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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Signature Quilts: Voting with their Needles

The Lake County Discovery Museum holds three signature quilts in its permanent collections, dating from 1891 - 1915.

Signature quilts became popular in the 1840s, in part due to early Victorian sentimentality and to mark special occasions such as marriages and births. A decade later, with westward migration, women followed their husbands into the American frontier and the quilts became a way to remember family and friends left behind.

Partial view of the "Quilt Treasures: Pieces of History" exhibition at the Lake County Discovery Museum, July 2 - September 25, 2011.

Quilts were sometimes used to publicly express women’s opinions. Nationally, prior to 1920, women were not allowed to vote, but these quilts were an acceptable form of self-expression. Women "voted with their needles" as a way to make their voices heard in political and social causes.

Signature quilts gave women recognition and a presence in society by the fact that their names appeared in ink and embroidery on quilts that were prominently displayed and often auctioned in fundraisers. At the time, men's names were most visible in society, and women were known as Mrs. So-and-So. Today, these quilts are valued as "documents" of the past for the individual and family names they have preserved. In some instances, a signature quilt may be the only record of a woman's name.

Section of signature quilt made by the Ladies’ Aid Society, Christian Church of Gurnee, Illinois, circa 1891-1892. LCDM 83.11.1

This quilt was made by the Ladies’ Aid Society of the Christian Church of Gurnee for a bazaar to raise funds to donate to causes such as missionary efforts. The ladies involved signed the names of their families, 147 names in all. The quilt blocks were machine-stitched and the layers quilted by hand. The signatures were signed in ink.

Detail from the Ladies' Aid Society signature quilt with the names of Lawson and Cook family members. (above)

The Ladies' Aid Society quilt was sold at a church bazaar to the Eddy family of Gurnee. Family names on quilt: Windel, Dillenbeck, Nottingham, Spaulding, Chamberlain, Waters, Allen, Crosby, Coykendall, Griffin, Stedman, Hollihan, Thompson, Gonyo, Mallory, Metcalf, Fuller, Bidwell, Drake, Sneesby, Sella, Rossbach, Sluman, Price, Finley, Price, Burns, Bacon, Allen, Munro, Chase, Washburn, Persons, Putnam, Hartley, Strang, Bracher, Cary, Gibbons, GaVigan, Peterson, Marsh, Smith, Brown, McGarva, Campbell, Phillips, Lisiecki, Mauston, Hay, Johnson, Champion, Bacon, Worth, Paddock, Mutaw, Lawson, Flood, Neal, Haggart, Maynard, Alexander, Stout, Harr, Wilson, Joslyn, Williams, Schauber, Knox.

A popular aesthetic for signature quilts became red needlework on a white background. It was immensely popular in the latter half of the 19th century.

A particularly successful use of "Redwork" is seen in this Red Cross Signature Quilt (above) from circa 1915. Photo by Mark Widhalm. (LCDM 70.75.7)

Lake County residents paid 10¢ to have their name embroidered on this quilt as a fundraiser for the American Red Cross. Americans aided the Allies in the war effort long before the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. Detail from the Red Cross Signature Quilt. Photo by Mark Widhalm.

There were several influences for the emergence of the red and white aesthetic, including the Japanese pavilion at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, and the popular use of “Turkey Red” dye from the madder plant which was colorfast.

Since the popularity of "Redwork" coincided with a renewed interest in signature quilts, and its golden age (1876-1910), it is not unusual to find red and white signature quilts. Carroll College Commemorative Signature Quilt (above), circa 1899-1905. (LCDM 98.14)

Little is known about this 8-point star signature quilt, found in a dresser in Waukegan. It may have been sold to benefit Carroll College (now Carroll University) in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The signers used the quilt to record marriages and one death. Signatures include Carroll College Professors Rankin, Ray, and Echleman. Detail of Carroll College quilt. (LCDM 98.14).

The quilts discussed in this blog are on display through September 25, 2011 in the museum's "Quilt Treasures: Pieces of History" exhibition. You can also purchase a beautiful set of notecards featuring some of the quilts. Only $14.95 for 20 cards, proceeds benefit the Friends of the Lake County Discovery Museum.

To order contact the museum's store manager, Alicia Fullerton: 847-968-3400 or

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