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Who Was Anna Tuels? Quilt Stories, 1750-1900
August 30, 2008 - January 25, 2009
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is presenting the exhibition Who Was Anna Tuels? Quilt Stories, 1750-1900, which celebrates the history of quilting from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America. Drawing from its own excellent collection, most of which has not been on view for twenty years, this exhibition complements the museum's unique fall/winter exhibition showcasing the early American Arts and Crafts period.
Quilting, traditionally a primarily female craft, has much to tell us about the lives of women in our past. The Atheneum's exhibition focuses on quilts with a history of ownership, allowing us to explore how these quilts inform us about the women who made them, and vice versa. Where did they get their fabrics? How did they choose those particular designs? For what occasion was the quilt made?
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the famed "Anna Tuels" quilt, believed to be the earliest dated American pieced quilt in existence. Made for Anna in 1785 by her mother, the value of this "bedquilt" rests not simply in its beautiful piecework or close stitching. This quilt is an important historical document; recording for all future generations the tradition of providing a daughter with the items she would require to "go to housekeeping." A special bed cover was often an important part of a young woman's dowry. Her maiden name was traditionally stitched onto linens or carved into dower chests -- or, as in this case, appliquéd onto the bedquilt -- insistently marking those items as her property at a time when, legally, married women had no right to own property.
Anna Tuel's quilt is also a wonderful record of eighteenth-century worsted fabrics imported from England -- with exotic names such as "calamanco," "duroy," and "tapizadoe," as well as the still-familiar "damask." Of necessity, and by design, fabrics are central to the stories told by quilts and their creators. At least two of the other quilts on display in this exhibition were made specifically to show off fabrics the makers had collected. Pennsylvanian Anna Scull (1796-1890) collected bits of the dresses of her ancestors and of famous women of her day (including Martha Washington) to stitch into her hexagon mosaic quilt. Sisters Maria and Flora Barrett of Massachusetts simply collected an amazing thirty-year-range of fabrics. No two pieces in the star designs of their quilt were repeated.
Creating a dazzling quilt was a point of great pride for many women. Miss Submit Gay (1796-1880) of Simsbury, CT won a silver medal from the Hartford County Agricultural Society in 1842 for her "Star of Bethlehem" calico quilt. The labor required to create an elegant red and white feathered star quilt was well remembered by the family of its maker, Miss Ann Jennet Mitchell (1815-1904) of South Britain, Connecticut: "It took nearly a year to quilt it."
The quilts of Who Was Anna Tuels? are organized by age and materials; eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wool and cotton quilts contrast with silk quilts from the second half of the nineteenth-century, which are particularly spectacular visually. As citizens of a more modern age, we can learn much about earlier times and people from the materials and techniques. Jane Naomi Strong Welles' quilt and her workbasket with silk patches and tin template illustrate the process of planning and creating a quilt. The 1856 discovery of the first synthetic dye take on new meaning when seen first-hand through comparison of the earlier quilts with the more recent examples showing an altered and expanded color range and exciting jewel-tone fabrics.
Each quilt tells a story. The Signora May crazy quilt is a poignant remembrance of her three deceased children; whose names are life dates are embroidered within the randomly shaped and elegantly embellished patches. Regardless of when they were created, these extraordinary quilts share stories of celebration, sorrow, remembrance, and hope remain that are still capable of touching our hearts today.
(above: Paper Template-pieced Quilt, "Hourglass," 1785, New England, Various worsteds, silk, and printed cottons, with a wool backing and wool batting. Gift of William L. Warren in memory of Florence Paull Berger, 1967.75)
Introductory wall text
Object labels in the galleries for the exhibition
(above: Paper Template-pieced Quilt, "Tumbling Blocks," c. 1860-70, Made by Jane Naomi Strong Welles (1814-1885) of Hartford, Connecticut, Silk. Gift of Miss Mary Todd, 1977.44a)
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