1885 - 1886 Harriet Powers's Bible Quilt

Description
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.
Location
Currently not on view
Object Name
quilt
Object Type
Bible quilts
quilts
date made
1885-1886
quilter
Powers, Harriet
Physical Description
fabric, cotton (overall material)
thread, cotton (overall material)
filling, cotton (overall material)
Measurements
overall: 75 in x 89 in; 191 cm x 227 cm
place made
United States: Georgia, Clarke county
ID Number
TE*T14713
catalog number
T14713
accession number
283472
subject
Religion
Quilting
African American
Bible
Holy Family
Adam and Eve
Satan
Jesus Christ
Crucifixion
Last Supper
Textiles
National Treasures exhibit
Quilts
See more items in
Home and Community Life: Textiles
National Treasures exhibit
Quilts
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H M. Heckman
Publication title
Treasures of American History online exhibition
Publication author
National Museum of American History
Publication URL
http://americanhistory.si.edu/treasures
Additional Media

Visitor Comments

11/9/2012 12:21:11 PM
Sharon Howard
Why do you think the Smithsonian chose to display this quilt? What is the significance about the quilt? Is it important that to know that Powers was a former slave from rural Ga to appreciate the Bible quilt? Why or why not? Thank you Sharon Howard
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