This day in history: October 29

1837: Quilting

African-American folk artist Harriet Powers External, nationally recognized for her quilts, was born in rural Georgia on October 29, 1837. Using a traditional appliqué technique, Powers recorded local legends, Bible stories, and astronomical events on her quilts. Considered among the finest examples of nineteenth-century Southern quilting, Powers’ work is on display at the Smithsonian Institution and is featured in the online exhibition Seven Southern Quilters External.

Lora King’s Hands. Terry Eiler, photographer; Virginia: Meadows of Dan Baptist Church, 1978. Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978 to 1996. American Folklife Center

In 1938, one hundred years after Powers’ birth, Mayme Reese shared her own memories of quilting in turn-of-the-century South Carolina with a Federal Writers’ Project interviewer. Just as the beauty of Powers’ work transcended race and class, Reese’s recollections suggest fine quilting was a skill that Southern women of all classes appreciated. Reese remembered:

Sometimes rich white women would hear that such and such a person had won the prize for pretty quilts, they’d come and ask that person to make them a quilt…Sometimes they’d make it and sometimes they wouldn’t…If they did make it, they’d get around five dollars…Sometimes they’d furnish the scraps and sometimes they wouldn’t. Most of the time, though, they’d buy pieces of goods and give it to the person who was making the quilt to cut up.

[Mrs. Mayme Reese]. Dorothy West, interviewer; New York City, September 21, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

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