“Lasting Treasures”: The Quilt Collection at FWMoA

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

And a time to sew  . . .

Acquired in 1992, FWMoA’s collection of Amish quilts is well known and these beautiful and functional works of art are often exhibited for public viewing. What is not so well known, however, is that our quilt collection also includes several other quilts that were not created by the skilled seamstresses of the Old Order Amish communities of northern Indiana.

Detail from Ocean Wave Quilt, by Mrs. John J. Raber, 1940. FWMoA 1992.

This 1992 purchase of 55 Amish quilts from collector David Pottinger started our quilt collection, and since then several more quilts have come to us either by purchase or donation. Among them are a tiny 21” square quilt of circles made of velvet pieces that was exhibited in FWMoA’s American Quilts in 2018. Its history and maker are not known, but it is believed to be from the Victorian era when velvet was a popular quilting material.

Maker Unknown, Victorian Circles Quilt, 1884, FWMoA 2003.

We also have a Trip Around the World or Postage Stamp quilt from the 1920s, a quilt pattern that was made from tiny squares of 1” or less.  Our collection also includes a Civil War era peony design quilt made by Harriet Riddle, widow of Captain John S. Riddle of the 127th regiment, Illinois Volunteers, Company C. In addition, we also possess more modern creations from the 1940s, including a quilt of pastel colored butterflies in an Art Deco inspired pattern.

Our most recent quilt collection addition is an artifact of an interesting bit of American history. In 1933, at the lowest point of the Great Depression, the Chicago World’s Fair – A Century of Progress – included a quilt contest sponsored by the Sears, Roebuck and Company. Sears was a major vendor of sewing machines, fabrics, and sewing supplies. The grand prize was $1,000 – an undreamed of sum in 1933 for Americans desperate for work and income. Over 27,000 quilts were entered in the contest, and experts say this amounted to one quilt submitted for every 2,000 American women. The quilt we were given was made by two Indiana seamstresses whose descendant Marianne Darr Norman wished to share this family story — an American story — with our visitors. The mother and daughter team stitched a quilt for consideration in the special category that featured the theme “A Century of Progress”. A prize of $200 was awarded to the quilters who most successfully portrayed the theme of the Fair. Marianne’s great grandmother, Cathryn Wolford of Warsaw and her daughter (Marianne’s great aunt), Cecile Finton of Laporte made a quilt with a hand-appliqued image of the magnificent Sears Roebuck building’s gleaming modern tower as the centerpiece.  This quilt joined thousands of others that included Fair images, patriotic themes, and futuristic designs suggested by the optimistic message of the Fair. Sadly, contrary to family lore, Cathryn and Cecile’s quilt did not win a prize. In fact, none of the Fair-themed quilts were awarded that special prize. Just before judging time, Sears replaced its panel of judges with a handful of more traditional quilt experts who did not approve of the new-fangled imagery and chose not to reward the quilters who had worked so hard to include this modern element. Even sadder, the grand prize was awarded to a well-to-do Kentucky woman who had hired a team of highly competent seamstresses to make her a quilt for the contest! She even signed the application stating that her quilt was made by her own hand, but according to an acquaintance, “Margaret Caden did not know which end of a needle to thread.”  There were regional prizes given, though, so not all was lost, and the bounty of 1933 Fair quilts is the art world’s gain. You can read more about them in Patchwork Souvenirs by Merikay Waldvogel and Barbara Brackman.

Another historically interesting quilt from our collection is Marie Daugherty Webster’s French Baskets with Peonies quilt. Marie Webster (1859-1956), a native of Wabash, Indiana and later resident of Marion, Indiana, did not begin quilting until the age of 50, yet she became a world known quilting celebrity!

Talented, creative, and industrious, Marie had wanted a college education, but was dissuaded from that path by family members who were afraid an eye affliction she suffered from would prevent her from succeeding in school. Nevertheless, she pursued an education in the classics, languages, and literature from tutors, her own travels, and a local priest, Father Hallinan. She had sewn since childhood, and at age 50, inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, designed and sewed her Rose of Sharon quilt. Upon urging from friends and family, she submitted her design to The Ladies Home Journal, a progressive and trend-setting publication with a circulation of a million and a half in 1910 – among the largest in the nation.  Editor Edward Bok was so taken with her design he requested several more patterns.  They were an instant hit with readers, and Marie’s quilting career was launched.  Design and production of patterns and kits became a family business that grew into the Practical Patchwork Company in Marion. Marie’s skills as a scholar and writer led to a request from Frank Doubleday, a good friend of Edward Bok, to write a book on the history of quilting.  Marie obliged and the resulting Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them was also a phenomenal success.

In 1990, Marie’s granddaughter, Rosalind Webster Perry, set in motion the efforts that saved her grandmother’s Marion home from demolition; and today it is a National Historic Landmark and the home of the Quilters Hall of Fame. Rosalind also launched a new edition of her grandmother’s book in 1990 and wrote a wonderful biography of her that is included with new notes, photographs, and an index. 

We’re proud to hold these treasures that represent the skills of American craftswomen and the comforts of home, family, and friends. And like Marie Daugherty Webster wrote of quilting in 1912, “The reward of the work lies, not only in the pleasure of doing, but also in the joy of possession – which can be passed on even to future generations, for a well-made quilt is a lasting treasure.”

Detail Hole in the Barn Door Quilt, by Mrs. Lydia Eash, 1903. FWMoA 1992.

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