National Quilt CollectionVideos
The National Quilt Collection, part of the Division of Home and Community Life's Textile Collection at the National Museum of American History, had its beginnings in the 1890s. Three quilts were included in a larger collection of 18th- and 19th- century household and costume items from one Stonington, Connecticut family. From this early beginning, the Collection has grown to more than 400 quilts and quilt-related items, mainly of American origin. Most of the contributions have come to the Museum as gifts, many from the quilt-makers' families. The quilts are part of a lasting material record of the American experience, and are preserved in perpetuity for all Americans. As few of the quilts are on exhibition at any given time, this film provides an overview, in quilt storage, of the behind-the-scenes activities of the staff and volunteers as they work with this rich and interesting collection.
Quilts were made primarily by women, and have played a large part in revealing evidence of the circumstances of their lives: economic levels, the goods available to them and their increasing consumerism, their thrift and extravagance, the opportunity for self-expression in an acceptable activity, their schooling and family education and instruction, their group activities, personal identity and reward, and skills.
Some of the quilts reflect very personal interests and concerns; others express political and societal concerns such as patriotism, anti-slavery sentiments, war and peace. Many quilts in the collection have inscriptions that leave us a textile record expressing the interests and feelings of the makers. Others provided the makers an opportunity for artistic expression in a practical endeavor.
Altogether, the collection shows the progression and notable phases in American quilt-making; provides a history of materials available to the quilt makers and of the techniques practiced; illustrates many social, cultural, technological, and economic influences affecting quilts made and used in America; and contributes to the illumination of American life, family, community, and country.
The Division of Home and Community Life continues its long term mission to maintain and develop research-based collections that document and preserve American stories through family, community, biographical/individual oral histories and other materials. The quilt collection, for the most part, represents the middle class and affluent of the eastern half of the country, rather than a potpourri of the widely diverse population of the nation. We should like to encourage viewers to come forward with quilts and other needlework, to donate or to be recorded, with histories that contribute to our awareness of the rich diversity of the people who came to live here, the traditions they brought and carry on, and the ways in which they adopted the endeavors already here. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This virtual tour was made possible by a grant from Patty Stonesifer and Michael Kinsley through The Seattle Foundation.
The gift was made in honor of Mrs. Frances Quigley.
Smithsonian National Quilt Collection: An Overview
Smithsonian National Quilt Collection: Quilt Scene Investigation
In the Textile Analysis Lab, Kathy Dirks demonstrates how technical analyses of quilts with scientific equipment is used for identification and verification
Smithsonian National Quilt Collection: Quilt Care
Kathy Dirks shows the quilt storage room, and the cabinets and materials used in housing the collection.
Smithsonian National Quilt Collection: Machine Quilting
Barbara Janssen shows the patent model of a Grover & Baker sewing machine and explains how the stitch it produced helped to determine the probable date of a quilt in the collection.
Smithsonian National Quilt Collection: Civil War Sunday School Quilt
Virginia Eisemon discusses the history of a quilt made by a Maine Sunday school class for the benefit of hospitalized Union soldiers
Smithsonian National Quilt Collection: Lydia Finnell's Star Quilt
Sheryl DeJong identifies the techniques and stitches in a late 19th-century crazypatch quilt and discusses the availability of materials, patterns, and instructions at the time.
"National Quilt Collection - Videos" showing 1 items.
- Harriet Powers, an African American farm woman of Clarke County, Georgia, made this quilt in about 1886. She exhibited it at the Athens Cotton Fair of 1886 where it captured the imagination of Jennie Smith, a young internationally-trained local artist. Of her discovery, Jennie later wrote: "I have spent my whole life in the South, and am perfectly familiar with thirty patterns of quilts, but I had never seen an original design, and never a living creature portrayed in patchwork, until the year 1886, when there was held in Athens, Georgia, a 'Cotton-Fair,' which was on a much larger scale than an ordinary county fair, as there was a 'Wild West' show, and Cotton Weddings; and a circus, all at the same time. There was a large accumulation farm products--the largest potatoes, tallest cotton stalk, biggest water-melon! Best display of pickles and preserves made by exhibitor! Best display of seeds &c and all the attractions usual to such occasions, and in one corner there hung a quilt-which 'captured my eye' and after much difficulty I found the owner, a negro woman, who lives in the country on a little farm whereon she and husband make a respectable living . . . . The scenes on the quilt were biblical and I was fascinated. I offered to buy it, but it was not for sale at any price."
- Four years later, Mrs. Powers, at the urging of her husband because of hard times, offered to sell the quilt, but Miss Smith's "financial affairs were at a low ebb and I could not purchase." Later Jennie sent word that she would buy the quilt if Harriet still wanted to dispose of it. Harriet "arrived one afternoon in front of my door in an ox-cart with the precious burden in her lap encased in a clean flour sack, which was still further enveloped in a crocus sack. She offered it for ten dollars--but--I only had five to give." Harriet went out to consult her husband and reported that he said she had better take the five dollars.
- Mrs. Powers regretfully turned over her precious creation, but only after explaining each of the eleven panels of the design, which Jennie Smith recorded. Briefly, the subjects are Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a continuance of Paradise with Eve and a son, Satan amidst the seven stars, Cain killing his brother Abel, Cain goes into the land of Nod to get a wife, Jacob's dream, the baptism of Christ, the crucifixion, Judas Iscariot and the thirty pieces of silver, the Last Supper, and the Holy Family.
- In her narrative about the quilt, artist Jennie revealed why she was so taken with it: "Her style is bold and rather on the impressionists order while there is a naievete of expression that is delicious." In recent times, historians have compared Harriet's work to textiles of Dahomey, West Africa.
- The Bible quilt is both hand- and machine-stitched. There is outline quilting around the motifs and random intersecting straight lines in open spaces. A one-inch border of straight-grain printed cotton is folded over the edges and machine-stitched through all layers.
- Harriet Powers was born a slave near Athens, Georgia, on October 29, 1837. At a young age, she married Armstead Powers and they had at least nine children. Some time after the Civil War, they became landowners. Eventually, circumstances forced them to sell off part of the land but not their home. The date of Harriet's death, Jan. 1, 1910, was recently discovered on her gravestone in Athen's Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery.
- Currently not on view
- date made
- Powers, Harriet
- ID Number
- catalog number
- accession number
- Data Source
- National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center