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Voices Spring-Summer 2006:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Piercing Together a Community: A Late Nineteenth-Century Friendship Quilt from Peterboro, New York” by Shirley Morgan here.
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Volume 32
Spring-Summer
2006
Voices

Piecing Together a Community: A Late Nineteenth-Century Friendship Quilt from Peterboro, New York by Shirley Morgan

Women’s history is often sparsely documented, but investigation of specific examples of material culture produced by women—such as quilts—can contribute significantly to local history and provide compelling stories about ordinary women. I researched an undocumented signature (or friendship) quilt top. Through genealogical research on the names inscribed on the quilt top, I was able to trace its origins to the rural community of Peterboro, New York, in the late nineteenth century. Further research into local history, combined with an examination of the quilt’s design, construction, and materials, led me to a theory about the identities of the quilter and the intended recipient. Both individuals were members of the Martindale family who resided in Peterboro. Using this friendship quilt as a focus revealed details about community life that typify the period, as well as numerous stories of both success and suffering experienced by women and their families. The quilt serves as an enduring record of women who might otherwise have remained invisible.

Antique quilt (left) and Kratt's reproduction (right)
The antique quilt (left) beside Kratt’s reproduction (right) at a 2004 quilt show in Saranac Lake. Photo: Scott Morgan

Judy Kratts, an accomplished quilter, purchased an old signature quilt top— not a finished quilt—in 1995 at an antique show in her hometown of Saranac Lake, New York. Like other signature quilts, this one bears forty handwritten names. After Kratts showed me the quilt, I was able to deduce that it was made in Peterboro in Madison County, New York, between August 11, 1890, and October 20, 1891. In researching the names on the quilt, many stories have unfolded.

Antique quilts are women’s folk art. They are wonderful records of the creativity of women who, in many cases, worked with a palette of mere scraps put aside through thrift. Teasing out the story written in the Peterboro quilt top began with researching the tradition of signature or friendship quilts, as this one should be called. Friendship quilts honored community by celebrating and preserving in cloth a record of some close-knit group of people. This quilting tradition emerged in the 1840s, coinciding with a fad for autograph albums. Reading a friendship quilt is somewhat like reading a diary, because it reveals traces of close and often complex relationships that go unnoted in other types of quilts.

Although the popularity of friendship quilts waned as the nineteenth century wore on, there was a revival in the 1880s just prior to the estimated date of the Peterboro quilt top. These pieced quilts, which were produced in large numbers during the middle part of the nineteenth century, bear inscriptions of names and often poems or a few words from the inscribers memorializing the connections between friends and family. Women made friendship quilts for sentimental reasons—expressly for the sake of remembrance—but these antique quilts also serve as historical records.

The quilt top that Kratts presented to me is a collage of fabric that represents, with its names, an active record of the history of Peterboro. Most of the names are women’s, which is significant because women are often invisible in the historical record. The quilt top was entirely undocumented, but using an online genealogy site, and with the help of Saranac Lake genealogist Carolyn Bulgey, I was able to establish the quilt’s provenance in Peterboro with relative ease, enhancing its historical value. And with the capable and generous help of Peterboro area historian Donna Dorrance Burdick, I estimated the date of construction as between August 11, 1890, and October 20, 1891, based on the maiden or married names of two of the women listed on the quilt top. The date span is consistent with the age of the most recent fabrics, and all of the individuals I have identified to date were alive at the estimated time of the quilt’s construction.

Quilt block signed by Aunt Libbie Taylor
Quilt block signed Aunt Libbie Taylor, the quilt's possible maker. Photo: Shirley Morgan

The village of Peterboro occupies a prominent page in the history of the New York abolition movement, since it was the home of reformer Gerrit Smith and a stage for abolition activism led by him, as well as an active stop on the Underground Railroad. Peterboro was also notable in religious reform and women’s rights. As it turns out, the Martindales—the family most prominent among the names on the quilt top— had ties to Gerrit Smith and his abolitionist activities. William Martindale was among a group of neighbors who worked closely with Gerrit Smith earlier in the nineteenth century (Friedman 1982, 97). Smith was a member of the Secret Six, a group that funded John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry (Oates 1970, 238). According to Donna Burdick, after John Brown’s arrest, members of the Martindale family hid weapons in the Martindale blacksmith shop in Peterboro, in case they needed to defend Gerrit Smith against arrest for his role in the raid. Gerrit Smith had been dead for about fifteen years by the time the quilt was made, but his imprint on the community of Peterboro has been enduring.

The quilt top provides a record of associations that documents Peterboro’s cultural history. The primary association appears to be family, spanning three generations. The names of Ruth Taylor Martindale, William’s wife, and other members of the extended Taylor–Martindale family occupy thirteen out of a total of forty name-blocks on the quilt. Six individuals share the Martindale surname, and there are also four Taylors, two of them dubbed “Aunt,” who were part of the extended family. Three of the grandchildren of Ruth and William Martindale appear on the quilt with other surnames. A second, smaller family constellation of four members is also represented among the quilt names. Except for a few who remain unidentified, the rest were all neighbors in Peterboro. That neighbors and friends should be included on a quilt having such a substantial family association is characteristic of nineteenth-century rural New York community life, where kinship networks encompassed neighbors, as well as family (Osterud 1991, 55–69).

Aside from a few small tears, the quilt top is in pristine condition and unfinished, with no backing or batting. Given its nearly perfect condition, this quilt top was never washed or used as a bed covering. We do not known why the quilt was never finished. There are many possible reasons a quilt might go unfinished: death or illness of the maker or death of the intended recipient, sudden dislocation, change of circumstance. Quilt historian Jane Bentley Kolter argues that many friendship quilts were backed and quilted long after they were pieced, and many others became keepsakes that were never quilted (1985, 59). The preservation of the Peterboro quilt top for over a century may serve as evidence that its primary intended function was as an heirloom.

Peterboro physician Dr. Louisa Downer, 1858-1929
Peterboro physician Dr. Louisa Downer, 1858–1929. Photo courtesy of Donna Dorrance Burdick, Smithfield town historian.
The quilt top, measuring seventy-two by eight-four inches, standard size for the three-quarter bed that was common during the period, is subtly colorful and pleasing in design. The pattern, a common one that originated in the 1840s and underwent a revival in the 1880s, was popularly called Chimney Sweep or one of several other names. The fabric and thread used in the quilt top are cotton. The varied assortment of printed calicoes and a few stripes and plaids were pieced with a background of a popular print of the era called shirting. This particular shirting has tiny red figures on an off-white ground. Although the contrasting color fabric is different in each block, the background fabric is the same throughout.


The Peterboro quilt top’s forty-two blocks (two carry no names) are hand-pieced, although the sewing machine had been introduced to American homes at mid-century. It was traditional with many, but certainly not all, friendship quilts for each individual to piece her own block, but this quilt top probably had only one sewer. Distinctive uneven stitching runs through all of the blocks. The stitching on the Peterboro quilt top is not the particularly fine handwork that is often found on antique quilts. The piecing together of the blocks is also inexact because of a lack of seam allowances, causing the corners of the design to be blunted. The quilt top might not have been intended to be an example of expert sewing skills, which were particularly important in an earlier era. Alternately, perhaps the sewing flaws point to an elderly maker whose eyesight was failing— or one who was unskilled, or young and inexperienced, or hurried.

The ink inscriptions on the quilt top are all in one hand. It was a common practice to ask a person with fine handwriting to do the inscriptions on a friendship quilt. Many signature quilts were designed as fundraisers, but fundraising quilts tended to include a much greater number of names than the mere forty on the Peterboro quilt top.

Although the quilt top was probably crafted by one individual, each person represented on the quilt top may have contributed scraps from personal clothing, as was traditional with friendship quilts. Gathering small scraps, such as these from clothing construction, typifies a tradition of thrift, but clothing remnants also triggered memories that were often quite emotional. During the nineteenth century, the need to preserve the memory of close relationships was particularly important, since personal bonds were often suddenly shattered by death or migration.

The oldest standing house in Peterboro
The oldest standing house in Peterboro, where some of the Martindales lived. Photo: Shirley Morgan
Fabric characteristics, such as color, approximate date, and design provide a number of clues about personal characteristics of fabric donors, such as age, wealth, and other circumstances. A block of bright red calico typical of children’s dress of the period (Lipsett 1985, 51; Fox 1995, 123) bears the name Willie Rich. Willie was indeed a small child at the time of the quilt top’s construction, a grandson of William Martindale. The colors in the quilt top are generally subdued, with no other reds, and half of the blocks contain shades of brown. The quilt block inscribed Mrs. Nettie Scully (a neighbor of the Martindales) contains scraps of a black fabric called a “mourning print.” Mrs. Scully’s husband died in 1889, a year or two before the quilt was made.

Four men’s names appear on the Peterboro quilt top, and the unadorned fabrics could very well have come from men’s clothing. Some older fabrics used in the quilt top, such as early hand-dyed and overprinted floral prints, reflect a habit of saving scraps over a long period, perhaps decades. The older fabrics might represent older individuals. In one case, an early yellow floral on indigo print is inscribed with the name of Aunt Libbie Taylor. Libbie Taylor was born in 1821 and was a sister-in-law of William Martindale.

Clues to different stations in life are revealed by comparing physician Louisa Downer’s fabric, a fine multicolored paisley print, to Mary Martindale’s plain navy and white yarn-dyed stripe that was patched together from tiny scraps too small for a whole piece of the design. Mary was the wife of Quincy H. Martindale, who had enlisted with his father William in the local Civil War regiment at the age of eighteen. Quincy died insane at the Utica Asylum not long after the quilt top was constructed. Mary’s life must have been hard. Louisa Downer, on the other hand, graduated from Buffalo Medical College— probably the first woman to do so—and enjoyed a successful career in Peterboro.

Block signed Mrs. Kate Martindale
Block signed Mrs. Kate Martindale. Photo: Shirley Morgan

The Peterboro residents whose names appear on the quilt top represent the merchant and professional class that lived at the center of the village, along with Gerrit Smith. Smith had fostered an inclusive community in the village; at the village cemetery there are numerous graves of blacks who settled in Peterboro, near the noted abolitionist. There are no blacks represented on the friendship quilt top, but there is one woman who had been adopted as a child from the Home for Destitute Children, located in the heart of the small village. Nellie Bliss, born Nellie Coon, was adopted at the age of four by bereaved parents who had lost two babies, but her six-year-old brother was left at the orphanage. Nellie later married a village doctor, George W. Davis.

According to newspaper accounts from the mid-1880s to the turn of the century, Peterboro, although very small in population, was a village alive with community activity. Voluntary organizations, such as the Children’s Aid Society and the Ladies’ Aid Society, sponsored a continuing series of fairs and festivals, dances, literary readings and recitations, and musical performances to support the Children’s Home and the church. Fund-raising events called “donations” were hosted for Mrs. Nettie Scully when her husband was terminally ill. Reunions of the Civil War Army’s 157th Regiment were held regularly. There was a chapter of the Good Templars, a temperance and philosophical society that encouraged female membership and took part in the suffrage movement.

During 1887, a group of young adults organized the Young People’s Society of Peterites for the purposes of promoting “literary culture among our young people” and donated the proceeds to “charitable objects.” The group published a journal called the Y.P.S.O.P., but only one issue, apparently, was ever printed. (Donna Burdick provided a copy.) Louisa Downer, M.D., served as editor, and Marion Martindale as assistant editor. This forwardlooking journal printed a business directory that included several working women and a poem on women’s suffrage.

The Peterboro quilt top was made during the 1890s era of the New Woman, when women’s culture broadened somewhat to allow activities beyond the domestic sphere, such as voluntary and reform work, attending college, and working outside the home. Many of the individuals included on the quilt top were representatives of this trend. Some others were older women employed in some of the most common professions for nineteenth-century women, such as Jane Cameron who ran a bakery and catering business. Mrs. Sarah Bush was a milliner. Mrs. Jenerva McPherson was a dressmaker, and Mrs. [Betsey] Radford a tailoress.

It was the daughters of this generation who followed the trend of the New Woman, with some of them attending college and entering professions that had previously been reserved for men. Gertrude Marsh, daughter of Ellen Martindale Marsh, attended the University of Rochester and New York University, and practiced optometry in Utica. Louisa Downer attended medical school at the University of Buffalo, while teaching school part-time in Peterboro. She practiced medicine in Peterboro and later Buffalo, where she established the sanitarium at Orchard Park under her married name of Benzing. Not all of the young women enjoyed such fortunate circumstances, however. The young Mrs. Lessie Hawkins was the victim of a shooting by her husband in November of 1895. A bullet was removed from her brain after husband William committed suicide. He had undergone the “gold cure” for alcoholism. Contemporary sources do not state whether Lessie survived the surgery (“Hawkins First Shot,” 1895).

Block signed Mrs. Lessie Hawkins
Block signed Mrs. Lessie Hawkins. Photo: Shirley Morgan

The Young People’s Society of Peterites also promoted needlework in a planned exhibit in 1887 of “silk patchwork, fancy work, curiosities, relics, etc., [along with] a fine program of vocal and instrumental music and tableaux” (“County and Vicinity,” 1887). It is interesting to note that the silk crazy quilts that were a fad at the end of the century were apparently being produced and exhibited by young women in Peterboro at the same time that this traditional friendship quilt was made. Perhaps this fact provides further evidence that the quilt maker who chose to practice an earlier tradition was an older person.

An article in the Oneida Dispatch, not far from the piece on the needlework exhibit, offers a clue to the possible identity of both the quilter and the intended recipient of the Peterboro quilt top. The article announces the marriage of Marion Martindale to Chas. A. Rich at the Peterboro home of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. William Martindale, on March 10, 1887. Each wedding gift is listed, along with the name or names of the giver. One item on the list is a “scrap album bed quilt,” as a friendship quilt might have been described, given to the couple by Mrs. E. D. Taylor (“County and Vicinity,” 1887). Mrs. E. D. Taylor is the woman identified as Aunt Libbie Taylor on the quilt top. It seems possible that Aunt Libbie made another similar quilt for the next family wedding, that of Marion’s brother Frank Martindale to Kate Warham, on August 11, 1890. Taylor (1821– 1905) was Frank’s aunt, married to his mother’s brother.

Mrs. Kate Martindale’s name is the first on the top row of the quilt top, which could have been a significant placement. If indeed the Peterboro quilt top, which may have been presented to Kate and Frank Martindale, was intended to become a family heirloom, it was ultimately sold out of the family. All that is known about its ensuing travels is that it came to Saranac Lake in 1995 from an auction house in Vermont.

Block signed Willie Rich
Block signed Willie Rich. Willie was a child when the quilt was made. Photo: Shirley Morgan

Research into subsequent family history reveals that Kate gave birth to two children, a son Frank in 1892 and another son Quincy in 1894. Then, in 1898, Kate died. Frank later remarried; his unfortunate second wife turns up in a 1904 newspaper report as “dangerously ill, at the home of her brother, T. Ginney[,] caused by an overdose of laudanum” (“Brevities”). Frank, who died in 1909, is buried with his first wife, Kate, in Peterboro Village Cemetery. According to the 1910 United States census, young Quincy, an orphan at age sixteen, took work in Peterboro as a farm laborer. He died in Texas in 1931, at the age of thirty-eight, leaving a wife and a young son. Frank Jr. moved out west, married and fathered three children, and then divorced. He also worked as a farm hand in Illinois, according to the 1930 census. After the turn of the century, migration and death remained ever-present threats to the circle of attachments in the Peterboro community.

The quilt top has acquired some significant recent history. The quilter who purchased the quilt top in Saranac Lake, Judy Kratts, closely duplicated the original using both antique and reproduction fabrics. Kratts was inspired to continue the friendship quilt tradition by asking family members and friends to inscribe their names on her quilt blocks. In July of 2004, I presented my research in Peterboro, exhibiting both the antique quilt top and Judy Kratts’s reproduction. The talk was attended by a number of interested descendants of the “quilt people” located by Donna Burdick, but unfortunately, no Martindales.

Kratts donated the antique quilt top to the Peterboro Area Historical Society—and so it has come “home.” Whoever its maker and recipient, the Peterboro friendship quilt top has survived to bring this particular story of family and community to light. The quilt is no longer a family heirloom, but happily, it is now a community heirloom, which is perhaps even better. The quilt top occupies its rightful place in Peterboro as a tangible reminder of a way of life in which community and family mattered, and community bonds were worth a great deal of effort to preserve, in valiant—if fleeting—defiance of the inevitable pains of separation.



 









Shirley Morgan and her husband have lived in Saranac Lake since 1972. Once a studio artist, her interests turned to local history after she moved to the Adirondacks. She worked for a number of years as both a volunteer and a staff member at the Saranac Lake Free Library, where she helped to manage the Adirondack collection of historical materials. She was for several years a board member of Historic Saranac Lake, in keeping with her interest in local historic preservation. In 2000, she enrolled in a graduate program at Skidmore College, where she previously earned a B.A. in American studies. Now an independent researcher, her research topics in local history have included women working in the textile mills of northern New York, the role of sewing circles in reform movements, and women in the labor movement.



These pieced [friendship] quilts, which were produced in large numbers during the middle part of the nineteenth century, bear inscriptions of names and often poems or a few words from the inscribers memorializing the connections between friends and family. Women made friendship quilts for sentimental reasons—expressly for the sake of remembrance—but these antique quilts also serve as historical records.



References

Brevities: Peterboro. February 9, 1904. Oneida Dispatch: [5].

Clark, Ricky. 1988. Quilt Documentation: A Case Study. In Making the American Home: Middle Class Women and Domestic Material Culture, 1840- 1940, 158-92. Ed. Marilyn Ferris Motz and Pat Browne. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

County and Vicinity News: Peterboro. March 18, 1887. Oneida Dispatch: [8].

Fox, Sandi. 1995. For Purpose and Pleasure. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill.

Friedman, Lawrence J. 1982. Gregarious Saints: Self and Community in American Abolitionism, 1830–1870. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hawkins First Shot His Wife, Then Sent a Bullet Crashing into His Own Brain. November 10, 1895. Brooklyn Eagle.

Kolter, Jane Bentley. 1985. Forget Me Not: A Gallery of Friendship and Album Quilts. Pittstown, NJ: Main Street Press.

Lipsett, Linda Otto. 1985. Remember Me: Women and Their Friendship Quilts. San Francisco: Quilt Digest Press.

Oates, Stephen B. 1970. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. New York: Harper and Row.

Osterud, Nancy Grey. 1991. Bonds of Community: Lives of Farm Women in Nineteenth-Century New York. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Y.P.S.O.P. 1887.





This article appeared in Voices Vol. 32, Spring-Summer 2006. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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