Characteristics of New Jersey Quilts

The Heritage Quilt Project of New Jersey was organized in 1987 to record quilts made in or brought to New Jersey prior to 1951. Ultimately, more than 2,500 quilts were documented, primarily through a series of 32 Quilt Discovery Days conducted throughout the state from 1988 to 1991. Information on additional quilts was obtained through mail submissions, surveys made at selected historical societies and museums, and the donation of records from the Hunterdon County QuiltSearch Project completed in 1999.

Geography and Settlement
To understand trends in New Jersey quiltmaking, it is helpful to consider New Jersey’s geographic location and settlement patterns. New Jersey’s borders are formed by Pennsylvania on the west, Delaware on the south, New York on the north and northeast, and the Atlantic Ocean on the southeast. New Jersey can be divided in several ways: north/south, urban/rural, lowland/upland, or Pennsylvania-focused/New York-focused. One real distinction goes back to the late 1600s when the state was divided into two parts—West Jersey and East Jersey—by a diagonal line running from the natural boundaries of the Pine Barrens in the southeast near present-day Atlantic City, to the rugged highlands of the northwest corner of the state at the Delaware River. Originally, settlers to the western part of the state came by way of the Delaware River, while settlers to the eastern part of the state entered through several ports along the Atlantic Coast.

The southwestern part of West Jersey was settled by Quakers, and this area retained much of its Quaker character well into the 1840s, giving it religious as well as economic ties with Philadelphia. On the other hand, the northeastern part of East Jersey was settled by a variety of groups including English Presbyterians, Scottish Quakers, Dutch from New York, Puritans from New England, Belgians, Finns, French, Germans, Irish, Swedes, Welsh, and forcibly imported Africans, and had cultural and economic ties to New York City. Although the two halves of the state were united under the British crown in 1702, such groups as the Quakers and the Dutch retained separate customs of dress and speech for at least another century, and many of the differences found within the state today can be traced back to the original settlement patterns. These differences in original patterns of settlement and cultural and economic orientation are also reflected in the patterns of New Jersey quiltmaking activity in the mid-nineteenth century.

In addition, within the state are geographic locations that indicate concentrated areas of quiltmaking activity: on the western side of the state are Burlington, Mercer, and Hunterdon counties; on the eastern side Monmouth, Middlesex, Union, Essex, and Bergen. The migration of quilt styles that took place across the state in the mid-nineteenth century was no doubt linked to the central transportation corridor and the railway system that connected southwestern New Jersey to points in the northeast.

Characteristics in New Jersey Quilts
Jonathan Holstein has suggested that the American quilting tradition became distinguishable from its British roots when American quiltmakers “discovered” the visual power of white background areas. Only a few New Jersey quiltmakers seem to have acquired a taste for abundant white space and the accompanying opportunity for stencil-style quilting designs. This scarcity of white space often makes New Jersey quilts look darker or busier than quilts from other states.
New Jersey quiltmakers of the mid-nineteenth century generally used:
• simple pieced blocks, set square or on point, with or without sashing
• center focus
• edge treatment of half-square triangles with partial blocks, printed fabric, or appliquéd leaves
• a limited selection of borders or, frequently, no borders at all
• inconspicuous styles of quilting (straight line or cross-hatch)
• a limited amount of white space mostly for backgrounds
Generally missing from nineteenth-century New Jersey quilts are:
• four-block and nine-block quilts
• several color schemes common even in neighboring states including two-color quilts in navy and white, scrap quilts with orange or blue backgrounds, and pink flowers in appliqué designs
• white fabric used as alternate set squares or borders
• fancy stencil patterns, stippling, and close parallel rows of quilting
• appliqué quilts using a single pattern (except Oak Leaf and Reel and a few other rare examples)
• a stairstep appliqué border often seen in Virginia and Maryland quilts

Sometimes New Jersey quilts are noticeably similar to quilts made in the adjacent areas of neighboring states of Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York. Some of the features identified in New Jersey quilts may serve as the basis for an understanding of wider regional patterns along the mid-Atlantic coast.

For instance, the Quaker religion provided a major link between the quiltmakers of southwestern New Jersey and the quiltmakers of the Philadelphia area. The Quakers of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware were an intermarrying social community, and this fact can be seen in the overlapping styles of their quilts as well as in the mixture of place names on several quilts. Some New Jersey quilts bear Philadelphia references, while a Philadelphia marriage quilt, owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, bears the names of the New Jersey towns where some of the groom’s relatives lived. The Delaware connection with New Jersey quilts is documented by a Lone Star quilt pieced in Burlington County, New Jersey, in 1837 and quilted in Delaware in 1839. Quaker society extended well beyond the Delaware Valley, as is demonstrated by a mid-1840s Indiana quilt now owned by the Smithsonian Institution. The quilt was made for or by an Indiana Quaker girl and includes blocks made by her father’s relatives whose town names in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are inscribed on the blocks.

In the 1850s as the practice of signing quilts began to disappear from the southwestern counties of New Jersey, it gained popularity in the northeastern corner of the state. When this happened, Philadelphia references disappeared from New Jersey quilts and New York place names—such as Brooklyn—began to appear in their place. Concurrently, the styles of quilts being signed changed so that 1850s sampler quilts made in New Jersey cities such as Newark are more similar to an 1853 quilt probably made in Brooklyn (now owned by the New Jersey State Museum), than to the quilts made in southwestern New Jersey in the 1840s.

Block Format
Although block-style quilts are sometimes considered a new feature of 1840s quilts, block-format quilts appeared much earlier than the 1840s in New Jersey. Four of the earliest quilts seen by the New Jersey project were made in blocks. Two of these were made of wool in a simple star pattern and assembled with alternate plain squares: the wool quilt owned by Allaire Village in Monmouth County is set square while the wool quilt owned by the Wick House in Morris County is set on the diagonal. Two other early block-format quilts were made of cotton: one using the Uneven Nine Patch block alternating with plain squares and the other combining the Ohio Star pattern with an Irish Chain variation. Like the Wick House wool quilt, both of the cotton examples are set on the diagonal. The Uneven Nine Patch quilt is dated by family history at 1778 and is said to come from the northern border of the state. The Ohio Star/Irish Chain is attributed to 1797 and comes from Cape May at the southeastern corner of the state. During the first 40 years of the nineteenth century, New Jerseyans made quilts in a variety of formats including whole cloth, medallion, and strip, so that blocks were only one of several formats in common use. As the 1840s began, the other forms of quilts largely disappeared from the record, leaving block-style quilts as the dominant form of quilts being made throughout the state.

Diagonal Emphasis
Diagonal emphasis is another feature that appeared early in New Jersey quilts, as three of the early block-style quilts illustrated. Diagonal placement even extended to medallion quilts. One diagonally set medallion quilt incorporated portraits of the first six American presidents cut from fabrics that were printed in both France and England (one as early as 1829), suggesting that the quilt might have been made in the early 1830s. In the 1840s New Jerseyans achieved diagonal emphasis in block-style quilts in one of two ways: either by diagonal set with conspicuous sashing or by the choice of a block design that set up strong diagonal lines when the blocks were assembled. New Jersey Quakers are associated not only with ink inscriptions, but also with a particular style of quilt commonly made in southwestern New Jersey in the 1840s and early 1850s. This style of quilt, sometimes called the dark-and-diagonal style, has become known as the New Jersey quilt style.  It is identified by a complex of characteristics including diagonally set blocks with strongly contrasting sashing often cut from striped fabric. In the 1840s these diagonally set quilts did not have borders, but the edge triangles often contained printed fabric, partial blocks or appliquéd motifs, making the edge treatment an important decorative element in these quilts. Some of these quilts contained an extensive ink dedication and distinctive center block. This dark-and-diagonal style made its way across the state with the last of its type having been made in northern Morris County in 1848.

Square Set
Although most mid-nineteenth century New Jersey quilts lack extensive white space, not all were made in the dark-and-diagonal style. Just as the counties in southwestern New Jersey looked toward Philadelphia, the northeastern counties in the opposite corner of the state looked toward New York City. These northeastern counties such as Bergen, Union, and Essex were originally populated by Dutch settlers driven out of New Amsterdam by the English in 1669. Like the Quakers in the southern part of New Jersey, the Dutch community retained its distinctive identity into the mid-nineteenth century. The influence of the Dutch on the history of American quilting is less well known than that of the Quakers, but it can be seen in diary entries and pattern names. One pattern name that may be attributable to the Dutch is Hole in the Barn Door. The Bergen County (New Jersey) Historical Society has identified this design as one actually used in Dutch barn architecture to allow openings in barn walls so that swallows might fly in and out. The Dutch influence on American quilts is also suggested by the similarity between medallion quilts in the Netherlands and some medallion quilts found in New Jersey.

As the northward shift of quiltmaking activity took place, the central counties became a transition area where a variety of styles were tried such as solely pieced, appliquéd, or made by combining the two techniques. The 1840s pieced quilts that were made in this area continue to exhibit the diagonal set but the color palette becomes a bit lighter. The 1850s quilts in this region began to reveal an increased use of white fabric, but the amount was still very limited in comparison to the white space exhibited in quilts from other states. In addition, during the 1850s in southwestern New Jersey, appliqué sampler quilts appear that combine different appliqué styles including chintz appliqué as well as conventional and original appliqué. Needlepoint blocks were also incorporated into quilts of this type.

Following the chronological migration of quilts from the western to eastern counties of the central region, quilts made in Monmouth and Somerset counties during the 1850s continue to display the diagonal set style. Many of the pieced patterns contain a limited assortment of fabrics and carefully selected colors on a white or light-colored ground or exhibit circular designs like the Mariner’s Compass with half-square triangles at the outer edges that contain half-block designs. Quilts made solely of appliqué blocks were first introduced in this area at mid-century and also reflect the traditional diagonal style of the pieced quilts that were being made during the same time period.

In the 1850s and 1860s when appliqué sampler quilts dominated the New Jersey quilting scene particularly in the northeast, interest in diagonal effects seemed to wane somewhat. Most of the New Jersey appliqué quilts of the 1850s and 1860s are set square, although there are a few interesting exceptions. In addition to square sets, wide and contrasting sashing was the exception and for the majority of quilts sashing was mostly eliminated. However, pieced sashing and tiny piping or embroidery over the seams where blocks were joined were seen in some mid-nineteenth century quilts.

Quiltmakers in northeastern Bergen County, originally settled by the Dutch, began to record, in appliqué, activities and special events that took place in and around their communities: strawberry and vegetable farming, horses, local manufacturing trades, and community events. The horizontal placement of blocks was introduced in this area and became a style that eventually worked its way southward to Monmouth County by 1867. But after 1870, New Jerseyans seemed to regain their interest in using strong diagonal effects in their quilts.

Trenton Tape
Tape binding woven of tan cotton thread, often with a lengthwise blue or green stripe, was used on New Jersey quilts of the 1840s with some regularity. This type of binding is sometimes called “Trenton tape” by local historical societies, but its exact source and date of manufacture have yet to be identified. It may have been used on whole cloth quilts as early as the 1820s as it is occasionally seen on pieces of glazed chintz that appear to have been part of a set of bed hangings. This type of binding has been found on New Jersey quilts made from about the 1830s to the 1850s although one post-Civil War example has been seen. This binding is most common on quilts made in the southwestern counties of New Jersey. To date, this type of tape binding has not been reported on quilts known to have been made outside New Jersey, although a yellower tape binding has been found on a quilt made in neighboring Pennsylvania. Unless this binding is later reported from other locations, the presence of a tan tape binding on a mid-nineteenth century quilt may suggest that it is of New Jersey or at least Delaware Valley origin. This type of binding was recorded only on quilts made in the vicinity of Trenton and does not seem to be common on quilts made after the 1840s.

Other Elements
New Jersey quiltmakers showed a certain interest in using actual leaves, rather than stylized leaves, in their appliqué. The addition of recognizable oak leaves to the Reel pattern set a precedent for the use of actual leaves as templates but the idea was carried further by using identifiable leaves in the half-square triangles around the edge of diagonally set quilts, in borders, in other blocks, and as sashing.  Another characteristic of many New Jersey quilts is the inclusion of a different center block or the intentional arrangement of color placement to form a central focus.

In addition, there are certain styles that seem to cluster in particular regions of the state:
• The few early medallion quilts documented were all recorded near the Atlantic Coast
• Many of the best and most characteristic 1840-1850 block-style quilts came from the southwestern counties originally settled by the Quakers (although signature quilts were recorded throughout the state)
• The unusual nineteenth century solid fabric appliqués that are almost Hawaiian in feeling came only from the northwest counties
• The early twentieth century Split Nine Patch quilts arranged in Log Cabin designs also came only from the northwest counties (more complex arrangements of this design have been reported in the adjacent state of  Pennsylvania)
• A tan-and-green cotton tape used as binding (Trenton tape) was recorded only on quilts made in the vicinity of Trenton

New Jersey Joins the Mainstream (1925-1950)
In the decades after the Civil War, New Jersey quilts gradually became more like those of other states although throughout the nineteenth century they seemed to retain a characteristic subtlety of color and simplicity of design. By the 1930s New Jersey newspapers offered the same patterns as the newspapers in the rest of the country, quilters were using fabrics that were popular nationally, and many New Jersey quilts were identical to those being made elsewhere. In the 1930s and 1940s, New Jersey quilters occasionally even used stencil-style quilting designs, especially if they were provided in kits. But colored background fabrics remained common, pieced quilts were still sometimes rather “busy” for lack of solid fabrics, and the most elaborate floral appliqués of the period were not present among the New Jersey-made quilts recorded.

The quilts and quiltmakers recorded in New Jersey confirm the state’s close and continuing ties with the adjacent states of Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware. They also reflect the influx of northern Europeans into the state from the 1830s to the 1930s. Further, they document the migration into New Jersey from the South and the Midwest that became increasingly common in the 1930s.

Rachel Cochran; Rita Erikson; Barbara Schaffer
Rutgers Special Collections and University Archives, 2011
All rights reserved

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  • Documentation Project

    The Heritage Quilt Project of New Jersey, Inc.

    Rutgers Special Collections and University Archives

  • 1800-1849

    Presidents Medall...

    Unknown, quilter

  • 1850-1875

    Appliqué Sampler...

    Ladies of the Old F...

  • 1850-1875

    Oak Leaf and Reel...

    Evans, Lydia S.

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