This intriguing quilt, “Solar System,” was made by Ellen Harding Baker (1847-1886), an intellectually ambitious Iowa wife and mother. It came to the National Museum of American History in 1983, a gift from her granddaughters.
The maker, Sarah Ellen Harding, was born in Ohio or Indiana, in 1847, and married Marion Baker of Cedar County, Iowa, on October 10, 1867. In the 1870s they moved to Johnson County, where Marion had a general merchandise business in Lone Tree. Ellen had seven children before she died of tuberculosis on March 30, 1886.
The wool top of this applique quilt is embellished with wool-fabric applique, wool braid, and wool and silk embroidery. The lining is a red cotton-and-wool fabric and the filling is of cotton fiber. The design of this striking and unusual quilt resembles illustrations in astronomy books of the period. Included in the design is the appliqued inscription, “Solar System,” and the embroidered inscription, “E.H. Baker.” Mrs. Baker probably began this project in 1876, as per the “A.D.1876” in the lower right corner.
The “Solar System” quilt was probably completed in 1883 when an Iowa newspaper reported that “Mrs. M. Baker, of Lone Tree, has just finished a silk quilt which she has been seven years in making.” The article went on to say that the quilt “has the solar system worked in completely and accurately. The lady went to Chicago to view the comet and sun spots through the telescope that she might be very accurate. Then she devised a lecture in astronomy from it.” This information was picked up the by the New York Times (September 22, 1883).
The large object in the center of the quilt is clearly the Sun, and the fixed Stars are at the outer edges. Around the Sun are the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Moon, and Mars. Not shown are the two moons of Mars that were first seen, at the U.S. Naval Observatory in 1877. The four curious clumps beyond Mars represent the asteroids. The first asteroid (Ceres) had been found in 1801, and with the proliferation of ever more powerful telescopes, ever more objects came into view. Then there is Jupiter with its four moons first seen by Galileo, and Saturn with its rings. The six moons orbiting Uranus are somewhat confusing, as astronomers did not agree on the actual number. Neptune has the one moon discovered by an English astronomer in 1846, shortly after the planet itself was seen.
The large item in the upper left of the quilt is surely the naked-eye comet that blazed into view in the spring of 1874, and that was named for Jerome Eugene Coggia, an astronomer at the Observatory in Marseilles. Americans too took note. Indeed, an amateur astronomer in Chicago put a powerful telescope on the balcony of the Interstate Industrial Exposition Building (1872-1892), a large glass structure recently erected along the shore of Lake Michigan, and offered to show Coggia’s Comet to citizens of and visitors to the Windy City.
The New York Times described Mrs. Baker’s intention to use her quilt for pedagogical purposes as “somewhat comical”---but it was clearly behind the times. Most Americans knew that women were teaching astronomy and other sciences in grammar schools, high schools and colleges, in communities across the country. Mrs. Baker, for her part, may have been inspired by the fact that the famed Maria Mitchell, professor at Vassar College, had brought four students and piles of apparatus, to Burlington, Iowa, to observe a solar eclipse in August 1869.
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