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Quiltmaking Traditions in Nebraska: An Overview
Nebraska: Images of Time and Place
Regardless of the era, quiltmakers were products of their society, influenced by their culture, history, and the environment in which they lived. An examination of these influences provides a greater understanding of and appreciation for their work and the quilts produced.
The relationships of work and art to culture, history, and the environment are complex and interrelated. The origin of the name “Nebraska” itself exemplifies this complex relationship. Derived from the Omaha Indian word “Nebthaska” and the Otoe term “Nibrathka,” which meant “flat water,” it was an appropriate designation for the Platte River, a landmark that intrigued early explorers with its unique characteristics. Often pointed out to visitors as “a mile wide and an inch deep,” it remains today one of Nebraska’s points of interest.
Indian designations with the river became synonymous with the land itself. From the early seventeenth century on, “Nebraski” and “Nebraska” appeared in the writing of explorers to describe not just the river but a vast area of the plains went of the Missouri River. By 1854, with the passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act, it became an official designation for the territory that later became the state of Nebraska.
Just as Nebraska owes much of its history and character to the Platte River, its identity was also shaped by the observations and numerous explorers who sought to survey and describe this vast new area that had been added to the United States with Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The first expeditions, however, including that of Lewis and Clark, only skirted Nebraska as they followed the Missouri northward. Lieutenant Zebulon Pike was the first to report officially on the conditions in the central plains. He described the land as “desertlike” in his report to the government in 1810. Later, in 1817, the army engineer Stephen Long led an expedition up the Platte River to its South Fork. Writing in 1823 Long said that the land was almost wholly unfit for habitation. He was most concerned that it could in no way support an agricultural people.
Long and the others were influenced by the familiar terrain east of the Mississippi River. This new land of the central plains was undeniably flat, covered with long and blowing native grasses, and treeless except along waterways. Less that 3 percent of Nebraska was wooded. Twenty thousand grass-covered square miles made up the Sandhills alone. It was quite different from the east where rainfall and timber were much more abundant. To easterners, this was the “Great American Desert,” a land fit only for Indians.
Ironically the Indians who made their homes here were basically sedentary and agricultural. While some left their agricultural compounds once a year for a buffalo hunt, the greatest number maintained an agricultural lifestyle, living in earth lodges rather than tents. The Otoes, Omahas, Poncas and Sioux had, in a sense, paved the way for later white agricultural settlement, for they themselves had relocated on the plains only a hundred years earlier.
Beginning in the 1840s and for the next three decades about a half-million people crossed Nebraska, usually in spring and early summer. Their destination was not Nebraska, but farther west, at first to Oregon, in search of their dreams, new land, and fortune, The Mormons increased the number of travelers heading west as they began their migration to Utah in 1847. The discovery of gold in California in 1848, and a decade later in Colorado, further increased the traffic that plodded across Nebraska along the Great Platte River Road.
Except for the supply centers at the head of the trail, white settlement prior to 1854 was limited to those stationed at military posts, fur traders, and a few Christian missionaries working among the Indians. Established in 1819 by the government to protect fur traders from English encroachment, Fort Atkinson on the Missouri River above Omaha was the first of the military posts. It was abandoned in 1827. In the 1860s, other posts were developed to protect the increased migration westward, but none of these would attract settlement around them except for Sidney Barracks on the Union Pacific Railroad.
Until 1854 the image of the Great American Desert, the Indian frontier, and the passage to the West along the Great Platte River Road loomed large in Nebraska’s identity. Even so, the Kansas-Nebraska Act adapted by Congress that year created the Nebraska Territory and opened it to settlement. The territory stretched from the Kansas line to Canada and from the Missouri River to the Continental Divide.
Until Nebraska gained its statehood in 1867, the Great Platte River Road remained one of only a few routes into the interior. That year the Union Pacific railroad pushed across Nebraska to just west of North Platte along the north side of the Platte River. The Burlington soon obtained rights to build south of the river. Settlement began to increase dramatically. The territorial census of 1860 reported a population of 28,841. By 1870 the population had more than quadrupled, to nearly 123,000. The next decade witnessed almost the same amount of growth, to over 450,000 and by 1890 the population had surpassed a million inhabitants. These thirty years were clearly the major settlement years for Nebraska. The population increase slowed in the next decade to less than 1 percent. By 1900 the census reported a population of 1,066,910.
The initial growth of the post-Civil War years was spurred by the enactment of the Homestead Act in 1862. The Homestead Act was the fulfillment of an 1860 campaign promise by Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans. Except for persons who had borne arms against the United States, a head of family, male or female, who was a citizen of a “first paper” immigrant, qualified for 160 acres of land, free except for a small surveying fee. The act also applied to 80-acre tracts of government land along the new railroads, alternating sections with the land granted to railroads. Homesteaders had six months to begin making improvements on the land. Those who “proved up” – who lived in or cultivated the land for five years – were given a government patent proving ownership of their land.
Many Nebraskans got their start from homesteading, but many more bought their land from railroads or from entrepreneurs who had homesteaded for speculation. The railroads contributed even more than the Homestead Act to the growth of Nebraska’s population in these years. Railroad interests had pressured the government prior to the Civil War to hasten the development of western lands. The government had given over huge tracts of land for the railroad to sell in order to finance their construction, and it was, therefore, to the advantage of the railroads to dispose of the land as quickly as possible. Railroad entrepreneurs also knew that it was in their companies’ economic interests to attract settlers to the land to farm, develop communities, and start businesses. Thus, railroad land departments sent emissaries overseas to locate groups of people who might pull up stakes and resettle in Nebraska. Among others, large settlements of Germans, including Germans from Russia, Swedes, Danes, and Czechs – principally from Bohemia and Moravia – formed colonies and purchased railroad land in Nebraska. By 1870, over half the population had either been born overseas or were the children of immigrants. By 1900, Germans, Swedes, Bohemians (or Czechs), and Danes represented the largest ethnic groups in the state, followed closely by Irish, English, and Germans from Russia.
But more than populating Nebraska, the railroads contributed much to its image, or changing image. Railroad land agents and promoters quickly encountered the widely held perception that the area was uninhabitable. The “Great American Desert” had become part of the popular culture, perpetuated by eastern newspapers and magazines. To counter this image, the railroads mounted an advertising campaign throughout the 1870s that would rival the most sophisticated manipulative efforts today. The railroads teamed up with state government to produce pamphlets and broadsides selling Nebraska as a place rich with the promise of agricultural rewards. Travelling exhibits and promotional lectures followed to reinforce the image.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, American western novels, beginning with Owen Winster’s The Virginian, and a plethora of western movies, have combined to create another image of the American frontier, one where only the most rugged of men, possessing individual courage, determination, and ingenuity, could survive. This image has passed permanently into the collected myths of the American experience.
Although conditions on the Nebraska frontier were harsh and challenging, the popular image of the frontier as a male domain is not supported by reality. The family unit was basic to the agrarian society of the frontier, just as it had been since the first American colonial settlements two centuries before. Studies done of census data in 1870 and 1884 indicate that most settlers were married couples who settled down on the farm steads and raised families. The true frontier society during the 1870s consisted of farm families with two or three preteen-age children.
The realities of work in the frontier society also challenged the myth of the man’s frontier. Men generally did engage in the heaviest work – clearing the land, breaking the sod, and working the fields. The task of plowing, planting, and harvesting consumed by far the majority of men’s time during the growing season. Still, women often worked in the fields too, particularly if planting fell behind schedule. Then work in the fields became every family member’s responsibility, men and women alike. And farmers without sons had no hesitation in working the fields with their daughters.
Women took responsibility for food production and preparation, including gardening, butchering, milking, and the manufacture of butter and cheese. Women also provided and cared for the family’s clothing and bedding. This involved hours of soap making, washing, ironing, and mending as well as the more rewarding hours of sewing. Sewing was an essential feminine skill as one that provided for basic necessities as well as artistic expression in coverlets and quilts.
While work in frontier society was often divided by gender, both women and men assumed an endless variety of often back-breaking chores in order to establish their homesteads. From their initial encounter with the environment of the plains, the challenge for survival and the hardships to be endured were genderless.
Faced with a lack of trees, the early settlers recognized in the prairie sod the answer to the need for building material. Baked in the summer heat at 100 degrees plus, frozen in the subzero-degree winters, and dried by the prairie winds to the consistency of concrete, “Nebraska brick” or “prairie marble” provided the first homes for many newcomers to the plains. Some dug caves into the sides of riverbanks or hills for temporary shelter. Others combined the two methods of plains architecture. Inside these soddies and dugouts light and ventilation were poor and the sod roofs usually leaked. Fleas, bedbugs, and mice were constant unwanted guests. The unpleasant if not dismal circumstances of their new homes were compounded by the harsh plains environment. Winter brought bitterly cold temperatures and sometimes blizzards, while summer frequently brought hot drying winds, scorching temperatures, and sometimes prairie fires and plagues of grasshoppers. Clearly, cooperative family efforts were essential to the settler’s success in such an adverse environment.
Success appeared likely to the frontier families, for the 1880s were years of prosperity and progress in Nebraska. Rainfall was abundant, the population doubled, and agricultural output tripled during the decade. Technological changes were also evident as more and more automatic threshers, planters, and cultivators appeared on Nebraska farms, replacing the manual methods of the frontier. Nebraska became the focus of scientific experiments in agricultural methods after the University of Nebraska opened its College of Agriculture in Lincoln in 1882. The decade also witnessed urban growth and increased manufacturing, most of which was centered in Omaha, where the meat-packing industry had concentrated.
By the mid-1880s it appeared that Nebraska was destined for wealth and prosperity. By the end of the decade it was no longer so certain. Drought overshadowed the plains; farm production and prices declined and the interest rates increased. Farmers found it increasingly difficult to make a profit. Frustrated by the power of the railroads, farmers formed their own organization, the Farmers’ Alliance, in 1880. The Farmers’ Alliance provided the arena in which to focus on the issues of high interest rates and costs charged by the railroads and elevators.
Agrarian protest swept the plains states throughout the 1880s. Nebraska, however, became the central focus of the movement in 1890. Dissatisfied with both major parties, the Nebraska Farmers’ Alliance called for the formation of an agrarian political party and issued a call for a people’s convention to focus the issues. The Populist, or People’s, party which emerged held its first national nominating convention in Omaha in 1892 and remained a force in Nebraska and Midwestern politics throughout the decade.
Nebraska became further identified with agrarian reform in the Midwest as the Populists in the state led the movement for initiative and referendum legislation, the secret ballot, and for state regulatory commissions to regulate the railroads and utilities. By the end of the decade that association became national in focus as the Populist party threw their support behind a Lincoln lawyer, William Jennings Bryan, a congressman and Democratic candidate for president in 1896, 1900, and 1908. While populism never achieved national victories and ultimately waned as an organized movement, agrarian and political reform prevailed within the Midwest, influencing both major parties.
Prosperity, mobility, and a spirit of optimism that problems were not insurmountable characterized the people of Nebraska during the early part of the twentieth century. World War I had a sobering effect as the idealism associated with the recent reform era was lessened by the overzealous persecution of German-Americans and other groups whose loyalty was called into question during the war.
With the end of the war, the demand for U.S. agricultural products ebbed. Exports declined early in the 1920s and farm prices fell. The war years had been good for Nebraska agriculture, but farm prosperity and resultant optimism led to overexpansion. During the decade 650 banks closed because of the vast amount of credit overextended to farmers. Twenty five percent of the Nebraska farmers failed between 1921 and 1923.
Drought conditions, which returned to the plains in the 1930s, compounded the worsening situation for farmers. The dust storms, which occurred with increasing frequency, tried the strongest of souls. Many left the farm and moved to town, generally to work on federally funded projects. Many left the state entirely, moving west to California. During the decade, the state’s population declined by sixty-five thousand people.
It took tremendous reserves of strength, both physical and mental, to survive the extraordinary distress. Family and community solidarity helped to buoy up spirits and provide the strength and courage to continue. Farm women who had always worked alongside their husbands worked even harder to bring in a bit of income for the family larder. Many found that raising chickens was a way to earn a few dollars, and the “egg money” became a precious resource. Others separated cream and milk and took the products into the local creameries. For virtually all, times were austere. People made do and did without.
Events in Europe by the latter half of the 1930s foreboded war. Many Americans remembered World War I and, frustrated by the experience, hoped to avoid further entangling associations with Europe. This isolation impulse was particularly strong on the plains. Nebraskans, as well, were apprehensive about a new “involvement.” The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, settled the issue. The country was at war again.
The war meant the return of prosperity to the nation. The Great Depression was over. Nebraska experienced the economic upturn as well. There was a renewed demand for food. Agricultural production was, once again, in demand. In addition, air bases, ordinance plants, and a large naval ammunition depot were established within the state. Nebraska was contributing to the war effort and employment opportunities abounded. Prosperity had returned.
Since World War II, agriculture has remained the mainstay of the state’s economy. Farm sizes have increased, though the number of farms have declined. Productive farming still relied on irrigation, and the development of center-pivot irrigation systems has meant that more acres can be put into production. Water has remained an issue in Nebraska, as it has in most of the Plains states, and will continue to be. Cities are larger now, but Nebraska remains basically a rural, agrarian environment. The themes of its past continue to identify it. The association with the land and the environment persist.
Nebraska Quiltmakers, 1870-1940
During the years of Nebraska’s settlement and development, the majority of Nebraska quiltmakers were rural women with a grade school education living on farms in small communities. Most were married and had two to four children, the norm for American women between 1870 and 1950. Although some novelists and historians have characterized the plains pioneer women as a mother of ten to twelve children, most women settling the plains during the last quarter of the nineteenth century had only three or four children. The typical Nebraska quiltmaker was no exception. Although some Nebraska quiltmakers did have large families, as many as fourteen to sixteen children, most did not.
Nebraska quiltmakers participated in a variety of occupations, including teaching, dressmaking, farming, ranching, nursing, retailing (hardware stores, general stores, antique stores, and department stores), domestic services (housekeeper, hired girl) and clerical services. A few were telephone operators, beauticians, or bookbinders. One was a postmistress. Most were ranch wives, farmwives, or housewives, as were most married women of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. Teaching and dressmaking were the predominant occupations of the Nebraska quiltmakers who worked outside the home. This reflects the times: in 1880 four-fifths of all American women who were engaged in non-farm employment worked as teachers, servants and laundresses, clerks and salespersons, or dressmakers, milliners, and seamstresses. The majority of white working women throughout the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century were young and single; women usually abandoned or were required to quit work for pay when they married. A number of Nebraska quiltmakers mentioned that they, too, abandoned paid work when they married.
Many of the quiltmakers or their parents came to Nebraska in the two decades following the Civil War, when a wave of migration populated the remaining western territories. The majority of Nebraska quiltmakers identified their ethnic background as German, with English, Czech, Irish, Scots, Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian heritages following in that order. The ethnic background of the quiltmakers reflects the ethnic background of Nebraska’s immigrants in the late 1880s, most of whom were Germans followed by smaller but significant percentages of Swedes, Irish, Czechs, English, Danes, Russians, Scots, and Norwegians.
Religious groups were particularly active in the settlement of Nebraska during the 1870s and 1880s. For example, Lutheran pastors led many groups of Scandinavian immigrants; Congregationalists founded York; and several Mennonite communities were established near Lincoln under the leadership of Peter Jansen. Most Nebraska quiltmakers were Methodists or Lutherans. Of the remaining quiltmakers, most identified themselves as Catholic, Presbyterian, Christian (Disciples of Christ or United Church of Christ), Congregational, Baptist, or Mennonite. Methodist and Lutheran religious preferences are generally associated with those of English, German, and Scandinavian descent, while Catholicism is often associated with those of Czech or Irish descent.
Although Nebraska had a diverse population in which national or religious groups frequently dominated rural communities and maintained their language and customs, strong ethnic influences on quilt construction and patterns were not observed in the quilts and quilting practices of Nebraska quiltmakers. If distinctive quiltmaking traditions existed among the immigrants when they arrived, they did not survive for long. In fact, differences may not have existed at all. The basket quilt of Mary Novotny Lahowetz, which according to family tradition was pieced in Bohemia and quilted after her arrival in America, is similar in pattern and construction to other Nebraska-made pieced quilts of the period. Her quilt and another one made by a German quiltmaker for her brother to take to Nebraska stand as evidence that immigrant women not only brought the necessary sewing skills for quiltmaking with them to America, they brought quilts and even pieced blocks to their new homes. If any differences in quilt styles and construction existed, the sharing of patterns and construction techniques quickly obscured them.
In general, quiltmaking was a lifelong activity. The hardships of relocation and settlement in a sometimes hostile land did not interrupt quiltmaking activities for long, if at all. For example, Clarissa Griswold made a beautiful Crazy quilt while she sat at her claim in Sioux County, Nebraska, between 1885 and 1886. Sophia Hinrichs and Helena Hinrichs Prange, mother and daughter, provide yet another example of the many women who made quilts while living under the most unfavorable conditions during homesteading years. They pieced their fan quilt while living in a dark, dank dugout, which, although little more than a cave, was their temporary home for more than five years.
Motivations for Quiltmaking
The majority of Nebraska quiltmakers began quiltmaking because it was a form of self-expression and a pastime that they enjoyed. Quiltmaking allowed women to escape the rigors and drabness of their everyday routines into a kaleidoscopic world of color. The personal satisfaction derived from this pastime was an important motivation for Amelia Barbe, who continued piecing quilts even after she started to lose her eyesight. Her granddaughter relates, “I have some of her tops that she pieced together on the treadle sewing machine after she lost most of her eyesight. She was blind in one eye and had about only twenty percent vision in the other eye, but she kept on piecing. Some of the pieces don’t meet, some of the seams kind of go all over the place, but it’s interesting that she kept on trying to do that handiwork after she lost her eyesight.”
Ellen Maxwell found quiltmaking therapeutic. She made a Crazy quilt to overcome the grief following the death of her baby girl from diphtheria during an epidemic in the winter of 1892. According to her granddaughter:
Grandmother was so laid out by the death that she was unable to go on with her life. And so Grandpa ran or took a horse over to the neighboring couple, an older couple, who had lost their only child many years ago. [The neighbor] gathered up scraps of velvet and silk and old linsey-wool and strands of thread and showed Grandma how to fashion pieces and then embroider flowers and birds and so forth on it. [Grandma] patiently put them together…she tacked the flowers or fruit from a seed catalog and then embroidered over it, then picked out the paper behind it. That’s how they did; they didn’t have patterns in those days, you know. And so, she featherstitched around each piece…Each night she would work by the light of the kerosene lamp…gradually she got better…Grandma got hold of her life again and finished the quilt and folded it up and put it away…When we’d ask to see the quilt, she’s get it out, but she never sued it because the memory in each scrap would just tell her about her baby daughter.
Special occasions such as birthdays, graduations, marriages, and births prompted a great deal of quiltmaking. Of these, the occasions that mark new beginnings, weddings and births, inspired the most quiltmaking. Family members usually received the quilts made for these occasions. Lena Burger of DeWitt was one of many Nebraska quiltmakers who described the number of quilts that she made for members of her family when they married. “All twenty of my grandchildren, they all got their quilt, or are getting it. When they get married they get their quilt.”
Some quiltmakers quilted because they needed warm bedding and they found quiltmaking an economical way to meet this need; some quilted to demonstrate their thriftiness and careful use of scarce resources. Perhaps the words of Genevieve Young from Nebraska City best express many quiltmakers’ reasons for saving scraps: “I have collected fabrics all my life, and I just never thought it wise to throw away even an inch of fabric. I always collected all of the tiny pieces that nobody else wanted. And, I always thought it would be awfully nice if you could just put all those pieces, roll them together like you do pie dough, then roll them out and have one piece.” Others made quilts because they had little money to do other things. According to her daughter, Gertrude Scudder made her Trip Around the World quilt during the depression of the 1930s : “you didn’t have any money…you made quilts.”
Although many maintain the popular notion that pieced quilts were born out of hardship and economic necessity, most Nebraska quiltmakers did not cite that motivation. Some quilts are so complex and the needlework so fine that it is clear that the quiltmakers did not hastily assemble them to provide warm bedding. Instead, the quiltmakers created objects of beauty and pride that displayed their exquisite needlework skills and artistic abilities. Certainly pioneer values of thriftiness and industriousness motivated virtuous women to devote their free time to quiltmaking or other forms of needlework, but necessity was not the quiltmaker’s primary reason for making quilts. Instead, most respondents noted that the reason for making quilts was the pleasure and satisfaction derived from making a useful and beautiful item for their family.
For rural American women, especially those settling the frontier, there were few opportunities for artistic expression. Painting, sculpture, and other fine arts were considered far too frivolous for most rural women to undertake. Quiltmaking, which produced a useful item for their families, afforded women an acceptable avenue for their creativity. From the numbers of outstanding quilts that have survived, it is clear that many women exercised this option. Some women learned to make quilts as children because in rural households children and adolescents were expected to participate in the household work of their families. Household responsibilities included learning needlework skills. Throughout the nineteenth century, girls frequently learned to sew before they learned to read and sometimes pieced simple quilt bocks at an early age, as young as two or three, to practice and improve their sewing skills. Many quiltmakers related stories about their childhood experience in quiltmaking. Belle Frasier of Parks, Nebraska, the youngest quiltmaker registered in this survey, started her first quilt when she was three and a half years old. It was a simple Four Patch. “Just little squares,” as she described it. “My mother would cut them out and pin them together and mark where I was supposed to sew.” Peg Kildare of Ogallala remembers how her mother “insisted every afternoon that I sit down at a certain time and put that quilt together. Oh I got so I hated it…but she made me finish…I had to sit there and now I’m glad she did because I never start anything but what I finish it.” Another quiltmaker said, “I think my mother learned me to quilt when I was twelve years old. She started me out sewing carpet rags. Just kept on, kept on until I learned to quilt.”
These anecdotes illustrate that quiltmaking skills, like most needlework skills, were transmitted by adult women to young girls or young women. Almost 70 percent of the quiltmakers surveyed learned their quiltmaking skills from family members, usually mothers, but occasionally from grandmothers, aunts, or sisters. About 20 percent indicated that they taught themselves to quilt, but they probably learned the necessary sewing skills from other women. Only two women said that they learned to make quilts in classes. Quiltmaking in Nebraska reflects a widespread feminine skill that was usually transmitted from mother to daughter in the home. While this may be typical of the transferable skills of quiltmaking in rural families across America during the time, it contrasts with the eastern tradition in affluent urban families, where girls often learned needlework skills through special ornamental needlework classes in private finishing schools or boarding schools. It also contrasts with contemporary patterns, where women often learn quiltmaking skills in classes.
While some quiltmakers began to quilt as children under their mother’s close supervision, and the majority of Nebraska quiltmakers began to make quilts as young adults, a few began later in life (after sixty years of age). One of these, Marie Jahnke of Bancroft, noted: “I lived on a farm for thirty-five years…It was a little while before I moved to town when I started quilting. When my husband quit farming then I didn’t have to help as much, but otherwise I was always out there helping him with everything, plus going to work everyday.”
Surprisingly, about one-third of the Nebraska women surveyed made most of their quilts during mid-life, when their children were still at home. Although they had many demands of their time during these years, they found time to quilt. Almost an equal number indicated that they made most of their quilts after their children were grown, when they had more time to devote to quiltmaking.
Some women quilted into their eighties, and a few women were ninety years old when they completed their quilts. Whether the motivation to quilt was to satisfy their desire to create a thing of beauty for themselves or their descendants, to satisfy their sense of the proper way to use their time and scarce resources, or to provide warm bedding for their families, many women made quilts throughout their lives.
Many Nebraska quiltmakers believed they made their best quilts after their children were grown. They not only had more time then, they also had a lifetime of experience in quiltmaking and sewing to apply to the task. Surprisingly, an equal number of quiltmakers believed they made their best quilt during mid-life, when their children were at home. Although women had fewer responsibilities and demands on their time when they were younger, few women thought they made their best quilts as young adults. Sewing was a measure of a woman’s ability as a homemaker and the consummate feminine skill during the nineteenth century. Apparently most women believed that their skills continued to improve over the years, and they continued to devote the time required for meticulously crafted quilts although burdened by a multitude of chores as farmwives and mothers.
When asked about the frequency of quiltmaking, 70 percent responded that they quilted often, while 30 percent said they quilted only sporadically. The frequency of quiltmaking often depended on factors like the time of year, how much time was available to quilt, and the occasion for which the quilt was made. An upcoming birth, marriage, or high-school graduation in the family often provided the impetus for more frequent quiltmaking. The time of year affected the frequency of quiltmaking for those who lived on farms because seasonal work influenced the amount of time available for needlework. Responsibilities during the spring, summer, and fall were particularly demanding. Wintertime was frequently mentioned by quiltmakers as the time of year that they could devote to their quiltmaking activities. But women made quilts year round and in many unlikely settings. Irene Alexander recalled that her mother always wanted her children to have something to do when they were herding cows. “We would piece the blocks by hand and use our time that way. We also did embroidery work while we were there.”
Very few Nebraska quiltmakers made more than one hundred quilts; most made fewer than fifty and many made fewer than ten. Some women, however, were truly prolific. Minnie Geise Sukraw made about thirteen hundred tied quilts, largely for overseas relief. While tying took less time than quilting, this accomplishment is nonetheless remarkable. Quiltmaking is a time-consuming task. Although some quilts were completed in six months and others spanned a lifetime, the average Nebraska quiltmaker completed a quilt in about two years. In general, quiltmakers devoted the time necessary to make products that reflected meticulous care and craftsmanship and that would reflect well on their needlework skills. The amount of time required to produce each quilt is another argument against the popular notion that the major impetus for quilting during the nineteenth century was the urgent need for warm bedding by penniless settlers who had little other than scraps and rags from which to make it.
Nebraska quiltmakers used about as much new fabric as they did dressmaker cuttings or scraps. This was apparent in the number of registered quilts that had a matching sashing, border, or backing, which required larger amounts of material than available from the scrap basket. Usually the only parts of the quilts that came from dressmaking cuttings were the colorful and varied prints in pieced blocks. Because scraps could be so effectively used in piece quilts, Nebraska quiltmakers made this type of quilt in far greater numbers than appliqué quilts, which generally required larger amounts of matching fabrics. Surveys in other states also note the bountiful number of pieced quilts. Worn-out clothing was rarely used by Nebraska quiltmakers. Recycled flour, salt, sugar, tobacco, and feed sacks, however, were sometimes used, as were, on occasion, old neckties and political ribbons.
Most Nebraska quiltmakers had no favorite patterns according to the recollections of family or quiltmaker. Those few who did identify a favorite pattern usually mentioned the Double Wedding Ring and Grandmother’s Flower Garden. More double Wedding Ring and Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilts were registered in the state during the Nebraska Quilt Project than any other pattern, which further supports their favorite status among Nebraska quiltmakers. When asked why a pattern was a particular favorite, quiltmakers or quiltowners responded that it was economical to make (Double Wedding Ring, friendship, and Log Cabin), colorful (Nine Patch), appropriate for the quiltmaker’s grandchildren (Sunbonnet Sue and Overall Sam), and beautiful and meaningful to the quiltmaker herself (Double Wedding Ring). When Abba Jane Johnston found a pattern that suited her, the Barn Raising variation of the Log Cabin, she “never strayed from it.” According to her great-granddaughter: “It was a trait that carried through into many aspects of her life and gave real meaning to the word method in Methodist. She was known not for deviating from the straight and narrow! But she was known for her good deeds, and no doubt her sewing skills came in especially handy when she stitched up the lip of a woman cut in a butchering accident—a legendary story in the family.”
Family, friends, and neighbors were among the most often mentioned sources of patterns for Nebraska quilts. Quiltmakers exchanged patterns much as they traded recipes. During the 1930s and 1940s Louise Howey of Lincoln exchanged patterns with about twenty-five quiltmakers across the United States and Canada through round robins. Another important source of patterns among the quiltmakers was the print media: books, women’s magazines, and newspapers. Surprisingly, almost a quarter of the respondents indicated that their quilts were original designs. Traditional quiltmakers, however, often called any quilt pattern “original” if they drew it out themselves rather than buying one already drawn or in template form. Careful scrutiny of the quilts identified as a quiltmaker’s own design revealed that only a few were truly original. Over half of them were Crazy quilts cooperatively made of blocks contributed by as many as thirty to forty women. A third were variations of traditional appliqué and pieced patterns.
Nearly two-thirds of the quilts registered were quilted by the quiltmaker herself rather than by someone else. This is not surprising, since quiltmakers, like many artists, nurture the vision of their quilts from selection of the pattern to completion in quilting the frame. Therefore, they wanted to control each step of their quilt’s development from the first to the last stitch. Some women preferred to quilt alone because they were very particular and did not want irregular quilting stitched to spoil their carefully pieced or appliquéd tops. When asked if she ever quilted with groups, Jessie Hervert of Kearney replied, “No, I like to make the stitches myself. Even the twins never helped me stitch my quilts. Not because they couldn’t do it good enough, but because I don’t sew like they sew.”
While Nebraska quiltmakers spent many hours quilting alone, some also participated in quiltmaking activities for fellowship and fundraising at church, at community clubs, and even in their homes. The majority of those who quilted with groups usually did so in church groups or a friend’s home, perhaps because of similar traditions, language, interests, and philosophies. Katheryn Thomsen of Omaha remembered that when she lived in the country her mother would have quilting parties. “It was complete enjoyment for these people to come over…Sometimes after they quit my mom would go over and look at the quilting and she would take out [stitches made by] the person in the club who made large stitches. Obviously fellowship was more important than progress in the quilting. Her mother held the parties despite the fact that some of the quilting did not meet her standards.
Quiltmaking in Nebraska was a practice of thriftiness, a well-regarded feminine pastime, and an enduring form of self-expression. Nebraskans prided themselves on their hard work, frugality, and resourcefulness. These values are clearly reflected in their quiltmaking. Consequently, quiltmaking remained a popular activity among rural women throughout the years of Nebraska’s settlement and development and well into the twentieth century. Despite the difficulties and hardships that Nebraska women surely encountered during the early years of settlement, they found time for quiltmaking.
The quilts that Nebraskans made and their reasons for making them mirror women’s many and varied roles. As nurturers, women made quilts for their own infants and grandchildren; as social communicators, women made album or friendship quilts for their friends and families; as moral guardians of the family, women made quilts to raise funds for their churches and other worthwhile causes; as accomplished seamstresses, women made quilts with incredible numbers of pieces and quilted them with stitches so tiny that they sometimes require a magnifying glass to see. Quilts are valuable artifacts because they elicit memories of special occasions; because they are symbols of family heritage and traditions; and because they are beautiful examples of women’s art.
The quilts registered in the Nebraska Quilt Project survey range in date from 1792 to 1989 and include pieced quilts, appliqué quilts, embroidered quilts, Crazy quilts, and a few whole-cloth quilts. Seventy-five percent of these quilts were made in Nebraska. Eighty-two of Nebraska’s ninety-three counties were represented in the survey.
The oldest quilt registered was a glazed-wool whole-cloth quilt made in Northampton, Massachusetts, by Nancy Clark Phelps in 1792 and brought into Jefferson County, Nebraska, by her namesake and granddaughter Nancy Maria Phelps Forshay in the 1850s. Very few other whole-cloth quilts were registered. Glazed-wool quilts were quite typical of the American federal era but rare after the first quarter of the nineteenth century. They showcased the quilter’s skills, because quilting was the source of design on the quilt in the absence of pieced or appliquéd designs. Often the quilting designs were quite elaborate. The Phelps quilt with its generous wool batting had a simple quilting design of concentric diamonds.
The quilt held a special meaning to its owners, for according to family tradition, the fabrics were woven from homespun yarns from the wool of the family’s own sheep. The quilting thread was coarsely spun wool as well, instead of the more usual linen. The quiltmaker did not use two or three lengths of fabric sewn together to create the whole-cloth top as was customary; instead she stitched together by hand many blocks of fabric of a variety of sizes. The fabrics for the dusty-rose-colored top appear to be leftovers from other sewing projects, because some of the fabrics are simple plain weaves, others twill weaves, and they vary in shades of rose as well. Either the fabrics were colored at different times, possibly with madder, or the fabrics of different weaves and different types of wool responded to the dye differently yielding various shades. Clearly, the quiltmaker did not have fabric in the abundance that some of her eastern sisters did; therefore she saved each precious piece until she had enough for a quilt top. The backing for the quilt is a gold-colored homespun, plain-weave fabric.
Pink glazed-wool whole-cloth quilts were not usual during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. In fact, a brilliant “watermelon pink” glazed-wool quilt with a striking yellow backing made in New England about 1775 is shown in American Quilts and Coverlets, by Carleton L. Safford and Robert Bishop. Unlike the simply quilted whole-cloth quilt of the Nebraska survey, it is quilted in an elegant and ornate floral design.
The oldest surviving quilt known to have been made by a Nebraskan is a red-and-green appliqué quilt completed by Martha Allis in 1860. It is a lovely variation of the Wreath of Roses pattern made for her dowry. Red-and-green appliqué quilts were a favored style between the 1840s and 1870s. The fashion for red-and-green quilts began in the late 1830s when colorful fabrics in those colors became more widely available.
While appliqué, whole-cloth, embroidered, and Crazy quilts were registered at most sites in the state, pieced quilts accounted for 75 percent of all the quilts in the Nebraska survey. Thus most were made of simple cotton muslins and calicoes rather than the more expensive glazed cotton chintzes, fancy silk velvets and brocades, or woolen fabrics. Cotton muslins and calicoes were inexpensive and had been widely available in North America since the 1840s. The establishment of American textile mills with roller printing capabilities ensured a widely varied supply of printed cotton fabrics for the nineteenth-century American seamstress and quiltmaker and resulted in a fashion for pieced and appliqué quilts using the small floral cotton prints known as calicoes. Because most of Nebraska was settled after the railroad was completed, there was never a shortage of calicoes and other needlework supplies for those who could afford them.
Although the earliest quilts in the Nebraska survey dated from the 1790s, most were made between 1890 and 1940 and after 1970. This is not surprising, for the period 1890 to 1940 follows Nebraska’s most active period of settlement, while the 1930s and 1940s and the period since 1970 coincide with the years when quiltmaking enjoyed increased activity nationwide. Fewer quilts were registered from the 1950s and 1960s, when quiltmaking activities declined nationwide. More quilts dating from 1970 to 1989 than from any other period were registered in the survey. The quilt revival that began in the early 1970s may account for the higher number, but also it should be remembered that the more recent the quilt, the more apt it is to still be in existence.
Pieced quilts composed of straight-edged geometric shapes were the favored type throughout all periods in Nebraska. Not only could odd-shaped scraps of fabric be more effectively used in pieced quilts than in appliqué or embroidered quilts, but pieced quilts were less time consuming and less difficult to make than appliqué quilts, which required larger amounts of matching fabrics and more often necessitated the purchase of fabric specifically for the quilt top. Unlike appliqué or embroidered quilts, most pieced quilts required only one type of stitch—the running stitch—for piecing and binding the top, batting, and bottom layers together. The running stitch was basic to plain sewing, easy to master, and practiced by most women from an early age.
Because so few quilts made before 1870 were registered, no attempt has been made to describe the “typical” Nebraska quilt of the decades preceding 1870. After the Civil War and the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad across the state in 1867, settlement of the state proceeded at a more rapid pace. With more settlers, more quilts were either made in the state or brought into Nebraska.
The most frequently observed pieced patterns from the 1870s in the Nebraska survey were star patterns. Because so few of the registered quilts were made in the 1870s and fewer still were made in Nebraska in the 1870s, it is impossible to say conclusively that star patterns were the most widely used patterns in Nebraska at the time. On the other hand, star patterns are among the most frequently used patterns in American quilts and for that reason are likely to have been the most frequently made pieced patterns in the 1870s in Nebraska. Star patterns enjoyed continued popularity through the early 1900s in Nebraska.
Also popular in Nebraska during the late 1800s were the Log Cabin, Four Patch, and Nine Patch, all relatively easy patterns to make and ones that made good use of small and varied scraps. In fact, the Four Patch and Nine Patch were often used to teach children to piece because of their simplicity. Nine Patch quilts were a favorite for utility quilts throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Log Cabin quilts were so popular in the 1870s nationwide that some state and county fairs opened categories specifically for them. The source of the Log Cabin design is elusive, but it emerged as a new quilt type during the 1860s.
Crazy quilts were beginning to appear in greater numbers by the 1890s. Almost 25 percent of the surveyed quilts made between 1880 and 1910 were Crazy quilts, reflecting the popularity of that style. While quiltmakers continued to make pieced quilts in about the same proportions throughout the state’s history, the rage for Crazy quilts was so great that appliquéd and embroidered quilts, previously used to showcase a needleworker’s skills, were made in fewer numbers during that era. Crazy quilts were very popular nationwide during the Victorian era in America; Nebraska was no exception. Women’s magazines in the 1880s and 1890s capitalized on the fad by publishing patterns, how-to articles, and teasing women in print about their compulsion to work on these quilts. Entrepreneurs even made up Crazy-quilt kits with an assortment of new silk scraps and sometimes included schematic drawings showing the size and shape of each supposedly random piece, patterns for small embroidered motifs with recommended decorative stitches, and lengths of gold tinsel cord.
Although Nebraska quiltmakers were enamored of the Crazy quilt, most tended to keep theirs modest and simple in style and material. While most Eastern quilts of the period were made of luxury fabrics such as silk brocades, taffetas, and velvets and were lavishly embellished with virtually every embroidery stitch imaginable, Nebraska Crazy quilts were often made of simple woolen and only modestly embroidered. At times their pictorial embroidery included prairie flowers and other elements of the frontier setting. Of course, some Nebraska quilts emulated those made in more prosperous Eastern states; when quiltmakers had access to more luxurious materials, they did not pass up the opportunity to make a spectacular show quilt.
Both the fancy silk and simple woolen Crazy quilts employed the same methods of construction. Scraps were placed on a foundation block to be joined with other blocks when all were completed, or they were stitched to a foundation the desired size of the finished product. The raw or turned-under edges were covered with decorative embroidery of which the featherstitch and the herringbone stitch were the most common. The quilts were backed, but unlike most pieced and appliqué quilts, were neither filled nor quilted. Instead, they were tied or tacked invisibly from the reverse side to secure the layers of the quilts.
The Nine Patch, Log Cabin, and star patterns continued to be the most prevalent pieced patterns among Nebraska quilts during the first two decades of the twentieth century. By 1910 the Crazy quilt vogue had waned, and during the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s embroidered quilts, especially those with alternating embellished blocks, rose to popularity in Nebraska. The predominant type of embroidery work was outline embroidery, which resembles a line drawing. It first appeared in this country about 1880 and became very popular during the first decades of the twentieth century. The popularity of the outline, or stem, stitch for embroidered quilt blocks can be attributed to the simplicity of the technique. It was, in fact, recommended to women “who have neither the time, eyesight nor means to indulge in intricate and elaborate needlework.” Particularly popular embroidery themes among the Nebraska quiltmakers were scenes from history and state flowers and birds, and most appeared to be purchased patterns. The charming figures of the British book illustrator Kate Greenaway, so popular in American needlework of this era, were rarely seen in Nebraska-made quilts.
More quilts registered in the Nebraska survey were made in the 1930s than any other decade before the 1980s, which reflects the renewed interest in quiltmaking that occurred nationwide at that time. The severe economic depression of that decade revived national concerns for thrift and economy. Women everywhere were encouraged to sew and to undertake a variety of crafts, including quiltmaking, weaving, embroidery work, and block printing in an effort to develop home-based and community industries. Capitalizing on the renewed interest in quilting, farm journals, women’s magazines, and newspapers of the 1930s carried numerous advertisements for quilting kits and patterns—reproductions of the nineteenth-century patterns as well as new ones. Quilt shows and contests were held throughout the country and were enthusiastically attended.
The two most popular pieced-quilt patterns of the 1930s and 1940s among the surveyed Nebraska quilts were Grandmother’s Flower Garden and Double Wedding Ring. Their statewide popularity at the time is confirmed in the September 19, 1931, Nebraska Farmer, a weekly newspaper that reported, “The popular quilt of last year [at the Nebraska State Fair], the Double Wedding Ring, gave way this year to the Flower Garden pattern.” Other pieced patterns observed in large numbers in the Nebraska survey were the Dresden Plate and Irish Chain.
Following pieced patterns in popularity during the 1930s and 1940s were appliqué quilts. Sunbonnet Sue, Colonial Lady, Butterflies, and a variety of floral appliqués were among the most popular patterns. The popularity of the Sunbonnet Sue appliqué pattern reflected the nationwide fad for quilts with juvenile themes that peaked in the 1930s. Commercial patterns were available for Sunbonnet Sue and her partner, Overall Sam; however, judging by the many variations observed in Nebraska quilts, women made their own templates for the designs they saw and liked in a variety of magazines as often as they purchased the commercial pattern or template.
For the popular floral appliqué quilts with naturalistic morning glories, water lilies, tulips, and roses in pastel colors, medallion format, and scalloped edges, commercial patterns or kits were usually purchased and carefully followed. This was characteristic of twentieth-century American appliqué and, therefore, most floral appliqué quilt designs can be traced to a commercial pattern.
The 1950s and 1960s were years of far less quiltmaking in the state and nation. While pieced quilts continued to be made in greater numbers than any other style of construction, a strongly favored pattern did not emerge. Embroidered quilts, usually from kits, followed pieced quilts in popularity during those decades.
[The following text refers to items and information only found in the source text, Nebraska Quilts and Quiltmakers. See below for publication information].
Quiltmaking experienced a revival during the 1970s that grew during the 1980s and is clearly reflected in the numbers of quilts registered in the survey from those two decades. Nearly twice as many quilts were registered from the 1980s than from any other decade. The revival of quiltmaking in the latter half of the twentieth century will be discussed in a later chapter. Nebraska's pieced, appliquéd, embroidered, and Crazy quilts are presented chronologically in the following chapters. A chronological arrangement of the quilts by construction type chosen to depict more clearly the evolution of patterns and changing taste in color, design, and construction.
The pattern name for each pieced and appliquéd quilt is given in the heading. If the quiltmaker's name of the family name of the quilt is used and it is an unconventional name, then the pattern name is placed inside quotation marks.
The date for each quilt is preceded by "circa" if it is an approximate date based on such factors as quilt style, construction, pattern, fabrics, and family history. If the quilt has a date marked by ink, embroidery, or some other means, this is noted by the word "marked" in parentheses after the date. Some quilts did not have a marked date on them; however, the year or years in which they were made could be firmly established. Those quilts have a date that is neither preceded by "circa" nor followed by the worked "marked".
The fiber content for each quilt top is also given in the heading. The fiber content of the batting and backing may be included in the description of each quilt; however, the fiber content of the batting could not always be determined. The fiber content of quilts was confirmed by microscopic analysis to ensure accuracy of the notations. Some contemporary quilts contained broadcloths, muslins, and calicoes that were blends of polyester and cotton rather than 100 percent cotton. Blends were denoted polyester-cotton regardless of the percentages of polyester and cotton present.
Finally, the number assigned to each quilt by the Nebraska Quilt Project (NQP) committee is given in the heading to assist those persons wishing to consult project materials for additional information. Unless otherwise noted, the information about each quilt and maker comes from materials gathered at each site and filled with project documents.
Text reproduced with permission from Nebraska Quilts and Quiltmakers, Patricia Cox Crews and Ronald C. Naugle, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
Nebraska Quilt Project
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Nebraska Quilt Project
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Lincoln; Nebraska; United States
The Nebraska Quilt Project (NQP) began in 1987 and resulted in the registration of over 3,000 quiltmakers and almost 5,000 quilts made in Nebraska or brought to the state by homesteaders or pioneers before the 1920s.
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