Saturday, March 7, 2015

Symbolism in an Abolition Quilt

Detail of a British wool quilt, perhaps made
by a recovering soldier in the 1850s.
How many stitches per square?

Historians caution that we often read symbolism in old artifacts that was not intended by the maker. Another error is in interpreting that symbolism in the context of our era. We tend to ignore or be ignorant of the culture of the past.

In quilt history people make many assumptions in the areas of slavery and Civil War quilts. So few quiltmakers left any written record of symbolic meaning in their quilts, but so many meanings have been attached to them.

For example, story tellers like to attach tales 
of mid-19th-century runaway slaves to this sailboat pattern, even though
the pattern is a definite mid-20th-century design.

Broadside for an Anti-Slavery Fair in western New York, 1849

Letter from Margaret Brachen published in the Liberty Bell

One example of actual written evidence for symbolism is in a letter from a woman named Margaret Brachen of Halifax, England, in West Yorkshire. She wrote to Maria Weston Chapman, the power behind the Boston area abolition fairs that raised funds for the antislavery cause. Chapman published the letter in the Report of the 24th National Anti-Slavery Festival in 1858. 

I first saw the letter published in
the New Lisbon Ohio Anti-Slavery
Bugle, March 13, 1858

Bracken or Brachen wrote the letter on October 13, 1857 describing a "patched bed-quilt," she'd shipped for the Christmas, 1857 fair.
"Whilst sitting at my work, I thought there must be as many stitches in my quilt as you have slaves in America, and I counted the stitches in one row, and found them to be on an average twenty-five, and each square having four sides, made one hundred ; there are three squares in a box, and thirty-five boxes in width, and forty-two in length, so that it was a simple question in multiplication, the simple result of which is, that there are about twenty times as many slaves in America as there are stitches in my quilt...."
After a reflection on recent uprisings in the British colony of India she went on:
"One other thought suggested by my quilt I had almost forgotten. You will see that the lights and the darks and the blacks are all arranged so as to act, or rather harmonize, in concert; and so M'ould the races..."
Bracken then made suggestions about ending slavery by writing kind letters to slave-owners asking exactly how much money each would require to release their bondspeople.
"When an old woman has patched a quilt, she longs to tell some of the thoughts which occupied her mind during the progress of the work."
Maria Weston Chapman (1806-1885)
Collection of the Boston Public Library

Chapman added a footnote:
"This wonderfully beautiful proof of patient industry and profound sympathy for suffering humanity is henceforth an heirloom in the family of Mrs. Bracken's American correspondent..."
They bought the quilt for Bracken's value of 6 guinea (about $350-$400 today.)

Box but no squares

We have no idea what Margaret Bracken's quilt looked like or where it is today, but we can imagine it was pieced of squares into a box pattern, perhaps like some the quilt at the top of the page or below. 

Squares in a box?
Oops---I am imagining too much from the descriptions. I should be content with not knowing.

We may need to imagine the pattern but we needn't imagine the symbolism because Margaret Bracken's thoughts have survived in print.

See a scan of the Report of the 24th National Anti-Slavery Festival at Internet Archive: 


Chantal said...

Most interesting post. We all know there is a story behind or sown into each quilt so it is very easy (and fun) to speculate.

Suzanne A said...

I'm not a fan of Donald Rumsfeld, who (ironically) said it more colorfully, but it's important to know what you don't know. Speculation is necessary tho to understanding and discovery. It seems both are part of confronting history, as you show us in this thoughtful post.

WoolenSails said...

Wonderful post and wonderful that woman had diaries that told us the stories of their lives. Some day I should sit in our library archives, they have a lot of diaries and history of the area.


Unknown said...

Your first picture reminds me of our Dutch flag, red-white-blue and orange stands for our Royal Family! I wonder if this quilt is made by a Dutch woman (women?)

Lynn Dykstra said...

I love that ships set and just finished a top inspired by it.