Finding America's participatory spirit in our quilt collection

Americans have often banded together for the common good. That could mean marching on the National Mall to protest injustice or organizing volunteer fire companies to rescue people and property—action-packed forms of participation that clearly caused ripples of change across society. But "participation" for the greater good can also mean a Sunday school sewing circle in Augusta, Maine, piecing together a quilt that would warm and comfort soldiers in Civil War hospitals.

This year, the museum is highlighting how participation—people joining together to accomplish shared goals—shapes many aspects of American life, from our democracy to our culture. Since the nation's founding, everyday Americans have changed the world around them by joining with others to participate in clubs, associations, campaigns, and movements big and small—many with diverse and sometimes opposing viewpoints. Using the museum's collections, we'll investigate the countless ways that ordinary Americans participate in causes of all types. On our journey, we'll explore diverse objects in American history, from March of Dimes ephemera to the colorful pins, hats, and bumper stickers we use to signal our support for political campaigns. We'll also examine objects (like this Ku Klux Klan sheet music) that remind us that the participatory spirit can serve all types of causes, even those that aim to exclude, discriminate, or oppress others, when there are different visions of the "common good."

Why start with quilts and other textiles? For one, most of us appreciate a warm quilt in January. Second, I recently had the opportunity to see this 152-year-old quilt when it was briefly out of storage (textiles are sensitive to light and spend most of their time off display) and was deeply touched by its story, a great example of participation in American history.

Photo of quilt

Black and white photo of handwritten message on quilt fabric

The American army had only 17,000 enlisted men and officers at the end of 1860. Just six months later, the Union and Confederate armies numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Outfitting the armies with uniforms, blankets, shoes, and other equipment took the combined efforts of industrial production and voluntary labor by what amounted to another army of women and girls on the home fronts.

Photo of quilt

Northern women, following a strong tradition of community philanthropy related to church groups and activism such as the anti-slavery movement, quickly organized a central clearing house for the contributions of volunteers. The U.S. Sanitary Commission and its many branches and sister organizations channeled the energies of many women into productive and efficient supply of necessities and comforts for the Union army and navy.

Document with typed text and black-and-white sketch of soldier on stretcher being carried by other soldiers overseen by nurses. Entering tent. Text: "Metropolitan Fair, for the US Sanitary Commision. Receiving Depot, 2 Great Jones Street, New York, 1864. A Great Exhibition called the Metropolitan Fair, will be opened in the city of New York, March 28th, 1864. The proceeds of the sales to be for the benefit of the Sanitary Commission."

Southern women, too, banded together to sew and cook for their menfolk, but with fewer large towns and a more scattered population, the Confederacy did not evolve a centralized support network. Still, both North and South, women and girls sewed and knitted—skills all females learned in early childhood in the mid-19th century—in groups large and small, in families, and alone.

Photo of quilt

The quilt is just one of the many textiles in our collections that illustrates how ordinary Americans have changed the world by joining together, participating in clubs, associations, campaigns, and movements big and small.

Follow along this week as we share more textiles from our collections that relate to participation. Two of my favorites include World War I cocktail napkins with coats of arms of Allied nations embroidered by French women and sold in America through the Society for the Employment of Women in France and stories of cultural identity found in Chinese American clothing worn by the family of Lee B. Lok. To follow the conversation, check out our #AmericaParticipates website as well as our posts on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Tumblr

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department. Patri O'Gan, Jordan Grant, Madelyn Shaw, Doris Bowman, Virginia Eisemon, and Karen Thompson contributed to this blog post.