“What’s in a Name?”
That’s the question asked by an exhibition of “inscribed quilts" at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum.
The answer: plenty. In fact, a lot more than the simple signatures would indicate.
Some of the information about the names can be obtained from the quilts. But much has been gathered by volunteer genealogists who, from the quilts, have uncovered family histories, stories of churches and organizations and glimpses into 150 years of American culture.
The exhibition is divided into three sections -- family and community quilts, fundraising/group quilts and celebrity autograph quilts. Each type is fascinating, and each quilt tells a story.
The inscribed quilt, which lists names of family and community members, arose in the 1840s, about the same time as collecting autographs in books became very popular, said Curator Jonathan Gregory.
So the exhibition’s signature piece is “The Wister Family Tree Quilt” of that era. It contains a literal family tree along with names of the Quaker organizations to which Sarah Wister belonged and her “free the slaves” political statement.
The best story in the show is of Marcy Jane Bancroft Blair, a traveling seamstress who lived in New York in the mid 1800s. Little was known of her before research began. Through those efforts, a box containing 41 years of diaries was found on the farmstead where she was living, and her story, which included stitching remnants from sewing jobs she had done into the quilt, was revealed.
“If the quilt didn’t exist, I don’t think anyone would have discovered the story of this ordinary woman in the 1850s who was so important to her family and was an independent woman in a time when that was not common," said Curator Carolyn Ducey. “We look at history in broad sweeps. With this quilt, you see a specific story.”
Among the most compelling of the quilts is the rough, made-from-feedsacks Harris family quilt from about 1927. Made by Susa Hale Harris, it traces the family from Papa’s birth in 1853 to his death in 1927, with squares devoted to each child, grandchildren stitched in between and carried by the powerful story of a search for a son killed in World War II.
The family section also includes a diaristic quilt by Ina Poulson of Crofton, who from 1936 to 1938 put together the signatures of family and community members, Sunday school students and high schoolers who boarded with her. It is one of two Nebraska quilts in the show.
The other Nebraska piece is one of the fundraising/group quilts done in 1921 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the University of Nebraska’s Palladin Literary Society, with the signatures embroidered in red at diamond-like angles. But it remains unclear why the quilt was made.
In contrast, researchers found out all the details of a Double Nine Patch quilt created for the Lutheran Church at Bailey’s Corner in Trumbull County, Ohio. Quilts were used to raise money beginning with the Civil War, and the Ladies Aid Society of the church made $61.75 from their effort.
A 1926 quilt from the Garrett Grange of Lewis County, Mo., raised $172 in donations from the 862 people whose signatures appear in pinwheels across the fabric, and another $51 when it was sold.
An 1879 fundraising quilt also doubles as a celebrity quilt with signatures from Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes, cartoonist Thomas Nast, women’s suffragist Frances Willard and a “facsimile” copy of Abraham Lincoln’s autograph. The quilt also contains many signatures of ministers and others associated with the Methodist Church. But its purpose and origins remain unknown.
About a century later, Mina Kuthe of Chicago sent out 200 letters to politicians, athletes, actors, media and other celebrities containing a diamond of cloth for their signatures. She got an astounding 150 back and put them together in “The All American Signature Quilt,” a bicentennial project.
That quilt is a fascinating time capsule, cleverly designed in signature groups -- a row of Chicago broadcasters near the top, entertainers near the bottom and President Richard Nixon and his family in the center.
Nixon’s one of three presidents on the quilt, joined by Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. His Watergate legacy also turns up on the fabric with signatures from Sen. Sam Ervin, Judge John Sirica and secretary Rose Mary Woods, who took the fall for the 18½-minute gap in one of the critical White House tapes.
Tennis players Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs are together forever on the quilt, as are baseball’s Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron. Jackie Gleason, Carol Burnett, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Lemmon, Liberace and Angela Lansbury are among the entertainers on the quilt. Sonny Bono is there as well, along with Chastity Bono, who now is Chaz.
Most of those names still are known, making the Bicentennial quilt instantly accessible. But the other quilts in the exhibition are just as important in their own ways, displaying that what’s in a name is far more than just letters and identification.