National Quilt CollectionAbout
About the National Quilt Collection
The National Quilt Collection (view a video tour) contains both quilts made for functional, utilitarian purposes as bedding, and others made mainly for decorative purposes. The parlor throws or crazy quilts of the latter part of the 19th century, as well as more recent art quilts, are examples of quilts as ornamental objects. The Collection includes quilts that were made to exhibit needlework skills and were entered in contests or shown at fairs where they won prizes.
Many quilts in the Collection have inscriptions, a practice particularly popular after the mid-19th century, and are a textile record that expresses the interests and feelings of the makers. Symbolic motifs found on quilts attest to patriotic views, honor fraternal organizations or relate to major historical events. Some quilts were made to memorialize events—several in the Collection commemorate the 1876 Centennial by using souvenir fabrics in the construction, and another incorporates World War II slogans.
There are quilts in the Collection that represent both domestic household production and the growth of quilting as a commercial venture. Some of the earlier quilts were made of fabrics that were woven and dyed at home. Across the Collection, quilts contain fabrics that represent changes in the textile industry such as in the fabric printing process. Hand-sewn and quilted examples can be compared and contrasted to machine-sewn quilts as the availability of home sewing machines expanded. Other quilt examples utilized commercial patterns or were made from kits that could be purchased, a quilt marketing phenomenon that began in earnest in the early 20th century.
While many of the quilts were made by women, the Collection also has examples, some as early as the mid-19th century, that were made by men. The Collection incorporates quilts from various ethnic groups and social classes, for quilts are not the domain of a specific race or class, but can be a part of anyone’s heritage and treasured as such. Whether of rich or humble fabrics, large in size or small, expertly crafted or not, well-worn or pristine, quilts in the National Quilt Collection provide a textile narrative that contributes to America’s complex and diverse history.
The National Quilt Collection, part of the Division of Home and Community Life textiles collection at the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, had its beginnings in the 1890s. Three quilts were included in a larger collection of 18th- and 19th- century household and costume items donated by John Brenton Copp of Stonington, Connecticut. From this early beginning, the Collection has grown to more than 500 quilts and quilt-related items, mainly of American origin, with examples from many states, including Alaska and Hawaii. Most of the contributions have come to the Museum as gifts, and many of those are from the quilt-makers’ families. Quilt donations continue to be accepted in areas where the Collection has needs.
"National Quilt Collection - About" 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
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- Data Source
- National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center