This year, the TRC in Leiden is exhibiting a large number of American quilts. The TRC does so through the current American Quilts exhibition, and from September as part of an exhibition about textiles, dress and World War II. This display will include a number of relief-quilts made by the Mennonite community in the USA and Canada during the war to be sent to Europe to provide warmth and protection to the refugees in war-torn Europe.
Recently, national and international attention has focussed on Harriet Powers (1837-1910), who made two quilts that have become an important part of American cultural heritage. A separate entry in TRC Needles refers to her life and work. TRC volunteer, Shelley Anderson, wrote the following short blog:
Harriet Powers is sometimes referred to as America’s most famous quilter. Her two known surviving quilts are now national treasures: her Bible Quilt (NMAH 283472), made around 1885-1886, is in the National Museum of American History (Washington, DC), while her Pictorial Quilt (MFA 64.619), circa 1895-1898, is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (Massachusetts).
Although she has been the subject of several books and numerous essays, little is known about Harriet Powers herself. She was born enslaved in a rural area of Georgia (USA), married young and raised nine children. She and her husband were able to buy a few acres of land to farm, but later sold their land. It was poverty that forced her to sell her beloved Bible Quilt.
She exhibited it in 1886 at the Athens Cotton Fair, where the local artist Jennie Smith offered to buy it. "I have spent my whole life in the South, and am perfectly familiar with thirty patterns of quilts, but I had never seen an original design, and never a living creature portrayed in patchwork, until [that] year….The scenes on the quilt were biblical and I was fascinated. I offered to buy it, but it was not for sale at any price," she wrote later.
Four years later, Powers contacted her and offered to sell the quilt for ten dollars. Smith finally bought the quilt for five dollars, but not until Powers explained all 11 blocks, including Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Cain killing his brother Abel, and the Last Supper.
Her Pictorial Quilt (175 x 267) is also made of cotton and also uses appliqué. It is made up of 15 blocks that depict people, animals and astronomical phenomena, including a solar eclipse.
Both quilts are part of a long tradition of story quilts by African-American women. As the scholar Dr. Gladys-Marie Fry noted, African-American women were denied education, and used cloth as a diary, to record their lives.
Powers’ appliquéd figures have been linked to the appliqué textiles that portray stories of the Fon people (Benin, formerly Dahomey, in West Africa). It is thought that Powers made at least three other story quilts, including one of the Last Supper, but their present whereabouts are unknown. You can see details of her Bible Quilt at https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_556462.
Shelley Anderson, Saturday, 27th June 2020