Saturday, August 17, 2019

Keckley Quilt on Display: Details & History

Detail of a quilt attributed to dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley,
 made from scraps of Mary Todd Lincoln's dresses.

The Museum at Kent State University regularly exhibits this quilt and has it on display in the current show Ohio Quilts from the Collection, up until April, 2020.

The center features an eagle embroidered in silver thread (tarnished now)
with the word Liberty below, a poignant message from a woman born in slavery.

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (1818-1907)
in her forties during the Civil War.

Quilt attributed to Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley. Gift of Ross Trump
in memory of his mother, Helen Watts Trump
Kent State University Museum

Mary Todd Lincoln (1818 – 1882)
Carte-de-visite sold by the Brady Studios
The women were the same age. Lizzie dressed
more appropriately for her years.

Mary Lincoln had a serious shopping problem. After her husband was killed the widow's assets consisted primarily of the dresses she'd commissioned while she was First Lady.

The New York auction

Friends including "Washington modiste" Elizabeth Keckley organized a benefit sale of those dresses in New York, which scandalized quite a few, including the New York Herald.

"The most valuable portion of her wardrobe [is] for sale, from necessity, as it is alleged....We regret, as every sensible American must regret, to see the private affairs of Mrs. Lincoln thus brought before the public. It cannot but lead to gossip and disagreeable discussions."

A reporter interviewed Keckley, who was "daily to be seen in the establishment [auction rooms run by a Mr. Brady]... She remarks rather plausibly that no such outcry is made in France when the Empress [Eugenie] sells her wardrobe."

Brady's exhibition rooms were "packed to suffocation," but the wardrobe did not sell and Mary had to buy back the articles.We can assume that many of those dresses were made at Lizzie Keckley's establishment. Keckley did not label the fashions she made for Mrs. Lincoln, Varina Davis and other capital women so attributing the garments to any particular workshop is impossible.

Dress at the Smithsonian, worn in 1861 & 1862

Elizabeth Way who researched the Keckley/Lincoln connection for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History listed a few possible dresses.
The NMAH has "a Mary Lincoln gown, a purple velvet dress with two bodices....There’s a buffalo plaid green and white day dress with a cape at the Chicago History Museum. At the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois, you’ll find a black silk dress with a strawberry motif that you’d wear to a strawberry party, which was a 19th-century Midwestern picnic tradition, but it’s disputed as to whether or not it’s a Keckley. Penn State (sic) has a quilt that Keckley made from dress fabrics, and other items are floating around in collections. For example, Howard University has a pincushion with her name on it."
Green and white plaid outfit from the 
Chicago History Museum

Sally Field portraying Mary Todd Lincoln in
the movie Lincoln

The date of the Keckley quilt is unknown but it's generally thought to be late 1860s.

Scraps left over from the Lincoln dresses may be in the 
hexagons but the intricately embroidered  panels look like 
parts of deconstructed garments. How many embroiderers
did Mary Lincoln keep busy in the early 1860s?

UPDATE: Charlene got to see this quilt and she posted pictures of the labels which tell us:

Ruth Finley "described it in a lecture in 1954" as a gift from Elizabeth Keckley to Mary Lincoln and Mary slept under it in the White House. Mary took it with her after the assassination.

According to Ruth Finley the Keckley quilt was kept with other Lincoln articles. It was probably  stored in the many trunks of hoarded fabrics and dresses that Mary Lincoln held on to until she died in 1882. Son Robert Lincoln, her only surviving child, had to deal with his unstable mother and her stored trunks.

Robert Todd Lincoln (1843 – 1926) at

the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922.

Did the Lincoln family sell the quilt to Finley, who is the source for the story that the quilt was made by Keckley from Lincoln scraps? Apparently, an affidavit verifying the provenance accompanied the quilt, according to quilt historian Susan Wildemuth. The Keckley quilt is not mentioned in Finley's book Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them, published in 1929. We assume she acquired it after that date. Robert Lincoln died July 26, 1926 so he is not the seller.

Robert had two daughters Jessie Harlan Lincoln Beckwith who died in 1948 and Mary Todd Lincoln Isham who died in 1938. These women or their children may have been Finley's contacts. The Finley family sold the quilt in 1967. Karen Alexander wrote about that sale:
"Family members held a tag sale at one of the family farms in Ohio. Ross Trump, who handled the sale, reported in an interview to quilt historian Ricky Clark that few of the quilts sold.... Eventually Mr. Trump purchased several of the quilts himself, including the Lincoln Quilt."

Apparently the 1967 sale went little better than the 1867 sale.

He donated the quilt to the museum in 1994.

Purported to be Elizabeth "Lizzie" Keckley
The backdrop features Baltimore's Battle Monument...

seen on Baltimore Album Quilts. Lizzie spent a short time in Baltimore before war.

See posts on Elizabeth Keckley and this quilt:

And read much more about the ill-fated wardrobe sale:


QuiltGranma said...

What a lovely post with a beautiful quilt and info.

Holly said...

I just love your work! Thank you for the blogs, patterns, and digital program.