the rambling boy
The stories quilts can tell
By LONN TAYLOR
This is the time of year when heavy boxes full of new books about Texas arrive at my house, because I serve as a judge in several state-wide book contests. This year’s boxes included an outstanding book about quilts, Katherine Jean Adams’s Comfort and Glory: Two Centuries of American Quilts from the Briscoe Center, just out from the University of Texas Press. It illustrates 115 quilts from the University’s Winedale Quilt Collection and includes 115 well-researched essays, one for each quilt. The essays were written by Adams, who has been working with Briscoe Center’s quilt collection since 1995.
This remarkable collection, housed at the University of Texas at Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History, originated with 17 19th-century American quilts donated by Houston collector and philanthropist Ima Hogg to the University’s Winedale Historical Center in 1966. I became the curator of that collection in 1970, and I remember rolling those quilts on acid-free paper cores and wrapping them with linen to protect them from exposure to sunlight and mud-daubers, much to Miss Ima’s displeasure – she wanted all of them to remain continually on view. The collection has now grown to over 500 quilts, many of them with Texas associations. Adams has winkled out the histories of most of them and her essays make fascinating reading.
A typical entry is the one on page 103 about Amanda Hammonds’s Lone Star quilt, which she made at the age of 18 in 1858 while living with her parents and siblings in Rusk County, Texas. The quilt is striking: an assertive red star on a white field framed by 14 square borders in red, white, and blue. The quilt is trimmed on two sides by an outer border of curved stems, leaves, and berries; the other two sides are bare.
Adams’s research revealed that after the Civil War, Amanda and her husband, George Linn, joined a group of Texans who formed a colony in Brazil. The quilt went to Brazil with them, was shipwrecked with them off the coast of Cuba, was salvaged and continued to Brazil and returned to Texas with them when, disillusioned, they came home and settled in Navarro County.
The quilt passed to Amanda’s daughter Daisy when Amanda died in 1909, and Daisy and her husband took it with them when they moved to Los Angeles in the 19-teens. In 1946 the widowed and childless Daisy decided to return her mother’s quilt to Texas. She packaged it up and mailed it to Governor Coke Stevenson, who turned it over to the Texas Memorial Museum, from whence it came to the Briscoe Center.
Now here is the kicker. One edge of the quilt has been repaired by being stitched up on a primitive sewing machine. Adams’s research turned up a list of the colonists who accompanied the Linns to Brazil, compiled by one of the colonists. The Linns are on the list, and then at the bottom the writer added this note: “I remember three more names. Sailor Smith and Mr. Croney and an old maid. I forget her name but she had had a sewing machine, the first I ever saw. She was with the Linns I think.” Adams is reasonably sure that it was the old maid’s sewing machine that repaired the Linn’s quilt, and she includes a photograph of a portable hand-powered sewing machine from the 1860s with the entry.
Quilts can be made in timeless patterns, but they can also exemplify the times in which they were made. Amanda Hammonds’s Lone Star quilt expresses the optimism of the young state, only recently an independent republic. Effie Roe’s tobacco sack quilt on page 232 is the perfect metaphor for the hard times of the Depression. Roe, who lived on a farm in Bastrop County, did not have enough money to buy cloth for a quilt, but someone in her family bought tobacco. Roe made a quilt by stitching together 576 cotton Bull Durham tobacco sacks, each one measuring 2 ½ by 3 ½ inches. Before piecing them together she took the drawstring out of each one, washed the sack, dyed it brown, blue, gold, or green, and stuffed it with cotton.
Minnie Rucker of Franklin, Texas, celebrated the nomination of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his running mate, John Nance Garner of Texas, in the summer of 1932 by making the quilt pictured on page 180. It has an 8-pointed red, white, and blue star in the center, surmounted by the embroidered words “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You.” Below the star are the additional words “Garner 1932 Democrats Roosevelt.” Their order leaves no doubt about who the motto was pointed at. According to Adams’s research, Rucker mailed the quilt to the new vice president the day after the election, and Garner instructed his wife to write her a thank you letter, which was published in the Franklin newspaper.
In a few cases the documentation for a quilt is beyond Adams’s reach. A red and white quilt in a pattern known as Burgoyne Surrounded, pictured on page 58, came to the collection from the descendant of a family that once owned a plantation in Louisiana, where the quilt was supposedly made before the Civil War. The donor told Adams that her grandmother had a trunk full of letters, business records, and household accounts from that plantation, which she remembered reading when she was in high school, but that another family member had subsequently used them to make art collages, and exposure to sunlight had rendered them unreadable.
Adams’s book also provides an insight into the world of late 20th-century quilters and collectors, the founders of the modern quilting revival. The Briscoe Center has acquired not only quilts but the papers and libraries of several modern quilt enthusiasts, including Kathleen H. McCrady of Austin, known for the Quilt History Study Halls she held in her backyard studio, and Joyce Gross of Mill Valley, California, long-time publisher of the Quilters’ Journal and one of the organizers of the American Quilt Study Group. The Gross collection at the Briscoe includes 170 quilts, including one pictured on p. 182 made in the 1930s by a Prescott, Arizona woman named Emma Andres. According to Adams’s essay, Andres worked in her father’s cigar store until his death, and then she turned the store into the Happiness Museum, where she displayed her quilts. That’s a museum I’d like to visit.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.