1885 - 1886 Harriet Powers's Bible Quilt

1885 - 1886 Harriet Powers's Bible Quilt

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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.
Object Name
Object Type
Bible quilts
date made
Powers, Harriet
Physical Description
fabric, cotton (overall material)
thread, cotton (overall material)
filling, cotton (overall material)
overall: 75 in x 89 in; 191 cm x 227 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H M. Heckman
African American
Holy Family
Adam and Eve
Jesus Christ
Last Supper
See more items in
Home and Community Life: Textiles
National Treasures exhibit
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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Although I didn't see it mentioned in the comments, the Smithsonian had this quilt copied by an overseas supplier years ago, just like it did several other quilts in its collection. So if you come across a reproduction...that's probably it. Workmanship will not be that great, as are materials. But it's still quite graphic, and these repros have become sought after. (The company had them made in at least two different sizes: twin and double/queen. Maybe more.)
Thank you Cindy for adding this very important wrinkle in the timeline of Harriet Power's quilt. I remember this discussion well with AQSG members.
A beautifully illustrated, and highly rated, children's book (ages 5-9) has been written about Ms. Powers and her quilt: "Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers' Journey from Slave to Artist".
What a wonderful example of Art and American History. A masterwork as are others by Harriet Powers (see MFA Boston online). ~ Thank you for sharing this fantastic Quilt.
I am in awe of Mrs. Powers. Having been brought up since age 5 attending church weekly, I could easily interpret several of the panels., I am appalled that so many people think they need a pattern to make a similar creation. The first quilts I ever remember were made by my great grandmother. Made entirely by hand. Made from scraps, mostly from printed cotton flour sacks. Many of the scraps were only a few inches wide, and all were irregular. That is called a pieced quilt. These pieces were leftover from her hand sewing shorts, shirts and sundresses for us children. She hand made her own dresses some of which were made of yard goods. Her undies were made from bleached flour sacks. She grew up near Mobile, As adult she lived in rural south Mississippi. Her little house had 1 main room and a small kitchen. She died in 1966. Does not sound like much had changed here in the deep South in the 80 odd years since Mrs Powers made her quilt and My great grannie making the most beautiful thing I ever owned. I used my quilt from childhood until well into adulthood. I am trying to say, although one was black and one was white, they were both very poor. They did not have patterns. Creative minds do not need patterns. I know they are both in Heaven and must be friends.
Mrs. Annie: I was honored to read your comments, your thought and verbiage touched my heart. I could imagine both your grannie and Mrs. Powers, respectfully enjoying the songs of angels and quilting. May they both rest in eternal peace.
I am interested in making a reproduction of this beautiful quilt and wonder what the fabrics looked like originally. I have read conflicting descriptions and wonder what information others may have on this subject. Thanks.
"I am not normally interested in Quilt construction, however I did find the story very interesting and really reminded me of the plight of being African American in this era. We have come along way baby. We no longer have to put up with segregation and we have an African American President. I only hope the future is more positive in this respect. Robert A. Babbitt Sr."
Mrs. Power's quilt presents bold abbreviated figures much like African figurative representation. I consider the quilt an excellent example of the African American aesthetic born from African and Western traditions.
I have a quilt with all of the same pictures on it but never knew what they represented.. It was purchased at a thrift store some years ago just because it appealed to me.
I have recently purchased a book about harriet powers and her quilts and learned that reproduction quilts had been produced in the 90s.
I just purchased the Bible quilt at a garage sale yesterday. and was curious about it. the only info I have is that "a grandma who was possibly Amish made it for her grand son who is now 23 yrs. old " maybe this pattern was made available for purchase several yrs. ago. ?
This might answer your question.http://www.quilts.com/quiltscout/the-quilt-scout-the-harriet-powers-bible-quilt.html
"Thank you for displaying the quilt. It is an important item of heritage, not only for black Americans, but for all Americans. It shows the slaves' internalized master-taught dependence on the Bible and on Christianity; it shows great artisan-ship, ingenuity, and use of materials. It shows the intrepid power of creativity and the will to document something that Harriet deemed very important, and was willing to spend a good amount of time and energy to create. I like to think it provided escape and solace. And yes, of course I think it's important to know that she was a former slave, for it gives a bigger and stronger meaning to the quilt's existence. "
"I am the Great-Great-Great-Great Grandson of Ms.Powers and it is an honor to show my children a part of there history dating so far back,being african american in this country it is hard to trace your roots,but to have a part of mines recorded in a national museum is without a doubt awsome."
The quilt iq beautiful. Is there a pattern of this quilt available any anywhere. I would love to make either of her quilts.ThanksNora
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 youSharon Howard
I think the refernce to her being a former slave is significant due to the cultural association between the symbols found on the quilt and similar symbols in West Africa. Once upon a time blacks were disconnected from the culture of their African ancestors or that culture was negated. The symbols found on me powers quilts are associated with African applique symbols and provide a connection to her African heritage. Hope this helps.

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