THE NECESSARY ingredients were there: the women, the city, the port, the fabrics, the church. But it was the women--two in particular--who had the key role in the making of the Baltimore Album Quilts, 1846-52.
Consultant curator of textiles Dena Katzenberg of the Baltimore Museum of Art, where the quilt exhibition opens today, explained:
"The other factors were important but quilters Achsah Goodwin Wilkins, her prote'ge' Mary Evans, and their cronies, were primarily responsible for the quilts. When their group dispersed, quilting continued but never again along the same lines."
The 25 quilts on display (through Feb. 7) were made by these Baltimore women. Fewer than 55 are known to exist. Their name is derived from the friendship albums that were popular during the mid-19th century. Katzenberg notes in her introduction to the exhibition catalogue that these albums contained collections of sentimental verses and drawings, religious homilies and framed signatures with bindings often stamped with a gold script "Album." Obviously, the quilts were analogous to autograph albums. Each quilt block was like an album page, worked instead of written, by a friend.
The typical maker of the quilts, Katzenberg deducts, was probably a woman, old enough to have acquired some skills in quiltmaking; a resident of Baltimore; and a Methodist. Her husband or brother was probably an independent craftsman (cabinetmaker, silversmith). Although she couldn't vote, she was aware of current events.
The source of inspiration for the quiltmakers was probably an older woman, Achsah Goodwin Wilkins (1775-1854). "Her exceptional creativity is evident in the composition of many of the Baltimore Album Quilts," says Katzenberg in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition. "She seems to have been extraordinarly sensitive to original and complementary ways of arranging printed cottons."
Mary Evans (1829-1916) was probably a prote'ge' of Wilkins, says Katzenberg, since they were both members of a needlework group that called itself the "Ladies of Baltimore." Evans was believed to have been a professional quilter who took orders for an entire quilt. The quilts attributed to her seem to have been entirely made by one person. Known for her sophisticated design sense, Evan's trademark are elaborate floral sprays, baskets of flowers and the most sophisticated harbor scenes, ships, trains and Baltimore monuments. Her name, however, does not appear on any of the quilts.
The Album quilts are a series of squares laid out in a grid pattern. Some of the squares are applique'd, others are pieced work, some are a combination of both. (Applique' is the technique of laying one bit of fabric upon another and sewing it down. Pieced work is the practice of sewing together many small pieces of materials to make a large piece -- usually forming a geometric design.)
The fabrics, designs and stitchery used in the Baltimore Album Quilts set them apart from others. Many of the squares were signed -- often not by the quiltmaker but by the person for whom the quilt was being made or by someone whose calligraphy was sought. The Album Quilts have a more spacious layout than ordinary quilts, often focusing on a central motif. The borders and sashes of these quilts were often printed in bright colors. Some include the Greek key design.
While the talent and design ideas belonged to the quiltmakers, says Katzenberg, the availability of cloth was due to Baltimore's location. Baltimore was the third largest city in population and the largest American seaport at the time, located on the Chesapeake Bay, farther inland than other East Coast cities and therefore well protected. Ships laden with fabrics from England, France, the Indies, the Near and Far East came to Baltimore first, giving its women the opportunity to see, buy and imitate fabrics that were very different from those made here. Chintzes from England and Persian lustres from France, silks, velvets and more flowed in.
Baltimore itself had its own growing textile industry. In fact, between 1840 and 1860 American textile production doubled throughout the country, said Katzenberg. American-made printed cottons, calicoes, ginghams, checks and plaids were among the domestic cloths produced. In Baltimore County the Warren Manufacturing Company finished its first bale of calico in 1820, and by 1831 the Rockland Print Works were printing 8,000 yards a day. Between 1830 and 1840 cotton production was the largest industry in Baltimore and the rest of the country.
The quiltmakers selected fabrics that made their designs come alive. Whereas in the past quilts had literally been made of patches of scrap material, each piece of material in each square of a Baltimore Album Quilts was chosen with reason. For instance, one square depicts a bowl of fruit. A dotted green ripple-printed rainbow fabric stitched horizontally clearly gives the feeling of a watermelon rind. In another, a peacock feather is brought to life by layering smaller and smaller concentric circles of fabric on top of each other.
Katzenberg says in particular four fabrics were used to suggest contour, dimension, movement, shading and texture. Rainbow or fondu fabrics came both plain or printed and gave a contoured or shaded effect. Vermiculate fabric (one with tiny allover motifs) realistically illustrated furs and feathers (such as peacock feathers). Turkey-red plain and printed fabric show up in many of the fire engines, train cars, cherries and strawberries as well as the lattice work baskets. French Restoration-style prints were used for the leaf or scrolling patterns to accent vases, urns and pedestals as well as in the sash and border areas. Novelty prints with certain colors and fruits were "surely purchased with a special purpose in mind," observes Katzenberg.
In addition to the endless variety of fabrics used, the designs on each quilt were novel. Traditional patchwork patterns were sometimes used, but more often the quiltmakers incorporated monuments. Baltimore's Washington Monument was a favorite, as was the Capitol building in Washington. In one quilt (ca. 1850) the Washington Monument depicted on one of the squares includes a statue of George himself at the top -- a detail not present in other representations. Log cabins and cider barrels (a symbol for William Henry Harrison during his successful bid for the presidency) -- and signs of the times such as fire engines, trains and Baltimore Clipper ships were popular themes. One quilt (ca. 1845) attributed to a member of the Le Compte family has a square with a festive red and yellow fire engine, "a reminder of the excitement, rowdyism and frequent mayhem that attended fires in Baltimore during this period," says Katzenberg. Another quilt, made for Samuel Williams (1846-47), has a square depicting a steam engine. "The railroad theme on a Baltimore Album Quilt is pertinent," explains Katzenberg. "In 1827 Maryland financiers initiated the American railroad system by incorporating the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad."
The flowers, trees and birds of the imported British chintzes were also copied. Other common designs included the Indian tree of life and the woven wicker basket of fruit or flowers. Achsah Goodwin Wilkins used the wicker basket in many of her quilts.
Another source for design was the folk art of the Western Maryland Germans and the neighboring Pennsylvania Dutch. The Germans often decorated in color their records of births, baptisms and marriages. The Pennsylvania Dutch's cut paper craft provided lacy, intricate web designs to be copied on fabric.
Katzenberg observes that many of the same motifs that appear on the Baltimore painted furniture, as well as on the Baltimore-made silver of this time period, carried many of the same designs as those that appear on the quilts. Katzenberg believes that these cabinetmakers and silversmiths were the husbands of some of the quilters since the names are the same.
The needlework, not only the fancy stitches, but the way the design was put together, giving extra padding to make a grape or pear stand out or take shape (trapunto work), is another distinguishing characteristic of the Album Quilts. In the 19th century American women began to "improvise a less formal, more romantic style" of stitchery -- different from the traditional and formal European style. More naturalistic flowers and trees, as well as more scenes: brick schools, houses with picket fences, ponds with ducks, etc. Trapunto work, ruching (a gathering or puckering of material to create a three dimensional figure) and the choice of quilting pattern give the Album quilts their own "look."
The Methodist Church was a major factor in providing the quiltmakers with an organization to work within. According to Katzenberg, Baltimore "had been the birthplace of organized Methodism in America . . . social life, particularly for the women who had few other gathering places outside the domestic circle, was intimately bound up with church activities." These activities included sewing groups that made clothes and bedcovers -- including quilts -- for the poor. About one-third of the quilt names have a Methodist connection -- either they were made by a Methodist woman or for a Methodist minister.
Once this group of quiltmakers dispersed, the era of the Baltimore Album Quilt drew to a close, says Katzenberg. "The talents were not passed on and so were lost." Other authorities believe fewer quilts were made after women had more educational opportunities and less leisure time.