contracted for the coverlet and perhaps even where the coverlet was made. As a consequence of the resulting visual complexity and ease of attribution, Jacquards ceteris paribus, generally command higher prices than overshots. None of this is to say, though, that overshots cannot be interesting. Consider, for instance, the examples in Figures 9-3c through 9-3i. From boring to boldly graphic, everything depends on the imaginative use of color and the complexity that even a simple loom allows.
Fig. 9-3a: Ca 1810 Overshot Coverlet Panels, Pine Tree Border
Fig. 9-3b: Undated but Signed NY Jacquard
Fig. 9-3c: A Boring Overshot
Fig. 9-3d: A Modestly More Interesting Overshot
Fig. 9-3e: Classic 1830s Overshot with Pine Tree Border
Fig. 9-3f: A better Than Average Overshot Coverlet
Fig. 9-3g: The Reverse Side of the Coverlet in Figure 9-2d
Fig. 9-3h: Overshot with Uncommon Fringe Border
Fig. 9-3i: Fringe Border of Overshot in Figure 9-3h
Fig. 9-3j: A Contemporary Reproduction Jacquard
However, before proceeding further, let me offer a warning: The coverlets people collect are for the most part those made in the first half of the 19th century before quilts gained their ascendancy as an American folk art form. And if made then, they were more often than not made on looms that weren’t of an industrial sort that could weave a five or six foot wide panel in a single shot. Instead they were woven on looms that accommodated nothing wider than 36 or so inches (about as far as a person could throw a shuttle holding the (wool) weft thread from one side to the other between the (flax or cotton) warp threads). Thus, if you wanted a bed cover, you wove it in panels and sewed the panels together, in which case an early 19th century coverlet, before this final step, would look like the one in Figure 9-3a. And this holds true for both overshots and Jacquards. It’s true that larger commercially directed looms appeared in the 1850s or so, but to play it safe for the novice, assume that single-panel coverlets date to the 1860s, to the coverlet revival of the 1930s, or are contemporary creations. So to perhaps throw the fear of god into you, consider the Jacquard in Figure 9-4. As classic as its design might be, it’s less than ten years old as of the writing of this book.
Of course, for every rule there’s the inevitable exception, and coverlets are no different. Consider the Jacquard in Figures 9-4a – 9-4c. Yes, it’s dated 1849 (Figure 9-4c), but it has no center seam. So is it a legit antique or a contemporary reproduction? Well, in fact, James Van Ness, seeking a leg up on his competitors, had the wherewithal to contract to have a loom built sometime between 1848 and 1849 wherein he could advertise his wares as not requiring a center seam. The patter here, moreover, corresponds to Van Ness’ work, so this seamless Jacquard is indeed wholly legit.
Fig. 9-4a: Palmyra Jacquard by J. Van Ness
Fig. 9-4b: Jacquard from Figure 9-4a
Fig. 9-4c: Jacquard from Figure 9-4a
Turning now to the matter of relative value, as with everything people collect, we always need to apply the words ceteris paribus, which mean that things are never simple since coverlets, like virtually every antique, can suffer from any number of apologies with respect to condition and variation with respect to visual appeal. And here condition generally depends on two things — wear and moth holes. Damage can run the gamut from minor to a level of severity wherein the piece isn’t good for anything except making pillows or seat covers. Coverlets, after all, were utilitarian things – people weren’t weaving antiques, they were trying to keep warm — and their use led to wear. Jacquards often had a fringe on three sides (most commonly trimmed extensions of the wool weft threads), and while a purist might demand that it be undamaged, any wear to it should have only a marginal impact on value. But wear can also result in the literal shattering and disappearance of warp or weft threads, in which case a coverlet might be utterly valueless. Evaluating coverlets here is often a matter of taste and personal preference. Consider the Jacquard in Figure 9-4a. Dated 1837, this is at first glace a relatively appealing piece and the product of a reasonably well-documented weaver, Emanuel Ettinger of Aronsburg, Pennsylvania. But now look closely at Figure 9-4b, and specifically, the white roses in the center strip, to the left and right of center. The somewhat seemingly blurred appearance of the white roses arises because of the wear to the green wool weft (horizontal) threads. So how much do we discount for that? The answer is that it depends. Most collectors might be bothered by this wear; but if, as was the case with the eventual owner, you’re from Aronsburg, the discount is minimal. In this case, though, if one were offering a general appraisal, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to attach a value of between $400 and $500 to an example in perfect condition, but only $100 to $200 for the example shown here. But now consider the Jacquard in Figure 9-4c. At first glance this seems a magnificent piece, what with those American eagles forming a center medallion. The weaver, moreover, was kind enough to weave a name and location into the bottom edge of the border (John Braden of Libertyville, New York. Since John isn’t listed as a known weaver, we can assume the coverlet was woven for him). Were this coverlet in perfect condition, no one would accuse you of giving it a value in excess of $500. However … and it’s a BIG ‘however’ – take a look at Figure 9-4d. That’s more than a bit of wear – it’s an outright hole you can put your hand thru. So how do we discount for that? Good question and I haven’t a definitive answer – but it most likely depends on whether you have a genetic connection of some sort to Libertyville.
Fig. 9-4a: Dated 1837 Jacquard Coverlet, Aronsburg Pennsylvania
Fig. 9-4b: Subtle Wear to Coverlet in Figure 9-4a
Fig. 9-4c: Undated but Signed NY Jacquard
Fig. 9-4d: Severe Damage to Coverlet in Fig. 9-4c
When it comes to damage, though, there’s a universal problem: Moths. While warp threads are commonly made from flax or cotton, the horizontal weft is wool, which means that your average example most likely provided a snack if not a banquet to one or more moths in its lifetime. A few small (rice grain-sized) holes here and there is generally acceptable, even to collectors. But if the coverlet appears to be suffering from an onslaught of measles when held up to the light (and often that’s the only way to see the extent of the damage, so when thinking of buying a coverlet, ALWAYS hold it up to the light), it’s best to simply stay away. Moths can readily take a $1,000 coverlet and render it worthless.
The second dimension of value is, as I’ve already suggested, color. I’ve seen overshots, despite their simple geometric patterns, selling for more than elaborately patterned Jacquards because of color (I should add that fading is irreversible and stains difficult to eliminate since it’s inadvisable to wash wool for obvious reasons). Find a bold red, white and blue overshot such as the one in Figure 9-2d and you could easily be looking at a $250 or $400 piece while a dull Jacquard in muted red, tan and green might command no more than $150 retail. Aside from the complexity of their design and boldness of color, though, the thing that generally pushes the price of a Jacquard past that of an overshot is something I noted earlier; namely coverlets that are signed by their weaver, sometimes dated, and often the location of the weaver noted (and don’t get upset if you can read one corner but not its opposite – coverlets were commonly reversible so at least one corner can be read regardless of which side it up – consider the coverlet in Figure 9-5 by way of example). An undated unsigned Jacquard might sell for, say, $250, whereas its dated and identified cousin could readily fetch $500. Jacquards also commonly have complex border designs, wherein, in the approximate order of value, you might find flowers, birds, buildings or patriotic schemes with eagles (if you find one with a choo choo train, please contact me without letting anyone else know you have it).
Fig. 9-5: Illustrating the Reversibility of a Jacquard
To put some meat on this discussion with additional examples, consider the six Jacquards below. The first (Fig. 9-6a) is a decent enough piece, but quite frankly, the colors are boring (at least to my taste), its border uninspiring and it’s undated. For me the design seems more appropriate for a rug than a bedcover and most likely on an auction site such as eBay I wouldn’t expect it to sell for much over $200. Compare that one now to the one immediately beneath it (Fig. 9-6b). Again there’s no date, but the color is unusual, and its double border is a tad uncommon. If in good condition, I’d not be shocked if this example shot past $350 at auction. Figures 9-6c and 9-6d show two dated Jacquards and here one’s preference is, once again, a matter of taste. Personally, I prefer the one in Figure 9-6c if only because I like the bold two-color contrast and surely an eagle in the dated corners doesn’t hurt. On the other hand, there are those who might prefer the Jacquard in Figure 9-6d because of the eagles along the side borders. In my mind, though, I dislike the color scheme, which matches the Jacquard in Figure 9-6a. In either case, though, I’d be disappointed if, in selling either the Jacquard in Figure 9-6c or 9-6d, you didn’t see a price of $400 or more at auction. Next, take a look at the coverlet in Figures 9-6e and 9-6f. Although signed and dated, there is nothing uncommon in its design. What magnifies its desirability, though, is its color scheme, and that alone is enough to push value north of $500. Finally, consider the 2-panel Jacquard in Figure 9-6g. While its color scheme is the relatively common blue & white, it exhibits are rather uncommon border – fruit trees at one end and a hunter and deer along the two sides. Were this coverlet in perfect condition, it could easily out-price any of the others considered thus far since, with that border, it could appeal to a coverlet collector as opposed to someone merely seeking a decorative accent to a bedroom.
Fig. 9-6a: Undated & Boring Jacquard Coverlet
Fig. 9-6b: Undated but Interesting Jacquard Coverlet
Fig. 9-6c: Dated Jacquard with a Nice Color Contrast
Fig. 9-6d: Dated Jacquard but the Colors are Uninspiring
Fig. 9-6e: And Especially Bold Jacquard dated 1835
Fig. 9-6f: Reverse Side of Coverlet in Figure 9-6e
Fig. 9-6g: Dated 1842 Jacquard with Uncommon Border
A coverlet aficionado will by now object that I haven’t distinguished among single weave, double weave, summer-winter, and so on – a critique to which I plead guilty. But between you and me, it doesn’t really matter. Traditionally woven overshots of the type made at home were of necessity single weave since the double weave required a more complex loom that allowed for two sets of warp threads – a loom that you’d hardly expect to find out in the boonies. The advantage of the double weave is that it allowed for a slightly more complex pattern (the overshot in Figure 9-2b is a single weave whereas those in Figures 9-2a and d are double weave) and the coverlet was reversible in the sense that what was light on one side was dark on the other This in turn gave rise to the notion of the Summer-Winter coverlet wherein the light side could be laid out on the bed in the summer and the darker side in the winter. But again, hardly anyone today gives a damn about these distinctions until you get to the more complex Jacquard patterns, which are almost always reversible.
One comment now about stains. I noted earlier that the last thing you want to ever do is wash a coverlet … we all should know what happens to wool then. Nor, apparently, should you take it to a dry cleaner. I did that once and fortunately he was a friend whose immediate reaction was “are you crazy?” Don’t ask me what processes a dry cleaner uses, but apparently when it comes to wool coverlets, it ain’t good. Things, though, aren’t entirely hopeless. Since there’s no guarantee that coverlets over the course of 150 or 200 years will have been stored with care, a good share of the ones you’re likely to find at flea markets and estate sales will have come in contact with moisture of some sort that when dry left a stain just as it would on any textile. So what can you do about that? Well, that depends on your willingness to experiment a little and tolerance for risk. Here’s my suggestion, which applies to coverlets of only one type; namely those in which the background white is indeed white. That eliminates about half the coverlets I’ve ever encountered since that white will, over time and if exposed to the air, oxidize and become a subtle off-white or even very light brown. In that case, live with the stain. So suppose the coverlet was stored in such a way that the white for whatever reason didn’t oxidize. In that case, lay it out on your lawn in the sun, get yourself a spray bottle filled with some highly diluted hydrogen peroxide and test a small one inch square area that includes the stain. If nothing horrid happens and the stain disappears when that area dries, then give it a shot … what have you got to lose (aside from the coverlet)?
A final note, now, about coverlets made after 1860 or so, primarily during the centennial celebration of American independence. With technology in full bloom, their designs are often bold and dramatic, with center sections offering the image of the Capitol, an American eagle or Memorial Hall from the Philadelphia Exposition. The Jacquard from Palmyra New York and dated 1869 in Figures 9-7a and 9-7b is a good example of such patriotic themes. While generally not commanding the prices secured by earlier examples since by 1860 or so the weaving of coverlets was indeed an automated industrial-era enterprise, they can nevertheless add to an early American décor. In fact, if you’re not a collector and are simply interested in giving a room a nice country flavor, then Jacquard coverlets of this period are a good bargain.
Fig. 9-7a: Dated 1869 Palmyra New Your Jacquard Coverlet
Fig. 9-7b: Close up of the Coverlet in Fig. 9-7a
Samplers: I’m referring here to those 18th and early 19th century silk on linen wonders produced by little girls generally under the age of fifteen and as young as six or seven that exhibit an attention to detail that’s largely vanished with today’s generation except when it comes to texting or applying eye makeup. I’ll also exclude a discussion of samplers made after 1845 or so. Collectors loose interest once you pass that date wherein samplers are more likely to be stitched with wool rather than silk and fail to exhibit the delicacy that silk affords (though because of their more recent vintage they are often more colorful than their older counterparts). Now the reader my find my interest in samplers a bit strange. Since I fall into the male half of the population (and yes, I’m one of ‘those’ who still believes there are only two halves) most people might think I should be collecting things like guns, Civil War collectibles, snuff boxes, decoys, old tools, pocket watches or medicine bottles. But in addition to making one wonder how little girls could be made to focus so as to produce such astoundingly intricate examples of needlework, there is a feature of samplers that few other categories of Americana share (most notably, Jacquard coverlets and a good share of stoneware) — specifically, they commonly have the name of their creator as part of the design, often along with her age, date of the sampler’s creation and, from time to time, the names of other members of her family. Thus, with a genealogical website at one’s disposal, it is often possible to nail down precisely the identity of that particularly industrious little girl and perhaps even the circumstances of her youth. And since cemeteries and graveyards have themselves taken to the internet, we can frequently even find a picture of the little darlings headstone (hopefully but not always dating some decades after the date of the sampler in question). Thus, if one collects Americana so as to feel closer in some way to those who were part of America’s development, there’s perhaps no better category than little girl samplers.
Now while I’ve evolved in my old age to become a somewhat indiscriminate collector of samplers, I’ll have to admit that I haven’t the foggiest idea how they came to be named as such. A more accurate label might be “advertisements” or “inducements”. For the most part, once finished they’d be hung on the wall to advertise a young lady’s talents to potential suitors (as if, I suppose, suitors might fear a poor darning of their socks). And since a good share of these folk art wonders were produced in schools established explicitly for the education of young ladies, they announced that the girl in question had an education and parents with the means to have her educated. This, then, explains why almost universally, the cut-off for the age of a girl making a sampler was fifteen: If she wasn’t betrothed by then, she was sliding into the abyss of “old maid” and a sampler wasn’t likely to resurrect her status.
Before I proceed further, though, I should note that if your interest is more than mere curiosity or if you’d simply like to drool over the best of the best, you shouldn’t begin here but with Betty Ring’s two volume Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers and Needlework 1650 – 1850. If you’re too cheap to spring for this set, at least get a copy of Ring’s American Needlework Treasures. There you’ll learn a ton about samplers along with examples from her collection that are far better than anything I’m likely to get my hands on and photograph. If you want a classic reference guide, see Ethel S Bolton and Eva J Coe’s American Samplers, first published in 1923. Sadly, this volume while chock full of information does not have colored plates and it’s impossible to appreciate a sampler’s beauty in black and white. If on the other hand you might want to see the full range of samplers that have passed thru the hands of Molly Finkel, one of the country’s leading contemporary experts in the field, in which case you should check out her website http://samplings.com/catalogue and any one of the 50 annual sampler catalogues presented there. With that said and returning to samplers of the type your likely to find at flea markets or estate sales, there are five well-defined dimensions of quality (and price): Origin, Age, Motif, Color and Condition. So turning to the matter of origin first, you may from time to time encounter a Continental example (e.g., Spain, the Netherlands and Germany – see Figure 9-8 for a Dutch example). However, I think it’s safe to say that 99 percent of what you’ll encounter will originate from either the United Kingdom or the United States. And of those, the majority will be from the UK — there simply were more little girls there than here as well as more in school learning what it takes to snag a man as opposed to being dragged thru the wilderness with parents looking for cheap farmland. Supply dictates value, so ceteris paribus, American samplers are, on average, more sought after than English ones wherein comparable examples can differ in value by factors of 3 or even 4 to one.
Fig. 9-8: A Dutch Sampler Dated 1810
So that leads to the BIG question: How do you distinguish between English and American? Not only is that a big question, it’s a damned good one and often difficult to answer. Aside from finding an expert who knows regional styles, there are no hard and fast rules. You might begin with Clare Browne and Jennifer Weardin’s Samplers from the Victoria and Albert Museum (1999, V&A Publications, London) to train your eye to the look of an English samplers look like, perhaps while comparing what you see there with the samplers discussed in Ring’s book or, say, Mary Edmonds Samplers and Samplermakers: An American Schoolgirl Art, 1700-1850 (1991, Rizzoli Pub., NY). But aside from this there are subtle hints – and I’m assuming that little Elizabeth or Alice or Mary wasn’t considerate enough to stitch into her work where she lived or was born (and even if she did, you may not have a definitive answer to the question of origin – do you want to guess how many “Newports” there are in the UK as opposed to the one in Rhode Island). First, the samplers stitched by America’s little girls seem generally a bit sloppier than their British counterparts, since the lettering on an English sampler tends to be more precise than on an American one. Figures 9-9a through 9-9d illustrate four relatively well-executed English samplers and you’ll note the very precise lettering. You’ll also notice their quite precise symmetry (a characteristic shared by the Dutch example in Figure 9-8).
Fig. 9-9a: English Sampler Dated 1807
Fig. 9-9b: English Sampler Dated 1798
Fig. 9-9c: English House Sampler Dated 1828
Fig. 9-9d: Undated English Sampler
Contrast these examples now with the sampler in Figure 9-10a, which admittedly is a rather severe example of a poorly executed American piece. One might suspect that in this instance, had such a sampler been presented to an English school mistress, she’d have been sent back with a severe admonition to try it again from scratch. Or for a second example in which a young lady obviously put in a great deal of effort, consider the Philadelphia sampler in Figure 9-10b, which we’d already seen in Chapter 2 (Figure 2-4). Little Elizabeth’s lettering here surely leaves something to be desired. But in addition, it seems as if she chose the included images by “picking one from column A, one from column B, one from column C, and so on.” . English samplers tend to be quite formal, unified and symmetric in their presentation, as if the little girl in question had been told by an adult where to put each and every stitch. American samplers, in contrast, often have a more folky appearance where it seems as if the young girl proceeded thus: “There’s a space, I’ll stitch a little doggy there. Oh wait, there’s a bigger space; I can insert an image of my house there. Gee, the border seems skimpy so I’ll add some pretty flowers all around. Oops, I didn’t leave enough room for my last name so I’ll have to make those letters really small.” You’re unlikely to find a young lady in the UK trying to squeeze in her age as in Figure 9-10c. One might say then that the difference between an English and American sampler is often the equivalent of a child painting by numbers versus “here’s some paint, now go draw a picture”.
Fig. 9-10a: Unfinished Family Record American Sampler
Fig. 9-10b: A Philadelphia Sampler
Fig. 9-10c: Well, At Least She Fit It In
Fig. 9-10d: Seems She Had a Problem With the Number 5
Fig. 9-10e: Is It Marbelhead or Marblehead?
Now it does need to be reemphasized that there are no hard and fast rules here. Symmetry in presentation doesn’t automatically relegate a sampler to the UK or its absence to the USA. Consider, for instance, the sampler in Figure 9-11, which shows that our example in Figure 9-10b is not the unique instance of Independence Hall appearing on someone’s needlework. In this instance, though, we have near perfect symmetry.
Fig. 9-11: Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
For another example, consider Figure 9-12a, which is again a sampler that appeared earlier in this volume and which is a quite nicely executed and a wholly symmetric piece from (drum roll) … Massachusetts (although in this case, even without a genealogical search, I’d still guess ‘American’ simply because little Olive’s lettering (Figure 9-12b) leaves something to be desired (by snotty purists). There is, by the way a note of sadness associated with this part of my collection that speaks, I suppose, to life expectancy in that period. The last line of her verse reads “and my days shall pass sweetly and swiftly away”: Olive died a mere two years after completing her sampler. But now here’s where collecting samplers can give one a sense of fulfillment: A genealogical search reveals that Olive was buried in Wexford, Massachusetts, and one of the things old New England cemeteries often have are websites with catalogued images of their tombstones. So a bit more poking around on the internet produced the picture in Figure 9-12c … Olive’s headstone … and reveals that she was an orphan adopted by her aunt and uncle, presumably after the untimely passing of Olive’s parents, Jesse and Olive Hildreth. As sad as all of this might be, little Olive’s sampler is a monument to her all-to-brief existence and keeps her from being but a name chiseled on some long forgotten slab of slate.
Fig. 9-12a: A (symmetric) Massachusetts Sampler
Fig. 9-12b: Little Olive’s Lettering
Fig. 9-12c: Olive’s Tombstone in Westford, Mass.
Continuing with our examples, Figures 9-13a through 9-13g each give examples of American samplers that are surely symmetric in presentation and contrast sharply with the poorly executed one in Figure 9-10a. Mary Ann Morgan’s 1826 sampler in Figure 9-13a doesn’t tell us where she lived at the time, but there’s enough information here (including the sampler’s floral border) to peg down her residence to Massachusetts. Miss Bates’ 1823 sampler in Figure 9-13b nicely eliminates all uncertainty by telling us she did her work in Weymouth (Massachusetts). And while Betsy Lincoln’s 1804 sampler entails a young lady with anything but an uncommon name … and who knows if Betsy is her given name or a convenient shortening of Elizabeth … the green linen plus a failure to fully plan ahead in the sampler’s verse marks it as distinctly American (most likely Massachusetts or New Hampshire). In Figure 9-13d there’s Adeline Rowland who conveniently tells us she’s from Jamaica Long Island. Adeline, though, illustrates an endearing and enduring trait of young ladies … an unwillingness to reveal her age. Dated 183?, her sampler leaves you to guess whether she was born around 1818 or 1827 (given that she was 12 when the sampler was executed). What’s not clear is whether Adeline later pulled the revealing stitches from her work or simply planned ahead, knowing she intended to hide her true age in the future to potential suitors. In either case, Miss Rowland’s actions are not uncommon. Figure 9-13f offers what to me looks like Massachusetts, but a genealogical search comes up with only two candidates, one in New York and the other Connecticut. If I had to choose, then, I’d say Connecticut, but I’m open to suggestions. A genealogical search, though, nails the origins of the samplers in Figure 9-13g and 9-13h: Connecticut. A brief note now about the last two examples in this sequence, Figures 9-13i and 9-13j. I encountered both at the same time iat the same estate sale and both were priced equally. So you might ask, why did I buy the first, and not simply the second since the second is clearly superior to the first in color and thus visual presence? The answer is simple: Elizabeth and and Abby are sisters, and when I acquire samplers from the same family, you can pry them apart only from my cold dead hands. Now keep in mind that none of the nine samplers shown below can be deemed exceptional, and all surely fall in the retain price range of $1,000 to $3,000 (with the average being closer to the lower number than the higher). Each, then, is a sampler that you would be wise to scoop up in the event you encountered it at a flea market or estate sale for, say, $500. .
Fig. 9-13a: Dated 1826 Sampler, Probably Massachusetts
Fig. 9-13b: Miss Bates’ 1823 Weymouth Massachusetts Sampler
Fig. 9-13c: Betsy Lincoln’s 1804 Sampler, Massachusetts or New Hampshire
Fig. 9-13d: Adeline Rowland’s Long Island 183? Sampler
Fig. 9-13e: Adeline Hides Her Age
Fig 9-13f: Probably Connecticut
Fig. 9-13g: Definitely Connecticut
Fig. 9-13h: Connecticut Again
Fig. 9-13i: Massachusetts, 1839
Fig. 9-13j: Massachusetts, 1842
OK, so what other clues do we have as to origin. Well, another is that the linen backing of English samplers tends on average to be finer than on American ones (indeed, the English sampler in Figure 9-8b is on a diaphanous silk). This fact helps explain why the lettering on English samplers is often more precise than on their American counterparts – the coarser linen didn’t lend itself as readily to precision. In any event, since the backing of an English sampler was often wool based as opposed to cotton, moths had a more readily available source of lunch and dinner and thus English samplers are more prone to holes (thus it pays to learn to identify a hole made by a moth versus a simple tear). A third clue, but only a clue is if it has crowns stitched into it — England still had a monarch but we’d dumped ours (or rather theirs) in 1776 so that thereafter the prevalence of crowns diminished greatly in America as an embellishment — except among diehard Tories, and there were still a lot of them scurrying about in 1776 and even 1783 (a crown could also indicate Canada but we’re quite provincial south of the border and don’t always distinguish between Canada and the UK – sorry Canada, but all would be different if you’d simply been given to us as part of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 or had subsequently settled several disputed borders to our greedy satisfaction). It’s also the case that if the sampler’s central motif is some especially complex building – Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and Saint Paul’s Cathedral are the most common – the sampler is almost certainly British.
A final and often essential aid in identifying a sampler’s origins is, of course, a genealogical search. Unfortunately, in my experience such searches help only about half the time. Do you know how many Sarah Lees were born between, say, 1790 and 1840? Lots! Still, if Sarah was at least thoughtful enough to include when she stitched her little masterpiece, you can narrow things down knowing that she was probably between the ages of 7 and 15 when making her contribution to folk art and thus you can put a range on her birth date. Alas, in the case of the Sarah Lees of the era, there are often still vastly too many for a definitive judgment. Take for example the sampler I described in an earlier chapter by Susannah Savil from Quincy Massachusetts. But suppose neither “Quincy” nor the date of the sampler are there. A genealogical search, assuming that Susannah was born between 1790 and 1830 yields nine possibilities, most in the UK. And if you think perhaps that the census records shortened her name to Susan, then you get nine more possibilities for a total of eighteen. Even if you’re lucky and can narrow Susannah’s birth date to the interval 1815 to 1825, you’re still stuck with five Susannahs and three Susans (and it’s one of the Susans as opposed to Susannahs that’s the correct one). Nevertheless, a genealogical search should be your first step in tracking down origins if you can’t learn that fact somehow from the sampler directly.
The example of the Scottish sampler from Chapter 5 in Figure 5-4 (reproduced in Figure 9-14a) that I originally mistakenly assumed was from Ohio shows once again that there are no hard and fast rules here. When I first acquired that sampler, I naturally enough wanted it to be American. But be warned that wanting more often than not leads to a healthy dose of blinding wishful thinking. I was encouraged, nevertheless, in finding that a genealogical search yielded a potential candidate in Zanesville. The problem, though, was that the house portrayed in it was far too grand to be a normal residence. It had to be a public building of some sort. So back to the internet to search for historical buildings in Zanesville, which I learned in the process, had for a short period been the capital of Ohio. Things were definitely looking up when I finally discovered an image of the now long gone county courthouse the seemed to match the building in my sampler (Figure 9-14b). Since the the background linen matched what is common to American samplers and since the ornate floral border could easily be taken as an American embellishment, dollar bills began dancing before my eyes. What would an Ohio collector of Ohio samplers be willing to pay for an Ohio sampler with the image of the state’s early capital building? Alas, everything came crashing down when I was shown the samplers in Figure 5-6 (reproduced in Figure 9-14c), proving beyond a shadow of doubt that my sampler was Scottish. And I’ll tell you …if a friend more knowledgeable than I hadn’t seen mine and popped my balloon by showing me pictures of corresponding samplers, I’d probably still be sitting here wondering why Ohio collectors are too cheap to pay for a good piece of Ohio history.
Fig. 9-14a: My “American” Sampler
Fig. 9-14b: Early Zanesville Courthouse
Fig. 9-14c: Three Scottish Samplers
This example prooves that despite the value of genealogical searches, there’s no substitute for expertise. This fact was brought home to me with yet another “Scottish experience.” Consider Figure 9-14d. When I first encountered this piece I assumed it was American for the simple reason that the two people portrayed in it are black. Now I have to tell you that since samplers were primarily made in schools and since blacks rarely if ever were allowed to attend school, samplers with black folk are rare. Once again I thought I had a prized piece of Americana here. But would you like to guess where this piece is from? OK, I already gave you more than a hint: It’s from Scotland. That’s right, another damned Scottish sampler! How do I know that? It’s because someone who collects and is an expert in Scottish samplers told me so – and in telling me that she backed up her opinion with cold hard cash. Turns out, blacks were quite exotic in Scotland and so the young lady who crafted this piece made her sampler correspondingly exotic. So ya never know – unless you’re an expert.
Fig. 9-14:d A Sampler from _____?
OK, moving on from knowing which side of the Atlantic a sampler originates from, the next increment in value, for American samplers at least, comes from learning the specific state and locality in which it was made. Admittedly, unless the girl stitched the name of her town or state into her work or if a genealogical search leaves you with but one choice, it’s only an expert familiar with patterns associated with specific regions or schoolmistresses who can help you here. But keep in mind that when it comes to value, for serious collectors, definitively attributing a sampler to a specific school is akin to a sexual experience. Aside perhaps for those who collect samplers from a particular state, the value of learning the origins of a sampler is that if you can definitively pin that origin down to an uncommon source, once again value necessarily increases. Most American examples originate from the Northeast (New England, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey) because that’s where people lived and that’s where young girls could go to school in lieu of running from those pesky Iroquois or whatever. The further West you go, the rarer samplers become. Also, the further South you go the greater is their rarity, with some collectors deeming Baltimore samplers a category all their own (do people still think Maryland should have been part of the Confederacy?). Frankly, I’m not sure I know why Southern samplers are uncommon aside from speculating that the young ladies of the South were more likely to be taught how to pour tea than how to read and write. But insofar as genealogy is concerned, having a rock solid genealogical train can up value considerably, especially if that train leads West or South.
Let’s suppose now that you know whether a piece is English or American, and possibly even a more precise guess as to origin. The next criterion of value is age and here the earlier the better. Well, sorta. This is not a hard and fast rule since 18th century samplers tend to be less complex than their early 19th century kin. Frankly, a sampler from the late 17th century (actually they go back further than that, but you’re unlikely to find one) up to the mid 18th can be visually boring, offering only an example of a girl’s ability to stitch letters, numbers and geometric patterns. It’s the later pictorial samplers that bring the big bucks, especially those with filled in fields (e.g, a “yard” with animals and a background of green to mimic grass), complex borders, people or elaborate buildings. Here, complexity (motif) comes into play provided the sampler doesn’t begin to resemble a jumbled mess. Samplers with houses on them are especially valued, and if you add some nice trees, people to one side or the other, and so on, you begin to have real value (you’re beginning to pass the $5,000 benchmark). Add an effervescent floral border with well-crafted flowers and you can readily move past the $10,000 threshold, at least if you’re thinking of retail values. It doesn’t hurt, moreover, if the sampler has something patriotic or historical about it. Sadly, the closest I’ve come to owning a sampler that might be valued above, say, $3000 is Olive Hildreth’s in Figure 9-12a. So if you want to see examples of the sort that begin to truly push the envelope in value, you best once again head off to Betty Ring’s books or Molly Finkel’s website.
The next dimension of value to consider is color. Sadly, silk doesn’t retain color well when exposed to a century or two of light, so it’s all too common to find examples wherein colors have faded to mimic that of the brown background linen, in which case values begin to plummet. And with sufficient fading, you’re looking at something that’s essentially worthless. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve encountered a sampler at some estate sale that was priced in the thousands despite the fact that its silk threads had faded to the point where the lettering was unintelligible. The explanation offered for the price would always be something like “but its really old .. look at that date … 1824”. Well sorry folk, but that date becomes irrelevant with sufficient fading. Take for instance a first rate pictorial house sampler that, with full color, might reasonably be appraised at, say, $6,000. Now mute those colors so that the red on the house mimicking bricks is closer to brown than to red, and the pink in flowers is closer to white than pink. You’ve more than likely dropped the sampler’s value to under $3,000. Next, suppose the brown threads used for lettering are now a beige that blends in perfectly with the background linen and that the red on the house has faded to a dimmed brown. Oops, you now down to, say, $1,000. Sadly, the Baltimore sampler in Figure 9-15 borders this on this category — its only saving grace is that the house is white so it still stands out somewhat when viewed from a distance.
Fig. 9-15: Sarah Pearce’s 1830 Baltimore (Md.) House Sampler
To further illustrate the possibilities here consider the simple American sampler in Figure 9-16a. Were this piece in perfect condition, I might value it in the $750 to $1,000 range if only because it has a better than average border. But in addition to the background linen having several holes, it’s faded badly so that ascertaining what Miss Dodd stitched would be a task akin to an archeological exercise – a stitch by stitch examination that might or might not yield any definitive information. As such this sampler has minimal value and surely wouldn’t interest anyone except those operating on a tight budget. Next, consider the example in Figure 9-16b. Here we have a wonderful and colorful border, but the lettering within is, at best, difficult to read. So what’s this sampler worth? Frankly, I have no precise idea. On the plus side is its size — 23″ x 17″ … and the fact that its in otherwise excellent condition (as well as being from New Hampshire). All I can say is that if offered to me for, say, $400 or $500, I’d scoop it up; but I’d most likely do more than merely hesitate if the price were, say, $1,000. One needs to be careful, though, with putting too much weight on color as a criterion of value. Consider the sampler in Figure 9-16c. Surely one can’t get more colorful than this. But there’s a problem: It’s not silk on linen but wool on linen. Thus, even if it weren’t dated, I place this sampler post 1850 (in fact, it’s dated 1880). Wool retains color better than silk but wool exhibits none of the delicacy and refinement we associate with silk. So while far more colorful than the sampler in Figure 9-16b, this earlier example is easily worth more than the one in Figure 9-16c.
Fig. 9-16a: A Badly Faded Sampler
Fig. 9-16b: Beautiful Border but Faded Lettering
Fig. 9-16c: A Late Wool on Linen Sampler
Fading, though, is only one of the indignities samplers can suffer from and is but one aspect of the final dimension of value: condition. The background fabric on which the silk is stitched in American examples becomes brittle with age. Hence, it’s not uncommon to find otherwise excellent examples suffering from holes or rips of varying degrees. How much to discount here from value depends on the severity of the damage. For a concrete example, take a look at the damaged (New Jersey) sampler in Figure 9-17a. Immediately one can see that, damage aside, this otherwise delightful and elaborate piece suffers from some severe fading – most likely the building was originally red and the flowers have lost all color. Nevertheless, the fact that it is a house sampler with the uncommon addition of unicorns and rose trellis would put this piece into the $2,000 range (most likely $3,000 were there less fading of the silk). But in addition, the background linen in the upper right quadrant is also severely damaged so that when you combine it with the fading, the value of this piece despite its complexity has almost certainly dropped below $1,000. I might add that the damage here can be repaired but only if you have deep pockets, and you should do so only if your a direct descendant of its maker.
Fig. 9-17a: Damaged New Jersey Sampler
Samplers can also suffer from staining. I don’t know all the ways moisture can get to a sampler, but when it does it can create unsightly stains (and even cause colors to run). Now I’m told that a good restorer can treat this issue, and although I’ve never had it done, I can only imagine what that must cost (or, to put it another way, be prepared to pay by the square inch). So all I can say here is that if badly stained, the sampler is of minimal value. Well, not exactly. Another category of sampler are those that present a family genealogy, which makes establishing its provenance a piece of cake – it’s right there in front of you. I once owned an especially nice one, but it would be an understatement to say it was badly stained. So in this case I explored the possibility of restoration. Unfortunately, the little girl in question stitched her sampler on a background of both linen and silk. And therein lies the problem: While the usual methods of restoration might work on linen, they’d wreck havoc with two hundred year old silk. The sampler, then, would forever remain what it had become. Nevertheless, because it offered a beautifully formatted family record with a bold floral border, it still had value – a value you could have multiplied by 5 if it hadn’t been stained.
A final potential indignity is deterioration of the silk threads themselves. Silk is something that doesn’t like age. And, as we will see more of in our discussion of quilts, there is one thing that can hasten silk’s deterioration – the dyes used to color it. Consider the Massachusetts sampler in Figure 9-17b. Overall, she’s in pretty good condition, with but one evident exception as shown in Figure 9-17c – the damage to the black threaded lettering in little Miss Goodhue’s verse. The lighter colored threads are in excellent condition, but black was commonly achieved using iron based chemicals that literally rust and in doing so disassemble silk fibers (much as what rusting does to tin). The impact of disassembled silk on value will depend, of course, on how extensive is the damage. I’ve seen samplers where nearly every letter suffers from this indignity to the point where letters have wholly disappeared. In Miss Goodhue’s sampler, on the other hand, its only scattered letters in the verse that’s affected and for me at least I can readily live with this imperfection, given the quality of the sampler otherwise.
Fig. 9-17b: Massachusetts Sampler
Fig. 9-17c: Deteriorating Black Silk Lettering
What you demand of a sampler as a collector, then, will depend on your tolerance for imperfection and the size of your bank account. I’ve seen samplers sell at auction for as little as $75, but it should also be noted that the record for an American sampler is upwards of $1,500,000. The examples shown here all fall decidedly at the lower end of this rather extensive range … I’d say in the $500 to $3000 range. So if you’ve got deeper pockets than I have, you best head off now to peruse thru Betty Ring’s previously cited two volume survey in planning your assault on the sampler market. My advice, though, is to begin any collection with modest purchases at local antique shows. If you can, seek out and cultivate a knowledgeable dealer who specializes in samplers. As much as any other area of collecting, it pays to have at your disposal someone knowledgeable in this field who can identify a sampler’s origin and is attuned to the impact on value of any apologies. And ultimately, of course, they will find it in their interest to assist you in developing your collection.
In any event, one thing you’ll learn from a survey of Betty Ring’s book is that no discussion of samplers can be deemed complete if it did not also include at least a mention of those silk on silk memorials prepared as well by schoolgirls in memory of some deceased member of the family. Figures 9-18a thru 9-18e give three examples that, at the same time, illustrate three things. First, they confirm that the small colonial and federal period cemeteries of at least New England have been quite active on the internet, cataloguing those interned along with images of their corresponding headstones. Thus, the example of little Olive Hildreth’s headstone shown in Figure 9-12c is anything but an uncommon consequence of even a cursory genealogical search. Indeed, such a search is aided considerably by the information on a typical memorial. While we may or may not know who made it, we typically not only know whose being memorialized, but also their full name, the precise date of death and perhaps even their birthday. The second thing illustrated by three memorials illustrated below is that it is often difficult (except by experts, which I am not) to distinguish between an American versus an English memorial. Figures 9-18a and 9-18d are both American (Massachusetts to be precise) whereas the third is, insofar as a genealogical search suggests, English. But aside from the relative size and complexity of my third example, there is preciously little distinguish among them. Finally, my third example illustrates a common problem with all such memorials. Specifically, they’re made of silk (except possibly the painted hands and faces, which are commonly paper) and that means they’re made of something that ages poorly. Figure 9-18f illustrates one consequence of this fact, namely a silk background that has wrinkled and at the very top begun to deteriorate. Don’t be surprised, then, if you find one at a flea market or estate sale that’s in absolute tatters, in which case, regardless of price, walk away.
Fig. 9-18a: 1792 Massachusetts Silk on Silk Memorial to Mary R. Francis
Fig. 9-18b: Closeup of Inscription to Mary’s Memorial
Fig. 9-18c: Mary Francis’ Tombstone
Fig. 9-18d: Silk on Silk 1795 Memorial to Hanna & Nabby White, Massachusetts by their Sister Polly
Fig. 9-18e: Little Hanna’s Tombstone
Fig. 9-18f: English Silk on Silk 18th C Memorial
Hand Quilted Cotton Quilts: It’s no coincidence that the era of the sampler and the coverlet died within ten or fifteen years of each other – roughly the 1840s for samplers and 1850s for coverlets. Perhaps it’s also no coincidence that these deaths were accompanied by women getting it in their silly heads that they should be allowed to vote (as I note in the Introduction, life began to unravel, men, with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848), for it was those years that saw the rise of King Cotton in the South and the full fruition of a domestic textile industry in the North. Before I get ahead of myself, though, let me address the question of how the quilt became, in the 19th century, essentially a uniquely American folk art form. This is reflected in the fact that when one finds a sampler or silk memorial at a flea market, the first question likely to occur to a collector or dealer is: Is it American or English … a question that’s important if only because its answer is a significant determinant of value. The same is true, of course, of furniture, paint decorated pantry boxes, portrait paintings, pewter and a host of other 19th century collectibles. That question, though, doesn’t arise when encountering a quilt. If it’s a good one and the price is right, mark it SOLD! This is true despite the fact that in the domain of textiles, very little of what Americana collectors collect originated as an idea in America, and quilts are no exception. Suffice it to say that quilts recognizable as such today were an idea brought by colonists to America from England as Jane Lury’s Meanderings of a Quilt Collector (Quiltmania, France, 2016) so wonderfully documents and illustrates.
In fact, the idea of quilts as a bed cover hardly originated in England (go look up the word Ralli if you need convincing). But back in the 18th century, the cotton to make them came from India because it was people who worshiped Mohammad or Hindu gods who taught the world how to dye and thereafter wear cotton. But upon securing the opportunity to compel India to appreciate the virtue of being an English colony there was a problem with exporting cotton fabric to England …the English wool guilds. Seems that those dealing with wool in one manner or another were, unsurprisingly, averse to competition and, having been around a bit, had the political clout to either impose punitive import tariffs or ban the import of cotton fabric outright. If one thinks this is an overstatement of the guild’s political power, in the reign of Charles II (1660 – 1685) Parliament made certain a person’s consumption of wool didn’t end with death: corpses were to be buried in WOOL shrouds, WOOL hats and WOOL gloves. There was, then, but one way to break this centuries long grip of the “wool lobby” … to weave the stuff in England and thereby begin that country’s industrial revolution since if it’s a good thing to weave cotton domestically, its an even better idea to do so efficiently with machines. And with industrially made cotton (along with advancements in how to print designs on the fabric) came the idea of the decorative quilt. Nevertheless, cotton remained expensive through most of the 18th century. Depending on how one makes the calculation, it’s possible to come up with an estimate for ONE yard of good quality fabric in the late 1700s to cost upwards of two day’s wages for a skilled craftsman or, in today’s terms, roughly $110. That meant one thing: printed cotton fabric was something only the relatively well-to-do could afford. But if you were well-to-do in pre-Victorian England you didn’t make quilts. You worried instead about maintaining your estate, about the adequecy of your supply of servants, and whether your son, daughter, nephew or niece would marry “up” or “down”. If you could afford a quilt, you bought a professionally made one from a textile merchant and thereafter treated it much like the other furnishings in the house. It’s purpose would not to be to keep warm but to decorate much like those silly round pillows one finds in today’s upscale hotel rooms.
Enter Samuel Slater (1768 – 1835), an Englishman with a photographic memory. Seeing the potential demand for a domestically manufactured product in North America, Slater emigrates and, contrary to British law against technology transfer, brings with him in his head to America the design of a textile mill, thereby earning him the title “The Father of the American Industrial Revolution” in America and the sobriquet “Slater the Traitor” in England. One might say that the rest is history. With the true beginnings of mass manufacturing at Lowell’s mills in 1817, by the 1840s there were upwards of seven hundred textile mills scattered about New England, making cotton an eminently affordable fabric and the cotton patchwork and applique quilt, with its cotton batting, a new way for women to occupy their time. While, as we note above, good quality cotton calicos in 1790 cost $110/yard in today’s prices, but with advances in technology and the proliferation of mills in America, domestically produced cotton fabrics could be had for as little as five cents a yard in 1840 (or basically a buck thirty three today).
Of course, the price of cotton fabric wasn’t falling thru the floor only in America … it was cheap in England as well. But those New England mills introduced something in addition to making cotton fabric affordable to the middle class. Eschewing the dirty industrial locations common to England, mills located themselves in cleaner locales aside ready sources of water power … the Merrimack in New Hampshire and Massachusetts or the Taunton in Massachusetts … and thereby developed a new source of labor: Young ladies. Drawing their workforce from the nearby villages and farms, they found a wholly capable and reliable source of “manpower” in young women between the ages of ten and twenty five. Housed in a clean and morally upright dormitory, a young lady could now be an independent agent, capable of contributing to the middle class status of her family while building a dowry on her own, including perhaps a quilt or two (or three or four, etc). And aside from getting some absolutely insane ideas in the process about the right to vote and own property, who needs then to contract for the weaving of a scratchy woolen coverlet? Moreover, with a dowry that included not only a quilt but also money, who needs a sampler to advertise ones ability to darn socks? Better, in fact, to train her to quilt than to cross-stitch.
This does not however explain why quilting and the quilt became an almost exclusive American folk art form — a form with no ethnic, racial or religious boundaries. As I just noted, if cotton was inexpensive for middle class Americans, it was inexpensive for the middle class elsewhere. The answer to this query entails a myriad of considerations, including once again the fact that America’s 19th century middle class held an economic advantage both in terms of income, purchasing power and numbers over their European counterparts. But also consider the photograph in Figure 9-19a. Want to guess where and when it was taken? Could it be some Midwestern frontier in, say, 1870 moments before the family and its chickens are wiped away by marauding Sioux? Well, not quite. It’s actually a 20th century image — Montana in 1910 to be precise. Now notice anything special about the picture aside from a cute little girl feeding her chickens? This time the answer is: There ain’t nothing around that house but vast emptiness. This picture, then, illustrates perhaps in somewhat exaggerated form the fact that even as late as 1860 only 20% of the US population lived in anything that could be considered urban (i.e., a village or town with a population exceeding 2,500) and only in the first quarter of the 20th century did that percentage move above fifty percent. Moreover, not only did the average American live in what we today deem the boonies or villages that were but pimples on a map, they often lived miles apart from each other. But now what woman wants to live in perpetual solitude where the only people she sees are one’s bratty children and the old man? What better way is there to interact with other people … preferably, other women since a good share of the men were content to drink, chew tobacco and spit when not working … than the quilting bee (which has the advantage of being something you can do while sitting down, gossiping and conspiring to get the vote)? Relieved of the need to weave the fabric for one’s own and the family’s clothing owing to the relative inexpensivness of factory woven cotton fabric, that housewife not only had an incentive to conspire … err, meet … with other women, but the leisure time to do so.
The old man spitting tobacco juice wasn’t the only factor encouraging quilting as a folk art form. Suppose in the 1870s or 80s a family is packing up and heading West in pursuit of The American Dream. The odds that the people left behind would ever see you again was thereafter minimal of not non-existent. So suppose the members of that family’s church group decide to give them something that might serve as a remembrance of times and people past. But what to give them? Answer: A quilt made by all women in the congregation that, when done, is signed by all perticipants (i.e., a Friendship quilt). Alternatively, suppose that church needs to raise money to replace that cracked bell or rotting steeple? Well, we’re speaking of capitalistic America, which suggests selling something at a profit. But what to sell? Answer: Lottery tickets wherein first prize is an especially well made quilt produced once again by the ladies of the congregation. And then there’s the somewhat universal desire for self-expression … to produce something that’s uniquely yours and expresses your personal artistic and aesthetic sense. Well, the wife of a tenant farmer or mine worker has other things to concern herself with. But things are rather different for that middle class housewife or her daughters. One option is painting. But, along with brushes, paints and canvas, that generally requires a degree of talent that most people lack. On the other hand, making a quilt … now there’s something far easier to master since the requisite talent is how to used a needle and thread. Mommy probably already taught you how to sew, and as for the materials with which to engage in this art form, at worst you could always gather up surviving scraps from earlier sewing endeavors or take what remains of worn out clothing. If need be you could even use old flour and grain sacks for the backing of your creation. In other words, quilts afforded women a creative outlet that imposed virtually no constraints whatsoever on the artistry that could ultimately emerge. But we aren’t done: Enter now another great American invention. No, not the automobile — that came from France. Not the steam engine — that came from the UK. No, I’m thinking of something as important to American economic development as the automobile and steam engine — the STATE FAIR. With modest roots — a few cows gathered on a village green — the first formally organized state-wide fair took place in New York in 1841 (seems a lot happened in America in the 1840s). Here’s where the likes of John Deere could hawk his newfangled plow and men could brag by showing off their prized heifer, ear of corn, or oversized squash. But while the men are sitting around getting sloshed on the local brew, what of the women? What could they use as an expression of their innate competitive instincts (and anyone who doubts the competitive nature of the female species has surely never attended an estate sale). One answer, I suppose, is bake a pie or grow a rose. But a better answer is make a quilt. And not just make a quilt, but make a spectacular one and enter it in competition against the quilts make by others. So there you have it: A soup of middle class wealth, with a pinch of leisure time, a dash of extra fabric, a few ounces of competitive juices all mixed in the kitchen of a state fair and you’ve got quits as a pervasive folk art form.
Fig. 9-19a: Life in the Boonies: Montana 1910
Fig. 9-19b: The Quilting Bee
Regardless of how we explain America’s quilting traditions, writing about that tradition is a daunting and humbling task. First, how does one go about discussing the subject in a meaningful way when this ubiquitous American folk art form has been made in so many different patterns and fabrics and by such a variety of sub-cultures over so many years by so many people? I know, moreover, that if your interest in quilts is the least bit serious, you not only have a virtually indigestible mountain of published material available to you, but there’s a good chance your expertise already exceeds mine. Indeed, if you are truly interested in this subject – and you ought to be if you have any interest whatsoever in Americana – then first get and read a copy of Robert Shaw’s American Quilts (Sterling Pub., NY, 2009). Fortunately for me, when one seeks to write, as Shaw has, the definitive book on a subject, the illustrations one relies on will consist primarily of the truly exceptional or uncommon. I’ve scanned my memory bank to make a rough inventory of the quilts that have passed thru my hands the last ten or fifteen years – a number that lies somewhere between one and two thousand. And of those quilts I can recall no more than a dozen or so of a quality that might warrant inclusion in a book such as Shaw’s. So if you’re heading out to your local flea market or estate sale in search of such a find, all I can say is good luck. But I did say ‘fortunately for me,’ and what I mean is that definitive guides to American quilts will only incidentally consider examples of the kind you’re likely to find in your weekend search for the exceptional. And it’s the more ordinary examples that will necessarily be the focus of what I discuss here – the sort of quilt you can have a reasonable expectation of finding.
Before proceeding, though, let me first get one annoying issue out of the way – imports and specifically Chinese imports. As I’ve already noted, one of the curiosities of quilts is that they seem to have established themselves as an American folk art form so that, unlike samplers, one doesn’t worry as to whether that latest flea market find came from here, England or whatever. I’m not sure why that is since there are English examples, and damned if I can distinguish between an American and an English quilt executed in a traditional pattern. Be that as it may, there is, unfortunately, a new kid on the block – the Chinese. At some point in the 1980s someone put 2 and 2 together – in this case, the desirability of hand stitched quilts and China’s pay scale for manual labor – and began manufacturing and importing hand sewn quilts that could be sold in department stores for a fraction of what even newly made, machine quilted examples sold for. Hell, they’d even include matching pillow cases. Despite mimicking classic patterns, more often than not these imports didn’t fool anyone – the fabrics were contemporary and the quality of the quilting didn’t match what grandma did back in 1930 and surely not what great great grandma did before that. But there are quilts that can fool the unaware. Fabric patterns from the 1930s and even 1880s can be reproduced and from time to time the wage scale could be moved up a notch to yield quilts with better quality quilting.
Now I’m going to fess up here – we own two such quilts which we use day to day in our bedrooms. The reason is simple: I would NEVER use an antique quilt except on a bed we had no intention of using. They are just too damned fragile (we have dogs and my wife and I agree that if they are to be members of the family as opposed to artificial creations for the Westchestire Dog Show, then they should be allowed to sleep anywhere they want to sleep), whereas a good Chinese import does the job of giving us ‘the look’ in bedrooms that are otherwise strictly 19th century in décor. With that aside, there are some differences that can help you distinguish a legitimate piece of American folk art from the Chinese knockoff. First, there’s a good chance the Chinese quilt’s padding is polyester rather than pure cotton, so it behooves you to learn, by squeezing and rubbing a quilt, how polyester feels (it’s slipperier than cotton). Second, if the quilt’s design and fabrics pretend to be 19th century, it’s necessarily the case that polyester doesn’t have cotton “seeds” that can be seen when the quilt is held up to the light (those aren’t truly seeds but rather the chaff from imperfectly processed cotton). And finally, the edge binding of an import will be thick (or simply nonexistent … called “knife edge”) since the quilt will have been sewn with the padding running fully to the edge. However, there’s still room to be fooled, and early on, when I was first getting into the habit of buying quilts at flea markets for the sole purpose of selling on eBay, I came to understand how easy it was to blunder. Now before you say “ok, you’re a man and necessarily dumb about a woman’s craft” (which may be true) but take a look at Figures 9-20a, b and c. These are ALL Chinese imports! Now to be blunt: ANY serious collector or relatively experienced quilt dealer can tell at a glance these are contemporary imports. But can you? So to be safe I’d suggest poking around the internet where you’ll find sites that give a far more detailed description of how Chinese imports are made, along with a catalogue of styles. Minimally, check out http://timquilts.com/buyer-beware/ .
Fig. 9-20a: Made in China Log Cabin Quilt
Fig. 9-20b: Made in China Feathered Star Quilt
Fig. 9-20c: Made in China Pineapple Quilt
Before I leave the subject of imports, there’s one contemporary quilt that warrants special notice … the crib quilt shown in Figure 9-20d. If you weren’t aware of it being relatively new, then like me, you’d probably think you struck gold when encountering one for the first time at a flea market. Mine had even been stained with tea to give it that “I’ve been badly stored for decades” look. Can there possibly be a better example of African American folk art you’d say to yourself, and the answer is YES, because the last thing this is is American folk art. I don’t know where it was made, but in the years since I first encountered this quilt I’ve run across upwards of four or five more. So buyer beware!
Fig. 9-20d: A Contemporary Fake
Assuming then that we’re talking about a legitimate vintage or antique American quilt, it remains true that judging age can be difficult. Some styles are definitively associated with the 1930s – Grandmother’s Flower Garden and Dresden Plate being perhaps the two most evident examples — but other patterns have persisted for decades, if not a century. Fabrics are one clue, but an imperfect one: How many quilters stored away a selection of fabrics for decades and perhaps even handed their supply down to their children or grandchildren? Fabrics, nevertheless are important, since we’re still a few interstellar wormholes away from transporting fabrics back in time. Thus, it’s best to learn the difference between an early 19th century chintz, a later 19th century calico and a contemporary print. Also, look at the quilt’s backing. For many a 19th century example the backing is a 19th century calico and while great grandma might have saved scraps, she most likely didn’t stash away whole bolts of fabric. If you had it, you used it (and if you didn’t have it, but still needed a quilt, you made the backing out of feed or flour sacks). A somewhat cruder aid is to get yourself a black light and if the quilting threads light up, then it was most likely made after 1920 when a specific chemical (dammed if I know its name but apparently it was a brightening agent to make white whiter) was added to the thread-making processes.
To perhaps give a better appreciation for the detective work (and knowledge) that’s sometimes required in determining a quilt’s age, let me repost a piece from the blog of one of America’s leading (if not THE leading) expert on the history of quilting, Barbara Brackman (and the next 20 un-numbered images are hers):
“How Old Is This Quilt?
A friend of a friend recently scored big in buying this quilt. How old is it, she asked. O-L-D!!! I’ve been thinking a lot about early quilt styles in the U.S. so I was glad to have a puzzle to figure out. putting into words why I think it’s older than she guessed, which was about 1840. We’ll look at the clues to age using comparative dating, matching the undated quilt above to quilts with dates inscribed on them. The mystery quilt would not be any earlier than about 1775—American patchwork tends to be about as old as the U.S. itself.
Techniques include conventional applique, which doesn’t really help. I asked if this feather with a bowknot was reverse applique but it’s regular old surface applique.
Some of the earliest dated American quilts feature conventional applique as well as cut-out chintz applique. Jane Gatewood included bowknots of conventional applique in her quilt dated 1795. This is a pattern clue too—bowknots were quite popular in the late-18th and early-19th-century for applique.
The quilt in question could be described as an appliqued medallion of limited colors with a fringe border. Medallions with a central focus were more popular before 1840 than after, but that style characteristic is not much of a clue.
The main thing to know about fringes and other added edge treatments is that they are seen in early quilts before 1840 and rarely afterwards. It’s a pretty reliable clue. See Jane Gatewood’s fringe on her 1795 quilt above.
Style includes the overall color scheme (we’ll get to individual fabrics later). The overall look of the quilt: limited color scheme of white with brown and dark blue. Notice that faded heart above. There was once another color here but it’s no help now.
Early American patchwork focused on browns and blues, probably because those were the available cottons, dyed with natural dyes such as madder and indigo. The overall look is rather austere. The absence of bright reds, yellows and greens is a clue of sorts. If we saw Turkey red or chrome orange in there we’d be thinking after 1810 (or more like 1830), so there are no fabrics in the mystery quilt to tell us it’s after 1810.
The fabrics are limited, probably due to scarcity. These may have been domestically printed cottons (or perhaps cotton & linen fibers), made in the young U.S. Prints available from American calico printers before 1820 or so tend towards rather simple block-printed designs with rather simple dyes, particularly indigo blues and browns obtained from madder. You also see pinks from madders.
The fabrics might have been imported from Europe but before 1820 we see limited variety here.
The color palette may have been dictated by taste as much as technology and trade. Whatever the cause the look is a clue to an early date.
I’ve mentioned the bow-knot and simple four-lobed shapes in the applique, both designs seen in the earliest American quilts.
Border patterns include a flowing ribbon and a spindly zig-zag stripe. Is that zig-zag pieced or appliqued? I forgot to ask.
The idea of a zig-zag border was also popular with early quilters. Notice the examples in the dated quilts on this page. Date-inscribed examples in my pictures are pieced rather than appliqued and more substantial. See more pieced borders in this post:
Quilting style and density and techniques can offer clues to date but in this case the quilting looks rather utilitarian. Single diagonal lines—absolutely no help at all. Could be 1775. Could be 1875.
But we have plenty of good clues to indicate that this quilt is early. Exactly how early? Could be last quarter of the 18th century (say roughly as early as 1780!). If we were looking at the quilt in the cloth rather than through photos we might push that date forward due to the prints.
Both blue prints I see in the photos are possible late-18th-century fabrics: wood block figures on indigo grounds. I can’t tell the difference between discharged or reserved indigo prints, especially in a photo. That differentiation might make a difference in date. (Discharging 19th century.)
Latest date? 1830? You’d have to be pretty old-fashioned to make a quilt in this style in 1830—so let’s say a range of 1780-1825.
After 1820 you see a real change in fabric variety in American quilts although Mary was sticking with the zig-zag borders. It’s just a different style after the Napoleonic Wars were over and trade resumed in the late teens. So my story right now is 1780-1825 and I’m sticking to it—at least until one of you comes up with an argument for a different date.”
Now let me emphasize that I’ve included this lengthy except from Barbara Brackman’s blog not because I think you will encounter opportunities to evaluate an 18th century quilt (you wont unless you work for a museum) or because the lessons learned here can be readily applied so as to determine whether a quilt in your possession dates from 1900 versus 1930. No, I simply want to show that dating a quilt can involve a considerable amount of detective work … the uncovering of clues until one hypothesis as to age dominates all others. So if you want to learn more about the dating of quilts I’d suggest either (or actually both) of Ms. Brackman’s other two (among many) books: Clues in the Calico: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Antique Quilts and Making History: Quilts and Fabrics from 1890 to 1970. And then there’s Roderick Kiracofe’s The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort 1750-1950. Frankly, if you’ve read these three books, you’d probably find what follows here both boring and superficial.
Be that as it may, I’ll plunge ahead, beginning with the rather self-evident observation that in assessing value, the older the quilt the better. But that’s only true up to a point since other dimensions of value can greatly outweigh age. A determinant of value is the skill with which a quilt was made. And here it’s a bit easier for the novice to begin getting a handle on things since skill has a quantifiable sub-dimension to it: The number of stitches per inch (SPI) to the quilting. Quilting, of course, has a practical purpose — to keep your bed cover from becoming little more than a sagging bag with the cotton batting all bunched up at one end. But it’s here, with the need for quilting of some sort, that women can begin expressing their artistic taste, sewing skills and willingness to devote countless hours to producing something beyond the merely functional. Most 20th century quilts of the type that pervade today’s flea markets are quilted at between 6 to 9 SPI (those Chinese imports generally appear at 4 to 5). Less common are examples quilted at 10 to 12 SPI, and one begins to enter a rarefied atmosphere for any number above 12, especially if the quilting pattern is itself tight. If you don’t think it’s possible, by the way, to squeeze in, say, 13 stitches per inch, check out the quilt in Figure 9-21a and its closeup in 9-21b. So there!
Fig. 9-21a: Graphic Ocean Waves Quilt
Fig. 9-21b: Just Count the Stitches
Stitches per inch, though, are only part of the story when describing quilting. To illustrate, take a look at Figure 9-22a. This is a nice enough early 20th century cotton quilt with, as Figure 9-22b shows, rather ordinary quilting (somewhere around 7 stitches per inch in simple straight lines). Compare it, though, to the similarly dated and no less graphic Texas Star (or is it Bethlehem Star? I have no idea if there’s a discernible difference) in Figure 9-22c and the detailed quilting in Figures 9-22d and 9-22e. Put simply, there’s no comparison.
Fig. 9-22a: Colorful but Otherwise Ordinary 1930s Patchwork Quilt
Fig. 9-22b: Some Quite Ordinary Quilting
Fig. 9-22c: Early 20th C Texas Star Quilt
Fig. 9-22d: Quilting to Texas Star Quilt
Fig. 9-22e: More Quilting to Texas Star Quilt
As good as the quilting is in the above Texas Star, take a look at the Carolina Lilly applique in Figure 9-23a. At first glance this might seem a quite ordinary and even somewhat undesirable quilt since there’s no border and the pattern runs fully to the binding. But taking a closer look via Figure 9-23b we see that in addition to being executed at an immodest 10 SPI, it’s the pattern with which the quilting is executed – adding a floral dimension over and above what the applique provides – that makes this anything but an ordinary example of the quilter’s art. Clearly, then, whoever made this quilt was doing something more than merely keeping its cotton batting from bunching up.
Fig. 9-23a: Applique Carolina Lilly quilt
Fig. 9-23b: Close Up of the Quilting from Figure 9-22a
If you really want to see quilting, though, you need to pay some heed to Hawaiian quilts (and here I’m necessarily speaking of applique quilts). First, though, I’ll throw out the warning that “Hawaiian patterns” can also be found on Pennsylvania quilts. There’s a good reason for this; namely, quilting was brought to the islands by Pennsylvania German missionaries. What distinguishes a Hawaiian from its mainland cousin, though, is “wave quilting” wherein the quilting follows the pattern of the applique. Figures 9-24 and 9-25a offer two examples of applique quilts that at first glance might be taken to be Hawaiian. The quilting on them, though, follows the usual “mainland” patterns – wreath and a simple linear cross hatched interior (see Figure 9-25b). In contrast, consider the quilt in Figure 9-26a which is presented compliments of Julie Silber. For the uninformed it might seem, aside from color and the details of the applique, to be not much different than the quilts in Figures 9-24 and 9-25a. However, once we look at the pattern of the quilting (Figure 9-26b), its Hawaiian genesis becomes apparent. Figures 9-27a and 9-27b offer a second example of this Hawaiian folk art.
Fig. 9-24: Looks Hawaiian but is likely from Pennsylvania
Fig. 9-25a: Another Quilt That Is Most Likely Not Hawaiian
Fig. 9-25b: Close Up of Quilting from Figure 9-15b
Fig. 9-26a: Ca 1920 Hawaiian Quilt
Fig. 9-26b: Close Up of Figure 9-25a
Fig. 9-27a: Ca 1920 Hawaiian Quilt
Fig. 9-27b: Close Up of Quilt in Figure 9-26ac
Another factor of value is the detail of the pattern itself, whether there’s a border, the complexity of that border and, since we’re talking about folk art, the artfulness of the quilt’s overall presentation. Giving the lie, then, to the assumption that quality of quilting is everything consider the quilt TOP in Figure 9-28 (courtesy again of Julie Silber). Here we have an example of the crème de la crème of mid-19th century quilts, a Baltimore Album. But in this case it’s only a top – a ‘quilt’ that after the individual panels were assembled and signed by the women of the congregation in Baltimore, was never completed. So it has no quilting and has no border. Yet the complexity of the design, the boldness of the colors (because it was stored away for 170 or so years) and the fact that it comes with a solid provenance means that it should easily fetch something north of $10,000 – a hundred times that of a common nicely executed 1930s Double Wedding Ring or some such common pattern. If you think that’s excessive, I note that over the course of scouring California estate sales and flea markets I’ve probably encountered a hundred or more quilts in the Wedding Ring pattern, but I’ve yet to encounter a single Baltimore album quilt or top (dammit)!
Fig. 9-28: Mid-19th Century Baltimore Album Quilt Top
OK, if we’re gonna talk about the expensive stuff, consider the two Baltimore Album quilts in Figure 9-29. Ignore the brown toning to the quilt to the left … it simply needs to be cleaned … and let’s consider why its fair retail price would be roughly half that of the quilt to the right (roughly $30,000 versus $60,000). Now clearly the second quilt has a far more colorful border, but that surely can’t account for a 2 to 1 difference in value. Nor can we say one quilt is more patriotic than the other: One has a ship with American flags while the other has an eagle with the same flags. So why the difference? Well, there are two reasons, one more important than the other. The first less important reason is that the second quilt is more symmetric than the first. People like symmetry … it gives a quilt a less chaotic appearance. This, though, is the less important of the two criteria I have in mind here. So look closer. See the difference? Give up? Should I give you a few extra minutes to stare and compare? Well, here it is: If you hang the first quilt on a wall, then no matter how you turn it some part will necessarily be upside down. The quilt lacks discernible foot and headboard ends. The second quilt, in contrast, has a definite top and bottom. Now if you intended to use one of these quilts on a bed, you might prefer the first since you wouldn’t worry as to which end went where. But people don’t use these quilts on beds. Whose gonna let their cat or dog fresh from the back yard cuddle up on a quilt that can be traded for a new SUV with all the options including a backseat TV? What people like to do with Baltimore Albums is hang them on walls, and it’s a lot more appealing if part of that wall-hanging isn’t upside down.
Fig. 9-29: Two Baltimore Album Quilts
The importance, insofar as value is concerned, of complex patriotic blocks is underscored now by the Baltimore Album quilt in Figure 9-30. Here we have a quilt that in terms of the brightness of color and complexity of border matches the rightmost quilt above in Figure 9-29. Nevertheless, a fair appraisal of this third Album quilt would be some number in the vicinity of $15,000, or one quarter that of the quilt above to the right. Hardly cheap by any stretch of the imagination but by foregoing it, you’d have to settle for a low end sedan and factory pre-installed accessories.
Fig. 9-30: Baltimore Album Quilt with No Patriotic Blocks
Returning, now, to a less exalted example of where two quilts, identical in the basics of pattern, will nevertheless differ in value owing to complexity or the delicacy with which the pattern is executed, consider the traditional 9-patch in Figure 9-31a. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this quilt, and a fair retail value would lie somewhere between $100 and $150. But now compare it to the quilt in Figure 9-31b. This too is a 9-patch and uses much the same fabrics and quilting style as the one in Figure 9-31a. But the relative delicacy with which this second 9-patch is executed with individual squares smaller than an inch to a side moves it up a notch or two in retail value. Alternatively consider the 9-patch in Figure 9-31c. It matches the one in Figure 9-31b in delicacy, but its bubble gum pink background gives it a special flavor (no pun intended … well, yes, sorta intended) that its equally complex cousin doesn’t possess. Of course, you gotta love bubble gum pink for any increase in value here and I know at least one person (not me) who literally hates pink in quits. Appeal as well as beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.
Fig. 9-31a: Ordinary 9-Patch Quilt
Fig. 9-31b: A More Complex 9-Patch Cousin to the Quilt in Fig. 9-19a
Fig. 9-31c: Bubblegum Pink 9-Patch Quilt
Now keep in mind that quilts are folk art and as such need to be evaluated as such – that is, by visual appeal and the aesthetic creativity of the quilter. Do the colors of the individual pieces of fabric seem simply to have been thrown together or do they make “aesthetic sense”? Here, though, we’re walking in quicksand since what makes sense to one person need not make sense to another. I still haven’t figured out why a montage of Campbell soup cans is deemed art or why a canvas that’s simply painted half yellow and half blue will fetch $46.5 million at auction. Didn’t those who bid on that Mark Rothko painting know what I could do with that money? But here’s a more quantifiable example. Recently I bought (because it was cheap) a decidedly uninspired Grandmother’s Flower Garden. Such quilts, which are ubiquitous and populate nearly any flea market, are made of thousands of hexagons sewn together, and the one I bought has hexagons that are one inch to a side. Suppose I wanted to find out how many of the little six-sided suckers were used to make that quilt. Well, the formula for the area of a hexagon is 1.5 times the square root of 3 (appx 1.732) times the length of a side times the length of a side. So in this case, that area equals approximately 2.6 inches (i.e., 1.5 times 1.732 times 1 times 1). Since the quilt is 78 inches by 72 inches, or 5,616 square inches, that yields a rough estimate of 2,160 hexagons (5,616 divided by 2.6). Now that might sound like a big number, which I suppose it is since you’d never find me cutting out 2,000+ squares of fabric and then folding and stitching them together as hexagons. However, it isn’t a big number when compared to the possibilities. I’ve also owned a Flower Garden of approximately the same size with hexagons that are ½ inch to a side, in which case the area of each is 1.5 times 1.732 times 1/2 times 1/2, or 0.65 square inches. So in that case it would take approximately 8,640 hexagons to make that 78” x 72” quilt, or four times as in that other flea market purchase. Lest you think that 8,000+ hexagons is an impossibility, then check out the Field of Diamonds (or Mosaic) quilt in Figures 9-32a and b with is also constructed out of suitably arranged hexagons. At 81” by 67” and hexagons ½” on a side, that works out to better than 8,000 individual pieces.
Fig. 9-32a: Field of Diamonds Quilt with 8,000+ Pieces
Fig. 9-32b: Closeup of Quilt in Fig. 9-30a
Think about this quilt now for a minute. If you were somehow able to make a hexagon every two minutes (good luck with that) and worked a 40 hour week, it would be a full time job for seven weeks before you had all the hexagons needed. And then, of course, comes the task of sewing those little suckers together (if you aren’t already in the loony bin) and then quilting the top to a back. Both quilts, I’m sure, were equally adept at keeping one’s toes warm in the winter, but in terms of aesthetic appeal, rest assured that the smaller hexagons yield something with far greater visual appeal than its less refined cousin. Nevertheless, to underscore the factor of individual taste in evaluating a quilt, consider the example in Figure 9-33. There can be little argument that this is a colorful and rather eye catching creation despite the fact that its background fabric makes me think of an Army Surplus store. But should we view it as a discombobulated mess or a fanciful expression of the quilter’s art? Were we art critics would we say that the stars are incoherently thrown down at random with a dyslexic’s eye for pattern or might we review it as a wholly unique way to mimic the night sky wherein real stars are never aligned coherently? How, for instance, would someone with a home full of Jackson Pollock paintings react to this quilt as opposed to someone whose tastes lead them to value only paintings of Renaissance masters? I’m sure there are art critics as well as quilt enthusiasts who will argue that there is a correct answer here. But they’re wrong. Once again, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder; witness the fact that there’s a person out there willing to pay more than $46 million for a blue and yellow canvass I wouldn’t pay $500 for it except to sell it to its current owner (I’d even settle for selling it to the under-bidder … I’m not greedy).
Fig. 9-33: Folk Art Masterpiece or a Mess?
A third dimension is how well the quilter integrated pattern with the quilting itself. To illustrate, consider the quilt in Figure 9-34. Ignoring the quilting for a moment what we have here is a nice ca 1900 blue and white variant of the Irish Chain pattern with the added attraction of a double border. That, however, only tells part of the story. Not only is she carefully quilted at 9 to 10 SPI, but the placement of the wreaths makes the quilting as much a centerpiece of the design as the pattern itself and thereby moves this quilt up a few notches from its more common Irish Chain cousins. Indeed, while the wreath is a relatively common quilting pattern, its placement here places this quilt in the same category as the one in Figure 9-23a.
Fig. 9-34: Irish Chain Variant Quilt
The fourth dimension of value, pattern, is difficult to summarize, as there are literally hundreds of named patterns and countless variations within each pattern category. Indeed, the beauty of quilts is the idiosyncratic touches added by the quilter to suit their taste and artistic sense. One could, then, take ten or twenty examples of the same pattern – Mariners Compass, Ocean Waves, LeMoyne star – and not have any two bear anything but the slightest resemblance to each other and some appearing wholly unrelated to others. I’ve long felt, in fact, that quilt dealers are loath to admit they haven’t the foggiest idea what label to give to a specific quilt so, with an air of authority, they’ll put it in some category (or perhaps simply make up a name) and challenge the rest of us to make the connection to other quilts with similar names. To illustrate, consider Figure 9-35a which illustrates six distinct patchwork quilt patterns. The names of those patterns, beginning with the upper left and working clockwise is as follows: Ocean Waves; Seven Sisters; Chimney Sweep; Bay Leaf; Flying Geese and Feathered Star. Of these six, only the name Feathered Star makes any sense to me. Things are no different when it comes to applique quilts as Figure 9-35b shows. Here the pattern names are (again beginning in the upper left and working clockwise): Roses and Buds; Roses of LeMoyne; Whig Rose and Rose of Sharon. Clearly, it would seem that those giving names to applique quilts have a special attachment to roses and, I must say, a bit of imagination when it comes to identifying something as a rose.
Fig. 9-35a: Six Distinct Patchwork Quilt Patterns
Fig. 9-35b: Four Applique Quilt Patterns
To perhaps make the naming of patterns seem even more fluid, among patterns in which there is little room for variation, visual impact can vary dramatically due to the quilter’s treatment. Figures 9-36a and 9-36b each present four quilts, with the first group in the common Dresden Plate pattern and the second in the equally common Flower Basket pattern. Not only do visual impacts vary, but I’d bet that if you asked 1000 people to rank order their preferences within any group of four, all twenty four possible preference orders would be represented.
Fig. 9-36a: Four Dresden Plate Variations
Fig. 9-36b: Four Flower Basket Variations
Among the myriad patterns there are, I suppose, some that are more desirable than others. And if one is to begin making classifications on that basis, I suppose that on average at least applique quilts hold an advantage over their patchwork cousins. Here, though, we need to offer a ceteris paribus qualification. Not only can a patchwork quilt with a nicely designed border all quilted at 12 to 14 SPI easily exceed the value of a comparably dated appliqué, but beginning in the 1930s a variety of applique kits appeared on the market – pre cut and with the background fabric marked as to the pattern to be followed in the quilting (see Figure 9-37). Such quilts are generally quite striking (in part because they may not be old enough for colors to fade), but they command far less pricewise (say between $200 and $400) than an applique of comparable age and quality that follows its own unique design.
Fig. 9-37: Typical 1930s (or Later) Kit Applique Quilts
In my mind, though, 20th century kit appliques – even the best – can’t hold a candle to those dating to the 1850s thru the 80s. That period seems to have been the heyday of American applique quilts and I only wish I’d found more of them in my years of scouring estate sales and flea markets. Figures 9-38a and 9-38b offer two 19th century variants of the Princess Feather pattern, while 9-38c, 9-38d and 9-38e are appliques that predate the kits (I’m unsure as to the ages of these later two examples, but notice the green to the flower stems in Figure 9-38c has ‘faded’ — what quilters refer to as fugitive green and can ultimately become light brown — which is a common affliction of a 19th century quilt, whereas the ruffled border in Fig. 9-38d is more consonant with a 20th century attribution). To my eye at least these four appliques are far more visually attractive than the four in Figure 9-37. Of course, as in everything, the choice is yours.
Fig. 9-38a: 19th C Princess Feather
Fig. 9-38b: A Better 19th C Princess Feather
Fig. 9-38c: 19th C but Not Sure Precisely When
Fig. 9-38d: Yet Another Applique, Prob. Early 20th C
Fig. 9-38e: Ca 1900 Tulip Applique
Collectors also like quilts that have borders. A floral or vine border such as the one above in Figure 9-38e can double a quilt’s value. The problem, though, with generalizing about pattern (or even for that matter about value and any evaluative dimension) is that quilts are, to repeat myself, folk art and are valued largely by visual appeal. Thus, while one person might especially value a bold 2-color geometric quilt others may prefer the complexity of color combinations. In other words, as with most everything, what appeals to one person does not necessarily appeal to the person standing next to them. Consider the two quilts in Figure 9-39a. Both have borders, both follow the Irish Chain pattern and both are quilted at around the same 9 SPI. Which do you prefer? Some people will say the bold red and white one, but others may prefer the first since it’s less common to see an Irish Chain made of patterned fabrics. But now consider the two quilts in Figure 9-39b. In this instance I think most people would prefer the first with its bold blue and white contrasts. The second is (in my mind at least) simply too busy and looks more like a hodgepodge with little visual appeal – something someone made with a lot of spare time on their hands and a pile of scrap fabrics. Of course, if you disagree with me, then that only underscores the fact once again that tastes vary and one person’s $250 quilt is another person’s $100 bed cover.
Figure 9-39a: Two Irish Chain variants
Figure 9-39b: Which Do You Prefer?
Before proceeding further, I would like to put in a plug for what I think is an undervalued quilt form … the embroidered quilt. Rather than a design executed by some arrangement of fabrics, embroidered quilts are just that – embroidered (cross stitched). But with that said, there’s embroidery and then there’s embroidery. Figures 9-40a and 9-40b give graphic examples that, in my opinion, are a step up from most 1920s and 1930s patchwork Flower Gardens, Wedding Rings or Dresden Plates despite the fact that many of the examples you will encounter were sometimes made from kits up into the 1970s. The kits would generally outline the pattern to be embroidered, but that hardly precluded women from adding embellishments, and so I’ll leave it up to you to agree or disagree with my assessment of their desirability but my position is firm.
Figure 9-40a: Two Embroidered or Cross-Stitched Quilts
Fig. 9-40b: Two More Embroidered or Cross-Stitched Quilts
Returning, now, to dimensions of value, there is agreement about the final dimension: condition. And needless to say quilts with rips or holes are CETERIS PARIBUS valued far less than those without such apologies. I have, though, capitalized and italicized “all other things equal” for a reason. Go back and look at some of the quilts Barbara Brackman used to illustrate her detective work on judging the age of a quilt. Many of those quilts are in museums, yet virtually all of them are discolored or stained in some way with none more so than the Connecticut signed and dated 1810 quilt by Ann Ingersoll. So should we discard that quilt, relegate to a Salvation Army scrap fabric bin? Well, let me tell you … if you were to do so, please give me a heads up on the location of that bin so I can spend the night waiting for your arrival. Oh, and one other thing: My plan wouldn’t be, after securing possession of that quilt, to run home to wash or otherwise clean it. The quilt, in all likelihood, cannot be cleaned lest it fall apart in the process. So is it worthless … a forever stained and dirty quilt? Well, hardly and I don’t doubt whether any and every serious collector of quilts wouldn’t love to own it as is. There ain’t that many American quilts from the first quarter of the 19th century, there are preciously few that are also both signed and dated. It’s a rarity and warrants being valued for what it is as opposed to what it was when new.
Let’s put a bit more mean on the bones of this argument with another example. It is true, of course, that it’s hardly uncommon to encounter antique quilts with some wear to the binding as well as wear to the interior fabrics. But how I react to that wear depends critically on the quilts age and aesthetic appeal. Consider the quilt in Figures 9-41a and 9-41b. Yes, that’s the same quilt in both figures – a Bethlehem Star on one side and Mennonite Bars on the other. That alone makes the quilt somewhat uncommon. But also look at the fabrics that make up the stars — all ca 1860s or earlier calicos. The quilting, moreover is nothing to be sneezed at. However, the quilt is not without issues as at least four of the diamonds making up the center of the star have deteriorated completely (see Figure 9-39c). So, what’s this quilt worth? Frankly, I have no idea. It’s certainly worth more to someone with some age-appropriate fabric who can repair it as opposed to someone who would have to send it out for restoration. I also suspect that the outer blue band was more vibrant originally, so how much do I discount for fading. Damned if I know in this case. The fact remains, after all, that it is a Civil War era quilt and quilts of that vintage aren’t laying around unwanted, waiting to be picked up, insofar as I know. All I can say is that even in its current condition I’d value it considerably higher than, say, a common 1930s Dresden Plate or 1900s Irish Chain. But please don’t ask how much higher.
Fig. 9-41a: Ca 1860s Star Quilt
Fig. 9-41b: Mennonite Bars Backside to Quilt in Figure 9-36a
Fig. 9-41c: Damage to Quilt in Figure 9-36a
Wear occurs naturally from use, but notice that while four of the diamonds in Figure 9-41c have deteriorated, adjacent diamonds appear to be in perfect condition. How did that happen? The answer is that there’s another source of deterioration, especially with 19th century quilts, that I discussed earlier but bears repeating. As I note in reference to Mary Strickland’s Mariner’s Compass, and as illustrated in Chapter 2 with Figures 2-12a and 2-12b, the dying process to achieve various browns and reds commonly employed an iron compound (ferrous sulfate). Specifically, to properly dye cotton one needs something … a mordant … to act as an intermediary between the cotton fibers and the dying agent so that the agent penetrates and permanently adheres to the fibers. And here, to achieve various hues of red and brown (as well as black) the preferred combination was ferrous sulfide as the mordant and madder as the dye. But ferrous means “iron” and iron rusts … and when it rusts on fabric it eats (disintegrates) the fibers. Thus, it’s not uncommon to see a patch of calico cotton that is in otherwise perfect condition except that all brown threads or spots of brown color have totally deteriorated, even vanished. At times there seems no pattern as to which fabrics will deteriorate and which will remain whole. Take a look at Figure 9-42, which shows a portion of a 19th century quilt in which an iron compound used as a mordant has literally shredded some of the browns. I hasten to add that this differential deterioration of patterned browns is not one of the mysteries of the universe. Dying fabric is a complex process, the technology of which has evolved over centuries and where various hues of the same color may require different chemical treatments. Indeed, applying various colors to fabric often required sophisticated technological advances — Adolf von Baeyer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1905, for instance, for his discovery of how to synthesize indigo. The technologies employed and the colors that were available or unavailable at different periods is often an important tool for the student of textiles in dating fabrics, quilts included of course.
Fig. 9-42: The Common Affliction of 19th Century Calico Cotton Quilts
It isn’t, though, only dyes to color cloth that have an iron base. Ever notice old letters and the writing that’s turned brown? Well, contrary to what you might think, the ink was originally black. They didn’t write the Declaration of Independence or, later, the US Constitution in brown ink – they did it in black. But with an iron compound used to give it color, the ink rusts and we all know the color of rust. Now you might not think this is a problem for quilts, but guess again: There’s a type of quilt that collectors covet, but which can suffer the indignities of rusting ink: Friendship or signature quilts. Friendship quilts, typically made in the 19th century, might have been fashioned wherein when done, those women each signed their name on the quilt, perhaps to a portion they specifically contributed to. Figure 9-43a is such a quilt, and on it can be found the date 1882 along with a number of signatures and cities along the New York – Connecticut border. Figure 9-43b is, then, a typical block of this quilt. Well, not strictly typical. Figure 9-43c shows another block and illustrates the destructive potential of ferrous based ink … rusting ink that’s eaten the fabric.
Fig. 9-43a: Friendship or Signature Quilt, ca 1882
Fig. 9-43b: “Typical” Signature Block from Fig. 9-28a
Fig. 9-43c: The Consequences of Rusting Ink
This all brings me to the most ubiquitous of apologies – stains. Now this may sound a tad strange, but if you’re one of those people in the hunt for quilts at flea markets and estate sales, stains can be a friend since it’s at such venues that quilts with stains will be priced at one half to one third the cost of an unblemished example (assuming the person selling the quilt bothered to inspect it). I shouldn’t tell you this since you might be shopping at one of the flea markets I scour, but stains are often an opportunity for a bargain since many types are readily treated. There is, for instance, the brown discoloration that occurs when a quilt has been stored and the fabric allowed to oxidize. Such discoloration typically occurs along a quilt’s folds, and while unsightly, they, as well as stains occasioned by moisture, can generally be eliminated with a soaking in a fabric cleanser such as Oxyclean. But if after rinsing the quilt out the next morning and drying it on your lawn in the sun, a stain persists, or if, to begin with, the stain is rust try a highly diluted bath in hydrogen peroxide (and make certain the peroxide you dilute is the 3% solution found in grocery stores rather than the concentrate to be had from a beauty or hair supply store). In my experience, this eliminates 99% of the stains you’re likely to encounter and you can avoid having to deal with the remaining 1% by simply staying away from quilts with grease stains, ink or the stain cause by cedar in a cedar chest.
The preceding advice, though, pertains largely to quilts made after, say, 1910 where dyes are less likely to run or fade and fabrics retain their strength. Washing a quilt made before 1910 or so can be dangerous for several reasons. Those deep browns, while whole before washing, can be far more fragile than they appear, and a soaking will only wreck havoc. And whether before or after 1910, its best always to be careful with deep bolder colors, especially red, since one can readily create a disaster from which there is no recovery. Consider the Drunkard’s Path in Figure 9-44a, which is in overall excellent condition except that the background is no longer pure white but has oxidized to a subtle and not quite uniform brown; or the Ohio Star in Figure 9-44b, which is also in excellent condition except for scattered foxing to the white background. What to do? Well, frankly, I did nothing. I honestly have no idea what the red might have done had I given either quilt a bath, but like Knute Rockne’s (or was it Vince Lombardy?) warning about the forward pass in football, of the three possible outcomes, two of them are bad.
Fig. 9-44a: 19th Century Drunkard’s Path Quilt
Fig. 9-44b: Ca 1900 Ohio Star Quilt
Alternatively, consider the two quilt sections in Figures 9-44c and 9-44d. If you look closely at the upper right section of Figure 9-44c you’ll see between the 3rd and 4th star down an affliction common to 19th century quilts … brown toning where the quilt might have been folded and stored for decades. In Figure 9-44d, on the other hand, you can see another common affliction … a subtle water or moisture stain. In these two cases, though, neither quilt had ever been washed and as such were in essentially mint condition with the exception of those two issues. So again, what to do? Well in both cases, I was lucky and was able to eliminate the issues without having to give either quilt a bath. Unlike the Drunkard’s Path in Figure 9-44a, the white backgrounds for both were still pure white … no toning. So, after laying the quilts out on the front lawn in the sun I simply gave the affected areas a light spray with a highly diluted solution of hydrogen peroxide (once again, the 3% solution one gets at the grocery store). Problem solved. If on the other hand the pure white background had suffered from some toning due to age, I probably would have left the quilt alone and learned to live with the imperfection. Who after all wants a quilt where all but one area of the background white is an off white and the remaining small section pure white? That would be more of a distracting eyesore than the original stain.
Fig. 9-44c: 19th C Ohio Star Variant Quilt
Fig. 9-44d: A Water Stain
I would, of course, prefer not to have to consider cleaning a quilt, regardless of age. But the fact is that eight of every ten I find at flea markets and estate sales suffer from a stain of some sort. And if like me, you’re trying to sell things on a site such as eBay, advertising a piece as needing a cleaning can drive the price to pennies on the dollar. So like it or not, I’ve had to learn to contend with this problem and in the process I’ve made some mistakes. Here I’ll begin by saying that if for whatever reason you think a quilt made before, say, 1870 needs to be cleaned, don’t! Take, for instance, the quilt in Figure 9-41a. If you told me you’d buy it only after I cleaned it, I’d tell you to find yourself a professional restorer since I wouldn’t let water within ten feet of it. You’re dealing here with exceedingly fragile fabrics and if you can contrive a reason for leaving things as is, by all means do so. Taking such a quilt, putting it in say a bathtub and carefully letting it soak might seem safe. That, sadly, is often not the case. Simply moving the quilt around in the tub will force water up between the cotton fibers and those fibers might just be fragile enough to tear or even shred. If it absolutely must be cleaned, about all you can do, short of finding a professional textile conservator (hope you have a healthy checkbook balance) lay it out on your lawn, hose it down carefully with a garden hose, and not touch it again until dry. Beyond that you’re on your own. And if it’s a signature/friendship quilt such as the one in Figure 9-43a, even that method is inadvisable since you’ll have no idea how the ink will respond to water. The quilt might be clean afterwards, but how will you feel if the ink washes away? So insofar as the quilts in Figure 9-41a and 9-43a are concerned, I sold them as is. But I sold them to serious collectors who were delighted to have them as I found it and, appreciating their age and beauty, enjoyed them as just as I had for the short time I owned them.
For additional examples of where caution was appropriately applied, consider the two quilts in Figures 9-45a and 9-45b. Both date to the mid-19th century and both suffer from the same affliction — toning of the background white. So what to do. Well, I’ll tell you what I did … NOTHING! Both are pieced from early patterned fabrics and early patterned fabrics most likely used dyes that weakened the fabric such that a bath would threaten to destroy the fabric altogether. Indeed, take a look at Figure 9-45c. This is a closeup of one of the calico diamonds from Figure 9-45b and notice the tiny hole made by the brown dye. Do you have any idea what would happen to that little diamond if we tried washing the quilt? If you can’t guess, you have no business collecting quilts!
Fig. 9-45a: Ca 1860 Cotton Calico Caged LeMoyne Star Quilt
Fig. 9-45b: Ca 1850 Cotton Calico Touching Stars Quilt
Fig. 9-45c: A Section of the Quilt in Figure 9-45b
So let’s jump ahead to quilts made a tad later … say after 1870. The industrial revolution is then in full swing, including the mass manufacture of relatively sturdy mass produced calico and solid cotton fabrics. And here you’re on somewhat safer ground, but hardly out of the woods. Take a look at the Carolina Lily quilt in Figure 9-46a. It too like the two quilts above suffers from toning of the background white. But now we have a quilt that was most likely made in the late 19th century if not the early part of the 20th. So can we wash it? Well, here’s another fact: It’s never been washed. That should immediately give you pause, if only because it’s sorta nice to have a quilt that is in 100% original condition. But there’s another reason for proceeding with caution: If it’s never been washed, you have to ask what the red will do when wet. There’s a good chance you’ll end up with a pink quilt.
Fig. 9-46a: Ca 1900 Carolina Lily Quilt, Never Washed
It’s time in fact for me to throw the fear of God into you. Some time ago I bought two applique quilts, both dating to the 1870s or 80s, including a princess feather, that were absolutely filthy – dirt, toning, water stains, foxing and whatever. They made each of the quilts Barbara Brackman used to illustrate her detective work look spotlessly clean in comparison. You had to wash your hands after handling either one and it was evident that a simple soaking in water wasn’t going to accomplish much. But they had once upon a time been great quilts and despite the fading to the reds and greens, held considerable potential. But that potential, I felt, could only be realized by setting them out on the lawn and gently soaking them with water in the summer sun. Lo and behold, it all worked … the dirt washed away and the stains disappeared. It all worked, that is, with but one ‘minor’ technical difficulty – the color all washed away as well. Gone, poof, vanished … and what I was left with were the two worthless quilts in Figure 9-45. As it turns out, 19th century brown, fugitive green that’s turned brown and red fabrics are all in danger of losing their color completely when washed. The long and the short of it, then, is that if you’ve never washed a quilt before but are tempted to give it a shot, don’t go charging ahead unless you’re prepared to replace what you just ruined. Give me a nice earth tones calico from the 1870s with some subtle water stains but that’s never been washed and I’ll leave things alone. If given the choice between such a quilt and an absolutely mint 1930s patchwork in a traditional pattern, I’ll take the calico any day. Allowances should be made for age and if you require that a 150 year old example of American folk art be in mint condition … well, you’ve either got a high tolerance for absorbing search costs or your just too damned picky and need to loosen up a bit.
Fig. 9-46b: Two Washed and Worthless 1870s Quilts
Amish Quilts: I may have an ego, but it’s not big enough for me to think I can say anything profound or modestly insightful about Amish quilts in a few pages. First, there are Lancaster (Eastern Pennsylvania) quilts, Ohio Amish quilts, Indiana Amish quilts, Illinois Amish quilts, wool Amish quilts and cotton Amish quilts, quilts made before WWII and those made after, and finally Amish quilts made for Amish and quilts made for tourists. And any adequate treatment of this category needs to delve into each of these cross cutting categories. So I wont say much … get yourself some books if you’re really interested. I will, though, try to dispense with a few misconceptions about Amish and their quilts. One misconception, derived perhaps from seeing them in their black cars, buggies and clothes, is that they live a colorless world. This isn’t so. The Amish love color and if you don’t believe me, take a look at Figure 9-47a, which is the now defunct Lancaster Quilt and Textile Museum’s display of its Esprit Collection of Amish quilts. Have you ever seen such color? If you need further proof, take a peek at Julie Silber’s Amish: The Art of the Quilt or, more generally, Daniel and Kathryn McCauley’s Decorative Arts of the Amish of Lancaster County where you’ll see a blaze of color that matches anything you’ll find in any other book on American decorative arts.
Fig. 9-47a: Amish Quilts from the Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum
There is, though, one thing the Amish didn’t (and don’t) like: Patterned fabrics. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen a quilt advertised as Amish with a patterned fabric. Sorry folks, if it’s a printed patterned fabric it ain’t Amish. They will use patterned fabric for the backside but not for the top. To illustrate, consider the three 19th century dolls in Figure 9-47b. Want to guess which are Amish and which aren’t? Well, the answer is simple — unless the dress on the doll in the center is a replacement, it’s not Amish owing to the patterned fabric. It’s that simple.
Fig. 9-47b: Amish or Not?
Where you can run into trouble, though, is that the Amish haven’t stopped making quilts and they do love marketing their handiwork to tourists. Now they are an honest lot and won’t sell you something that’s new while claiming it’s antique. But honesty can end at the check out counter when an example of their work passes into the arms of a tourist or dealer. So here you best learn to distinguish between cotton, wool and polyester with the understanding that polyester wasn’t widely available until the 1960s. And don’t assume that a legit Amish quilt has to be wool … the Eastern Pennsylvania Amish used wool, but not those who settled further West. Also, don’t get dissatisfied with learning that your newly acquired Amish quilt is “only” early 20th century. In fact, the Amish were rather late to the quilting business, and 19th century examples are rare so those made in the 1920s or 30s can bring big bucks. One final comment: It seems that not only don’t the Amish like to have their pictures taken, their quilts inherit the same preference. If you bought a quilt advertised as Lancaster County Amish, try taking a picture of it. Odds are one or more of the colors wont be right despite (or because of) the automated digital contortions your camera makes trying to get things right. So suppose you download the image to your computer and begin diddling with Picasa or Photoshop. Here you’ll likely experience nothing but frustration. If you get that green to be green, the red will turn purple – or vise versa. Thus, if you do purchase an Amish quilt online, it might not look the same when you finally get it into your hands.
Silk and Wool Quilts: Anyone whose ventured onto the flea market trail has almost certainly seen silk crazy quilts, taking that name because they correspond to no specific pattern with the silk (and/or velvet) pieces, often a blaze of color, cut in every conceivable shape before being sewn together. But if you’ve seen a silk quilt, you’ve probably also seen what silk does in the course of 100+ years; namely, it falls apart (and most examples date from the 1880s shortly after enough silkworms had been smuggled out of China and silk became widely available in the US). Thus, it’s a rare example that doesn’t have damage somewhere in the form of tattered, shredded and torn fabric, whereas those in perfect condition are about as rare as proverbial hen’s teeth. But even a silk quilt with damage can have value, in part because people don’t expect them to be perfect (and also because, I suppose, with their profusion of shapes, colors and fabrics, damage is often not noticeable until one moves in close for an inspection). And value is added if the quilt is embroidered in any way, with the more elaborate the embroidery, the greater the value. Seems that whoever made such quilts often had a fondness for elaborately stitching in initials, names, dates, images of birds, flowers, butterflies, and so on – and the more the better. There are also crazy quilts made of wool, but for the most part they are less interesting than their silk counterparts and bring only a fraction of a silk example’s value.
Fig. 9-48: A Typical (and Uninspiring) Silk & Velvet Crazy Quilt
Fig. 9-49: Your Better Than Average Crazy Quilt
Fig 9-50: A Superb Crazy Quilt w. Fantastic Detail & Embroidery
Fig. 9-51a: Silk Crazy Quilt with a Pattern (Sorta)
Fig. 9-51b: Another Silk Crazy Quilt with a Pattern (Sorta)
Closely related to silk crazy quilts, at least in age, are silk or wool quilts in the Log Cabin pattern, and here value is assessed along three dimensions: condition, pattern and delicacy. Insofar as condition is concerned, whatever I just said about crazy quilts applies to Log Cabins as well, but wool quilts in this pattern can also be visually inspiring. However, we all know who likes wool and it’s a rare 130 year old quilt that hasn’t in its lifetime hosted dinner to one of more of those flying critters (see Figure 9-52). A few scattered moth holes here and there will have a minimal impact on value, but value declines exponentially as the density of those holes increases.
Fig. 9-52: The Evidence of Someone’s Lunchtime Snack
The tolerance people have for moth damage depends on pattern. Here you might ask: What’s to vary – they’re all the same, aren’t they. Actually, they aren’t. In fact an amazing array of visual / optical effects can be created by how the dark versus light fabrics are arranged, thereafter resulting in patterns having names like Spiral, Lightning, Courthouse Steps, Maltese Cross, Sunshine & Shadow, Steeplechase, Barn Raising, Pineapple and Windmill Blades. See for example the four log cabin variants in Figures 9-53a through 9-53j, where Figures 9-53 and 9-54 show two quilts with the same pattern but different treatments in terms of seeking contrast with colors. As should be evident from these pictures, your typical log cabin quilt cannot be appreciated when folded up in some pile or even hung from a quilt rack. To fully capture its design and visual impact, they’re best hung on a wall where you can step back some distance. The visual impact or optical effect of a Log Cabin quilt, though, will depend greatly on one last determinant of value: delicacy. Log Cabins are constructed from countless narrow strips of cloth, and without question the narrower the better. A quality quilt in this pattern will have strips under a ½ inch in width, whereas anything over a ½ inch will begin to lose a serious collector’s interest (and will also be less likely to offer the optical effects of its more delicately constructed cousins). Keep in mind that such quilts are not “quilted” and their strips might even be machine sewn, so delicacy is to Log Cabins what stitches per inch are to other quilts.
Fig. 9-53a: One Variant of a Log Cabin Quilt (Barn Raising)
Fig. 9-53b: Silk Log Cabin Quilt (Barn Raising)
Fig. 9-53c: Another Log Cabin Variant (Farrows)
Fig. 9-53d: Yet Another Log Cabin Variant (Pineapple)
Fig. 9-53e An Uncommon & Patriotic Log Cabin Variant
Fig. 9-53f: Alternating Squares Log Cabin
Fig. 9-53g: Zig-Zag Log Cabin
Fig. 9-53h: Windmill Log Cabin
Fig. 9-53i: Pineapple Log Cabin
Fig. 9-53j: Another Zig Zag Log Cabin
Fig. 9-54: Silk Log Cabin Quilt
One shouldn’t assume, by the way, that if a quilt is silk, then its must either be a crazy quilt or some variant of the log cabin as in Figure 9-54 above. The beauty of quilts is that the quilter is free to do whatever they want with fabrics every bit as much as a painter is free to use their paints in whatever way they wish. The quilter can go even further by mixing fabrics such as the one in Figure 9-55 wherein both silk, sheen cotton and velvet are combined for a dramatic effect. Then there’s the 1950s or so silk and cotton quilt in Figure 9-56 wherein the quilter combined both a log cabin variant along with an applique border. Clearly, then, one could readily publish a book with images of a thousand quilts and not have any two match. And it is that fact that charges the batteries of a quilt collector so as to keep them always on the hunt.
Fig. 9-55: A Silk, Cotton and Velvet ca 1890s Quilt
Fig. 9-56: Silk and Cotton Log Cabin & Applique, ca 1950
Clearly, then silk is a fabric (did I have to tell you that) and not a pattern, so silk can be incorporated into any pattern, and the three silk quilts in Figures 9-57 through 9-59 prove that fact.
Fig. 9-57: Silk Quilt ca 1900
Fig. 9-58: Another All Silk Quilt ca 1900
Fig. 9-59: Silk Quilt in the Fan Pattern
Now at this point some of you might be saying “well, you’ve shown a lot of pictures, but what about __________?” wherein you fill in the blank with the name of some quilt pattern such as Mariners Compass, Pickle Dish (where do they get these names?), Wild Goose Chase, Geese Around the Pond, Hearts and Gizzards, and so on and so forth. So here’s something to consider. Barbara Brackman, in her Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns, identifies over 4,000 patterns. But wait, things are worse than that. Shaw references a calculation made by John Forrest and Deborah Blincoe in their The Natural History of the Traditional Quilt that if you take a single 9-patch star block composed of 21 square and triangular pieces, then there are over 10 BILLION different possible arrangements even if the fabric consists of only three colors. I don’t know how many quilts were made in the 19th century — surely not that many since each and every woman in the country in that century would have had to have made upwards of 200 quilts to reach that number — but clearly there are far too many patterns and variations for me to catalogue in the space of 30 or so pages. But this much is clear: There are countless variations of even the named patterns out there awaiting your discovery.
Now however with my disquisition on quilts ended, you might ask “what about the truly spectacular and rare?” since, with but a few exceptions, what I’ve pictured here are the quilts common to flea markets and estate sales. Or “what if I want something truly grand of the sort pictured in quilt books such as Robert Shaw’s. Are they all in museums or squirreled away in private collections?” Well, have no fear. If your taste and pocketbook demand a step or two up from the quilts pictured in this chapter, take a look at Figures 9-60a, b, c and d. Yes, those are quilts for sale … or about to be put up for sale. These pictures are of Julie Silber and Jane Lury’s half-completed set up at a back-East textile show, and trust me … with the exception of the step stool, EVERYTHING is for sale. Of course, keep in mind that Julie and Jane are two of the country’s recognized experts on quilts, which sadly for the rest of us I suppose, generally gives them first crack at acquiring these special examples.
Fig. 9-60A: Getting Ready for a Show
Fig. 9-60b: Ditto
Fig. 9-60c: Ditto again
Fig. 9-60d: Deja vu all over again
Hand Hooked Rugs: Anyone with even a passing interest in American hooked rugs shouldn’t begin here, but rather with Joel and Kate Kopp’s American Hooked and Sewn Rugs (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1995). Not only will you find there a comprehensive discussion of the history of hooked rugs as an American folk art form, but you’ll see images of just about every type of rug you’re likely to conjure up in your fantasies. And being exposed to a multitude of examples is especially important. Owing to their construction – most commonly, heavy yarn or strips of wool and cotton rag looped thru a coarse burlap – the imagery one finds here hardly matches the delicacy and detail of a finely crafted quilt or an early 19th century schoolgirl needlework sampler. Thus, appeal and relative value are dictated by more subjective things labeled “taste”. There, bet that helps you in judging a rug’s quality. Well, what can I say. It’s Folk Art with a capital F and A, which is to say you best look at as many pictures of rugs as possible to train your eye to identify those likely to appeal to collectors versus those that for the floor of a mud room.
Before I delve into this subject, though, take a look at Figures 9-61a through 9-61c, all of which are museum recreations of an early American household (lets say ca 1800). Look closely and tell me what’s common to all three images? Don’t give up … keep looking. Still looking? Give up? OK, the answer is the floors are wood. That is, no carpets. And wood, by the way, is pretty good … if you have that you’re obviously at least middle class since otherwise the odds are you’re walking on dirt. But what this means is that if you’re in the hunt for an 18th century rug or even an early 19th century example, good luck! If you could find an early 19th century rug, the odds are it would be made of rags such as the one pictured in Figure 9-62, or, as the image in Figure 9-63 suggests, it would be a small braided rag rug like the one in Figure 9-64 (which in this case isn’t antique). Until the industrial revolution in textiles took hold cloth was expensive and not something to be walked on unless you were part of that 1%. This isn’t to say that there aren’t late 18th or early 19th century rugs — hooked, rag, braided or otherwise. But for the most part they’re in museums or the collections of today’s 1%.
Fig. 9-61a: Museum Recreation of a Ca 1800 Fireplace Hearth
Fig. 9-61b: Museum Recreation of a ca 1800 Living Room
Fig. 9-61c: Museum Recreation of ca 1800 Storage
Fig. 9-62: Section of a Rag Rug
Fig. 9-63: Look Ma … Only an Itty Bitty Rug!
Fig. 9-64: Braided Rag Rug
So where does that leave us ordinary folk in the hunt for Americana and folk art. Answer: Late 19th or early 20th century hooked rugs. And here I’ll begin with the obvious: Unless the rug is truly early 19th century and hooked or sewn to homespun, it better be hooked on that old brown burlap that dries out and cracks with age. If not it’s safe to assume it’s not old and has a good chance of being an Asian import. When I’m scouring the flea markets and encounter a hooked rug, if it isn’t on nice brown burlap, I don’t look any further. There are exceptions out there but don’t bet on what you’re looking at being one of them (more on this later). Second, if it’s a strictly floral design, which was especially popular in the 30s and 40s, it almost certainly falls at the lower range of values (generally under $100). My advice here is buy it only if you intend to walk on it. The rug in Figure 9-65a with its bold colors and idiosyncratic striping might seem an exception, but if it is, it’s only marginally so. Indeed, its been my experience that a rug that’s wholly idiosyncratic, even if it verges on the comical such as the one in Figure 9-61b will be valued more highly by hooked rug collectors. Go figure!
Fig. 9-65a: Average 1930s Floral Rug
Fig. 9-65b: Comical 1930s or 40s Hooked Rug
Beyond this, keep in mind that hooked rugs are collected and hung on walls because, as folk art, desirable ones, like quilts, are those that are in some way a captivating expression of the maker’s artistic sense. Thus, while formal pictorial ones that mimic or literally copy a Currier and Ives scene have value, unless they have an unusual border with some folky flourishes, they’re still unlikely to command the price of a rug in which the pattern is the maker’s creation. Consider for instance the rug in Figure 9-66a. It might seem that the fine detail here would push the retail value of this piece well above, say, $500. But frankly, I don’t think so. Yes, it surely has some wonderful detail, but at the same time it’s utterly lacking in spontaneity. It’s almost as if the hooker (I best be careful here) hooked by the numbers. Contrast this rug with the one shown in Figure 9-66b. This second rug has less detail that the first, but it possesses a folky spontaneity that’s absent from its more complex cousin. The African America theme, moreover, adds to its value, in which case a retail value above $500 would not be an unreasonable appraisal.
Fig. 9-66a: Finely Detailed But Somewhat Boring Hooked Mat
Fig. 9-66b: A Folky Pictorial Hooked Rug ca 1920
There is apparently one slight exception to the rule that hooked rugs based on a set predetermined pattern hold little interest to collectors – an exception I frankly don’t understand: Hooked rugs employing one of Edward Frost’s designs. In the 1870s, Frost made and sold hundreds of hooked rug patterns employing, for the most part, animals such as lions, dogs, cats and birds. Those patterns remained popular and in use well into the 20th century, but rug hookers (again, if there’s a better name, let me know) using one of those patterns often added their own flourishes – mixing colors or background designs in aesthetically interesting ways, or rendering the rug three dimensional (trapunto) by how they cut areas of the wool after it was hooked (e.g, making a lion’s mane dimensional and fuzzy). To be blunt, I find a Frost-pattern hooked rug without extensive idiosyncratic embellishments boring, uninteresting, mundane, unexciting, etc. My guess is that in the long run a Frost pattern hooked rug will ultimately have no more value than paint by numbers art has today. But then, that’s my opinion.
Now, in contrast, consider the two rugs in Figure 9-67. Both are in fact absolutely exquisite examples of American folk art. Were you to find such a rug that dated to the late 19th or even the early 20th century, it will cost you (or rather, should cost you) a pile of Ben Franklin’s – more than ten and possibly more than twenty. There’s a problem, though, with the two shown here – they’re not old. Both were made by Peggy Teich, who began her rug hooking in the early 1980s and thus neither rug can be older than thirty years or so.
Fig. 9-67: Two Peggy Teich Hooked Rugs
Peggy isn’t making fakes – she signs her rugs, has a website devoted to her art, and is correspondingly proud of her work. And fortunately, if you want to decorate with one of her creations, you won’t have to write a four digit check to own it. But what guarantee do you have that someone won’t, after somehow removing Peggy’s name from the back, try to market one of her creations as old, offering it to you at the “bargain basement” price of, say, $500? Well, here’s the answer. First, for legitimate antique rugs of this artistic quality, $500 is too cheap, so the price alone should alert you to a problem. A rug reminiscent of the one above with a rooster sold at auction in 2010 for $3,400 while one with a cat equivalent in folkiness to the one above was auctioned in 2012 for $2,400. A second clue is provided by the fact that the wool in antique or vintage rugs as well as Peggy’s isn’t color-fast. That means, among other things, that it will fade with long enough exposure to the light (and also run if you get it wet, so be careful especially if you own pets). So not only will the upside of a hooked rug, whether hung on the wall or laid out on the floor, soil more quickly than the backside, the colors will also fade more quickly. Thus, all you need do is compare the front and the back, and if there’s no difference in color, then beware since you’re then almost certainly looking at a post WWII creation! To see what I mean, consider Figure 9-68 which shows both the front and back of a rather ordinary 1930s rug and pay particular attention to the pink. You won’t find this variation in color in one of Peggy’s rugs and you won’t find it in any rug made after, say, 1950 either.
Fig. 9-68: Comparison of Back to Front on a 1930s Hooked Rug
As a further clue to age – but only a clue and not definitive — consider the two legitimate antique rugs in Figures 9-69a and 9-69b. Both clearly fall into the folk art category and both are old. But which is the oldest? A mere inspection of these two images is unlikely to answer that question, but now consider Figure 9-69c. The top part of this figure shows a section of the rug in Figure 9-69a right beneath the rear feet of the horse, whereas the bottom part of Figure 9-69c shows the section of the green field of the rug in Figure 9-69b where there’s a snag in the fiber. See the difference? OK, no more guessing. The rug in Figure 9-69a is hooked with rag whereas the green area of the rug in Figure 9-69b is hooked with a more contemporary looking wool or yarn. That suggests that the first rug is older than the second – quite possibly late 19th century versus 1930s. Of course, the differential fading of the green wool in Figure 9-69c suggests that the rug in Figure 9-69b does have age even if not as much as the rug in 9-69a.
Fig. 9-69a: Folk Art Hooked Rug
Fig. 9-69b: Yet Another Folk Art Hooked Rug
Fig. 9-69c: Close Up of Hooking Material
Aside from aesthetics and age there’s one other dimension to consider: Condition. Condition includes the issue of fading, where as noted, you want some but not too much since too much can wholly undermine a rug’s aesthetic appeal. With respect to other aspects of condition, there are five things to look out for here. The first is general wear … is the wool worn because it spent years being walked on so that the loops are now frayed ends? If so, it’s probably best to simply stay away from the piece since there’s no restoration possible short of rehooking the whole bloody thing. Second, have any of the colors (especially reds) run when the rug got wet (and, as I’ve already hinted, dog and cat urine can do horrid things to a hooked rug)? If so, then again, stay away … colors that run cripple a rug’s value and the only potential restoration is to re-hook the discolored area (and good luck getting colors to match). Less problematical and actually quite common is the rug that’s begun to fray at the edges such as the rug in Figures 9-65a. Two solutions are available: Trim the frayed edge or sew on a thin unobtrusive binding. Naturally, fraying hardly adds to a rug’s value, but it doesn’t detract precipitously, so don’t run away if its aesthetics otherwise appeal to you. Fourth, since the majority of hooked rugs use wool, it may easily have served at a banquet for moths where such damage manifests itself as bare spots that allow one to see the background burlap (burlap is to a moth what liver or green veggies are for little kids). A moth’s culinary pleasures are illustrated in Figure 9-70, but for someone with a good supply of old wool, this is perhaps the easiest restoration possible since it would merely require filling in those small bare areas by re-hooking. Finally, as I stated initially, old burlap dries out, cracks and easily rips (thus, the last thing you want to do to an antique hooked rug is fold it – if it’s to be shipped, it should be rolled). This is not all that problematical for anyone with experience in hooking rugs and it isn’t uncommon for the backside of an old rug to look like an old inner tube from a 1930s Plymouth. But if you have no experience here, be warned that restorers aren’t cheap (unless she’s a very close and dear friend).
Fig. 9-70: The Little Buggers Had a Picnic
Admittedly, the images of hooked rugs shown here are anything but classic or what a collector might deem notable examples. To see what I mean, do what I told you to do from the start … get a copy of Joel and Kate Kopp’s book. If that doesn’t make you drool, see a doctor – there’s something out of kilter in your bodily functions. Rugs of a sort shown there are unlikely to ever show up at a flea market or even an estate sale for that matter. You’ll have a better chance of finding one that classifies as out of the ordinary only at a place like the NYC Pier Show. But then, be prepared to write a giant check to own it. I’m not saying that miracles don’t happen, but in all my years, the closest I’ve come to a “miracle” is the rug in Figure 9-71. Now don’t get me wrong – this is a great rug. It’s early as American folk art rugs go and made in an especially uncommon way (bias shirred wherein the strips of wool are folded in half with the crease sewn down to the backing so that the edges stand on edge). And lo and behold I did find it at a local flea market (unfortunately by someone who knew its approximate value). But it’s the only such rug I’ve ever found.
Fig. 9-71: A rare Bias Shirred Rug
Just because rugs of any appreciable quality seem to lay beyond my ability to find them doesn’t mean of course that you might not have better luck. So to see what the possibilities are, the three rugs in the figures below, all currently on display at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California should give you a taste for the upper reaches of possibilities. The first is a bias shirred rug that makes the one I found look … well, second rate. Of course, keep in mind that it is in a museum after all. If you find one akin to the hooked rug in the second figure below, count yourself blessed. It sold at auction for a final bid in excess of $30,000. Perhaps, then, you should settle for a rug such as the third one below … a definite step down from the thirty thousand dollar example, but still damned good and still warranting a space in a museum. Of course, if you inherited a bunch from daddy or grandpa, you might shoot for the rug in Figure 9-72d, which was actually offered for sale at a recent Connecticut antiques show by the Pennsylvania dealer Steven Still.
Fig. 9-72a: The Huntington’s Bias Shirred Example
Fig. 9-72b: The Huntington’s c. 1830 Hooked Rug Masterpiece
Fig. 9-72c: Brilliantly Colored Hooked Rug Beauty
Fig. 9-72d: A Masterpiece That’s Yours for $75,000
All of this might leave you in something of a quandary. Suppose you want something better than the ordinary … better even that, say, the two rugs in Figures 9-69a and 9-69b, but where you aren’t prepared to stage a midnight break-in to a museum to acquire the likes of Figure 9-72a or 9-72b (or a bank to get the juice to buy one outright at some show or upscale New York auction). What can you expect to find at an antique show that might only set you back “only” a thousand or two. Well, Figures 9-73a through 9-73d offer some examples of rugs that did in fact appear at various shows that perhaps might appeal to you, although the last one would surely stretch your budget a bit. Minimally at least these examples show that not all the great ones are locked up in museums.
Fig. 9-73a: Classic Folk Art Hooked Rug
Fig. 9-73b: Surely The Product of Some Imagination
Fig. 9-73c: Hope You Like Birds and Horses
Fig. 9-73d: If You Don’t Like “Busy” You Won’t Like This One