Mary Barton: Iowa Quilt Collector

Elise Schebler Roberts describes the quilting life of Mary Barton, an Iowa Quilt Collector. Roberts describes Barton as being enthusiastic, preserving, detailed and ahead of her time.

“This notebook is meant to lead you into the research notebooks. I was working towards a someday book. Hopefully, my research will help you understand the quilting woman of the nineteenth century-her life style-the magazines she read (if she could read), her schooling, her household tasks, her travels, her possible employment-and of course if she was affected by emigration or migration”. Notes to collection, Mary Barton, 1988.
So begins Mary Pemble Barton’s notebook to the curatorial staff at the State Historical Society of Iowa, which she penned upon donating parts of her collections to the society in 1988.  The remainder of Mary’s collection was donated in 1995.
Mary Ann Pemble was born in 1917 and grew up in central Iowa.  Like many girls from that era, she learned to sew at an early age, but Mary Pemble was exceptional.  She won prizes for her work at the state fair. Even as a young girl she documented her work, keeping notebooks that included fabrics from each sewing project.
Mary attended Simpson College in her hometown of Indianola and graduated from Iowa State University, Ames, in 1942 with a degree in landscape architecture. It was here that she met and married Thomas Barton, then followed him to Washington, D.C. During World War II many women found themselves in jobs related to the war effort, often in factories or offices.  Again, Mary proved to be exceptional.  Her degree in landscape architecture included drafting experience, a skill greatly needed by the Allies. Mary found work with the United States Navy Department drafting air navigation maps, and volunteered in a Washington, D.C. hospital. She “retired” in 1946 to raise a family of four sons.
Her quilt collection began by accident when she inherited some family quilts upon her grandmother’s death in 1949. Mary began to actively collect quilts and quilt memorabilia in the 1960s. In 1968 she developed her first quilt presentation, called “Aunt Mary’s Quilting Party,” a skit for the Faculty Women’s Club at Iowa State University where her husband worked. The same year Mary began to make her own heritage quilt, a remarkable appliquéd and pieced work that documented her family history.  In her quilt notebook Mary wrote, “I spent 7 years making the Heritage quilt top and it was quilted by women of St. Petri Lutheran Church in Story City, Iowa. My Heritage quilt showed the gradual progression of one generation after another marrying and moving westward to Iowa.” The quilt won an honorable mention at the National Bicentennial Quilt Exposition, held in Warren, Michigan, in August 1976.  About this she simply recorded “Heritage Quilt at 1976 Bicentennial Quilt Show received a pink ribbon and lots of attention.”  In 1999 it was chosen as one of the Twentieth Century’s Best American Quilts and featured in the book by the same name.
As with her early sewing projects, Mary kept a record of the quilt, including scraps of fabrics used and maps featuring the historical movement of her family form North Carolina to Iowa. This 100” x 102” quilt  included fabrics dating back to the nineteenth century.  The center block features the American Eagle, symbolizing the United States.  In each corner is an appliquéd church, representing the freedom of religion so highly prized in early America.  This block is bordered by twelve cabins and the pine tree block.  Bonneted women and children “walk” around another border, symbolizing the long journey.  They are cheered along the way by quilt patterns, including star blocks, windmills and Carolina Lily.  Covered wagons surround the women on three sides of the quilt.  At the bottom border men carrying farm and building tools head left, or West.  In the quilt’s top corners she appliquéd the mountains of North Carolina.  The bottom corners include a map of the journey and a newspaper description of Iowa settlers.
By the 1980s, Mary was a nationally known lecturer and quilt historian. In 1983 she created the Study Center in her home state’s first quilt conference.  She was inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame in 1984.  During the late 1980s and 1990s, Mary began to donate her collection of quilts and quilt history to various organizations, including the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa State University and Living History Farms, Des Moines, Iowa.  Mary’s interest in fabrics and quilting continued into the 21st century.  She died on December 7, 2003 at the age of 86.

Mary’s Collection
A researcher in the Mary Barton collection is first struck by its enormity.  The textile collection includes not just hundreds of quilts, but examples of women’s and children’s clothing, quilt block study panels that Mary made, and many other household textiles.  Mary made more than a hundred fabric study notebooks, most of which she divided by color or fabric types, each swatch accompanied by copious notes in her handwriting. Archival boxes overflow with quilt patterns, templates, nineteenth and twentieth century women’s magazines and more notes. Finally, Mary maintained and donated an extensive collection of quilting books, reflecting the types of published materials available during the early part of the quilting renaissance of the 1970s.

The Quilts:  The quilts and quilt tops in the collection date primarily from 1850 to 1930 and represent both the Midwest and New England.  Common patterns abound: Log Cabin, Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, Nine Patches and Chimney Sweep among many.  What is most fascinating about the quilts are Mary’s notes.  One Basket Quilt  includes the following note: “This quilt to go 2 [unreadable]. The blocks was sewed by my sister Mattie in 1865 and were given for a wedding present of use. Some of my mother’s Aunt Mary Slater’s and myself dresses and all calico was 50 cents per yard Civil War prices”. Civil War prices put the cost of fabric at around $5.00.  Mary bought this quilt at Iowa auction for $77.75 in 1975. Mary identified another quilt as a Crossed Canoes pattern, probably made in Iowa ca. 1900  Her notes state “The pattern for this design was available through the Ladies Art Company of catalogues from St. Louis.  This pattern came out in the 1890s and this company influenced quilting into the 1930s.” 
The Study Panels:  In her notes to the collection Mary wrote “Quilts can be like fossils also if we can show the relationship between dress fabric and quilt fabric.”   To prove this, Mary created visual aids by sewing quilt blocks, fabric and clothing to muslin panels.  Her goal was to make connections between the manufacture of fabrics and their use in clothing and household textiles.  “Valuable or not depends on a knowledge of quilt history and fashion history. Only certain types of quilts represent best dress fabric. Period in time, tastes, availability of fabrics and all the factors that make up the history of each must be considered.”  In one panel she has twelve pieced blocks of various patterns containing red prints and a baby dress made from a similar print.  Another panel compares nine pieced basket patterns from different time periods.  “One of my rules was to look at fabrics and ask if a frontier woman had it, or if it belonged to a woman living in a village, town or city.”  Barton’s study panel notes often comment on the possible origins of the blocks, such as a panel of star blocks ca. 1850-65. She writes “Probably made by child during migration or before coming to Iowa.”  In this case she was commenting on both the quality of construction as well as origin of fabric. 
In addition to the study panels, the collection includes many items of women’s and children’s clothing, which Mary intended to use for dating fabrics.  Examples include a jacket and trousers, ca. 1917, worn by her four-year-old brother Vincent, a cotton and wool petticoat, ca. 1870 and a Mennonite Dress which carried the following note “Dress worn by Amy Luscomb who lived in Lone Tree, Iowa.  She died in 1911.  Her granddaughter wore the dress in parades.”  Other clothing related items include women’s stockings, shawls, corsets and hand crocheted lace collars.
The Notebooks:  A highlight for researchers, and the element that makes this collection most unusual are Mary’s notebooks.   In the notes to the collection she writes “I clipped and saved  all the quilt patterns just like women were supposed to do.  You will see the clip and save phrase on many of the 20th century patterns.  I was fortunate in having friends add to the patterns collection.”  Mary created over 100 of these notebooks, which includes fabric scraps, drawings, patterns, advertisements and fabric production and care. All are covered with copious notes in her handwriting.  Pattern Notebooks are organized by style and Fashion Notebooks by decade. There are nine notebooks devoted to fabric dyes.  Mary convinced a graduate student in the Art Department at Iowa State University to experiment with some of the dye recipes, and the student’s notebook is also included in the collection. While generally straightforward in her description, occasionally she editorialized such as in the Miscellaneous Patterns notebook (1989.8.6).  Here she writes “Some hard to put in any category, some good to weird. This notebook includes variety of patterns. Some should never have been created.” 
Published Materials:  Mary collected examples of popular 19th century magazines such as Godey’s Ladies Book to identify fashions and fabrics.  The collection also includes 1920s era Home Economics Circulars from Iowa State University on topics such as Personality in Dress and Bias Tape Uses.  Book topics include fashion histories and quilting techniques, and span a hundred year period from the 1880s through the 1980s. All of these materials are supplemented by hundreds of issues of Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine, American Quilter, Quilt World and Quilter’s Journal.

The Mary Barton Collection and Cultural Memory
What drove Mary Barton to collect and study quilting so extensively?  In looking at her notes, her interviews and the collection, one explanation may be the desire to preserve Cultural Memory. This is information passed through generations within a community to ensure continuation of the groups’ belief systems and traditions.  It consists of several levels of memory:  individual, family, community and societal.  Scholars also use the terms collective or public memory (Casey, 2004; Coser, 1992).

Cultural memory develops in families and communities with a shared historical and cultural background.  It can also form through separate experiences of common events such as westward migration, war or other experiences.  A modern day example would be 9/11.  Most adults have a memory of what they were doing on that day, and have shared that memory with younger generations.  Agnes Heller (2001) writes that creating a cultural memory is essential to the continuation of the group.  As long as memories are maintained, the group continues to exist.  However, if the memory is lost, the group disappears.  “[T]he very life or decay of a people, does not depend on the biological survival of an ethnic group, but on the survival of shared cultural memory” (p. 1032). 
Shared memories require the ability to communicate with each other through words, pictures, music or other forms of communication (Casey, 2004).  Mary Barton’s notebooks and study panels were not just created for her own use, she intended to use them to communicate with others.  In her collection notes she writes about C.T. Hinckley’s articles on fabric production.  She states “I consider him a very observing man and value the historical record he has given us.”  She also notes that “I’ve placed his articles in one notebook so he can be judged by you.”  Mary is acknowledging not only Hinckley’s role and her own in preserving a cultural memory, but also recognizing that the acceptance of that memory is in the hands of the future generations. Likewise, she invokes the sharing of memory in her discussions of fabric dyeing.  She states “Women weren’t given enough information in the magazines to do much dyeing. Some advice was needed from elders.”  Multiple layers of community are invoked here-the larger, yet impersonal community of magazine readers, and the smaller, personal community of one’s elders. 
Mary’s Heritage Quilt is the ultimate act of cultural memory.  Art itself is “fundamental to the reproduction of culture and society” (Carroll, 2005).  The Heritage Quilt is a piece of memorial or commemorative art, designed to tell a story that enhances group identity.  Through it Mary invokes common themes of western migration, religious freedom and patriotic pride.  These were the themes of the United States Bicentennial, an event meant to heal the United States after the turbulent 1960s and end of the divisive Vietnam War.
Mary Barton has been described as enthusiastic, persevering, detailed and ahead of her time. She boldly states her purpose in creating the collection - to help future generations understand the woman of the 19th century.  Mary’s work also sheds insights into the world of 20th century quilt study practices and is a boon to quilt researchers worldwide.

Barton, M. (1988) Notes to Collection. Document in the Collection of the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines.
Carroll, N. (2005). Art and recollection. The Journal of Aesthetic Education 39(2). 1-12.
Casey, E. E. (2004). Public memory in place and time.  In K. R. Phillips (Ed.),   Framing public memory (pp. 17-144)Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press. 
Coser, L. A. (Ed.). (1992). Maurice Halbwachs:  On collective memory. Chicago,  IL:  University of Chicago Press.
Heller, A. (2001). A tentative answer to the question:  Has civil society cultural  memory?  Social Research, 68(4). 1031-40.


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  • Documentation Project

    Iowa Quilt Research Project

    State Historical Society of Iowa