Saturday, July 22, 2023

Martha or Mary Bowden Gasters' Chintz Quilt


The Drew County Museum in Monticello, Arkansas, owns a chintz quilt attributed to Mrs. Stephen Gaster, about 1840. Who made it and when? We'll see if we can answer any questions.

The quilt looks to have been done in the 1840s or '50s with its
cut-out chintz technique and the fabric in sash and border.

The red sash and blue striped border fabrics are from that era
when block style quilts became the fashion.

Dated 1851, Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University
The sashing stripe is of a type called Pompeiian, inspired
by wall paintings in the excavations at Pompeii.

Boston Museum of Fine Arts Collection

These red ground stripes were popular in Baltimore with
album quiltmakers in the 1845-1855 decade.

Cut-out-chintz or Broderie Perse block dated 1844 in Jeana Kimball's collection
The technique was becoming old fashioned in the forties and we have to say the
Gaster quilt is not as skillfully done as this sampler of chintzes.
But the date of 1840-1860 seems like a good estimate.

Family biographies tell us Stephen Gaster (1800-1860) was "a large planter who came to Arkansas soon after his marriage" from Catahoula Parish, Louisiana in 1832, settling on the Bayou Batholomew near what is now Monticello. It seems Stephen was married twice to sisters Mary Bowden (1802-1843)
and Martha (1799-in the 1860s.) Daughter Catherine was born to Stephen in Arkansas in 1841. Mary Bowden Gaster died in 1843, the year her son Stephen was born.  All these birthdates, Bowdens and places are a bit confusing so we have no idea which Mrs. Gaster was responsible for the quilt---if either.

Stephen Gaster was likely born in Georgia. The 1850 census tells us Martha was born in MI, which has been interpreted to mean Missouri---it's possible that she and sister Mary were born in what was the Louisiana Purchase about the time Jefferson bought it from France, but it's more likely MI meant Mississippi. Martha died sometime before the 1870 census in Arkansas.

Drew County outlined in red on the bayou

The Bowdens may have brought the quilt with them. Time frame and style indicate it could have been made in Arkansas in the '40s or '50s. Drew County might really qualify as a "backwater" in the mid-19th-century, so it's also possible that the available fabric was somewhat out of date. A local history tells us, "For many years the peddling wagon of Ben Martin was the sole dependence of the citizens for dry goods. New Orleans was the distributing point, goods being landed at Pine Bluff."
In the 1840s Gaster established Gaster's Landing on the bayou for
steamships carrying the local cotton.

The Gasters were slave owners on a rather large scale. After Stephen's death right before the Civil War sons his John & Stephen II listed the freed people with whom they had labor contracts for the Freedman's Bureau in 1869, a good genealogical source for people interested in Drew County history.

"Names" of the freedpeople

The quilt speaks of the Gasters' wealth and perhaps of the household's enslaved needlewomen. 

One more clipping: In 1895 long after Martha's death her son James and his wife gave a quilt and a rocking chair to a newly married couple. 

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