Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Constitution Quilt: What Ship Is It?

The Constitution Quilt
66" x 73"

Get out your copy of Robert Shaw's American Quilts: The Democratic Art and look up the Constitution Quilt on page 133. It's a quilt top with many mysteries, which we'll explore here this week and next.

The caption dates it to about 1880 and in the top center is a framed portrait believed to be President James Garfield, who was assassinated after a year in office in 1881. 

Several figurative blocks show Civil War scenes, as in this block, presumed to be a bride and groom with Abraham Lincoln. The maker and place are unknown, and the symbolism in the blocks are speculation.

In 1993 New York folkart dealer America Hurrah offered it for sale with the caption: "The unique appliqued, pieced, and embroidered quilt contains 111 pictorial blocks. The largest...depicts the U.S.S. Constitution, the famed U.S. frigate whose victories in the War of 1812 earned her the nickname 'Old Ironsides.' "

The ship in the center with its sails furled (packed up) is assumed to be The Constitution, whose  nickname "Old Ironsides" refers to her luck in the war with the British Navy. She became a sentimental favorite and one of the last sailing ships in the U.S. Navy. Every time they tried to scrap the ship popular outcry saved her.

The U.S.S. Constitution now sails out of Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston,
thanks to Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy's father, Congressman John F. Fitzgerald
of Boston, who advocated saving the ship in the 1890s.

In her thorough look at the quilt top Sandi Fox in Wrapped in Glory: Figurative Quilts and Bedcovers writes that the ship's "stern clearly bears the name Constitution." Both Fox's and Shaw's books have good photos of the piece and in neither is that word visible.

Embroidered rigging might be confused with text

Is the ship in the quilt The Constitution? She was a sleeker ship than the appliqued three-master.

Here's a picture of her rear end (stern?) in dry dock (I obviously know nothing about boats)
--- but it doesn't look like the same ship.

Perhaps the ship pictured in this Andrew Jackson toile from 1830 is the Constitution,
a reference to Jackson's role in the War of 1812..

Constitution today in Boston's Charlestown Navy Yard

I looked around for lithographs and popular prints of other ships that may have been in the news about 1870 or that saw service in the Civil War.

Nathaniel Currier published a print of the U.S.S. North Carolina in 1842. Here she is with sails furled and the city of New York in the background. This ship was launched in 1820 and spent her last post-Civil-War years there where she was sold (presumably for scrap) October, 1867. The North Carolina was a larger ship displacing 2,633 tons of water while The Constitution displaces 2,200. The North Carolina is wider and taller.

The circular building in the harbor is Castle Garden.

Another possible source for the ship image is this illustration of the Brooklyn Navy Yard published in Harper's Weekly on August 24, 1861. The North Carolina is in the center behind the rowboat. As the Civil War began the Navy Yard was "a scene of remarkable activity.... Nearly twenty-five hundred men are now employed at the Brooklyn Navy-yard, and the number is constantly increasing."

The men in the small boats may have been inspired by the
 rowboat pictured above.

A ship as old as the North Carolina did not see combat but served as a "receiving ship" for Confederate Prisoners, a floating prison. She must have sat in the river with her sails furled for much of the war.

It is really quite foolhardy to speculate about the meaning of the center panel in this quilt. There were dozens of similar ships afloat in the 1865-1880 period when the quilt was made and thousands of family members of sailors who might have been inspired to depict a favorite ship. But I do have serious doubts the quiltmaker intended to portray The Constitution.

Another post next Saturday.


Cheryl's Teapots2Quilting said...

You put so much work into your posts. Thanks for all the history.

Anonymous said...

I thought perhaps the blue pennant flag with 28 stars might be a clue. From my brief look up, I learned the blue US Naval Jack with 28 stars was flown from 7/4/1846 to 7/3/1847. A US flag with 15 stars was authorized in 1795, valid for the War of 1812, was immortalized by Francis Scott Key at bombardment of Ft. McHenry 9/13/1814. In 1818 the 20 star flag became official.
Wendy in NH

Kerry said...

Perhaps it was done from memory - the stern does indeed look different when you look online. Good to see it has been preserved. Could it have been the Columbian - earlier in history but a rounded stern - as was the Lady Washington (although she only had the fore and main masts). Very interesting as I love sailing ships.