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Before women were able to vote, they supported their political ideals with their home arts. One of these arts was quilting and they have left us with a history of political quilt patterns that are still made and enjoyed today. To understand how these quilts played a roll in our elections in the first half of the 19th century, we will have to look at how they lived.
Most of the families lived in homes that only had a couple of rooms and a loft. Building a house was expensive until the 1850’s when balloon construction was developed and less wood was needed and home building became less expensive. The homes had a main room that had a cooking hearth and the family did all their activities there. Off to one side a room was added for the parents bedroom and the loft provided a space for the rest of the family to sleep. Sometimes the youngest children or elderly members slept in the main living area which held the “good bed.” This was the guest bed and usually was a trundle bed so that visiting friends and family had some where to sleep. Travel was hard and slow so visitors would spend the night and return home the next day. Also travelers would stop at a home on the main roads and ask to stay the night because there was very few inns to stay in when traveling long distances. The travelers would pay for their lodgings and bring news from other towns. On the good bed, the best feather ticks, linens and quilts was kept. Here on the good bed, was a place were women took pride in showing off and displaying her needle skills and talents. Enterprising ladies would place a sign on the main roads to invite travelers to their homes in order to supplement their families income.
Elections was held usually in early May after the roads were passable or in early November before winter weather. That way the election would not interfere with planting crops and the harvest. Therefore voters could take time to travel long distance to the polling place and arrive early enough to take part in the electioneering. The towns that had the election polls would get ready for all the visitors and make it a holiday. In the New England States the only holidays that Puritans celebrated was Thanksgiving and elections. Everyone that had a room for guests would open their homes up to the voters. All this was usually coordinated by the party leaders to attract voters to vote for their candidates. So the best cooks and bakers would make special meals to sell to the visitors during all the speeches and campaigning. One of the special treats that was offered was a slice of election cake that was a popular fruit cake after a vote was cast.
Sometimes the homes that took in guests in the election towns and on the roads leading to the town would have a quilt that was made to express political support for a party. Quilts made from new fabrics was a expensive luxury in the first half of the 19th century, just like it is today. All the fashions leaders was the ladies from wealth and they had the time to make fine appliquéd quilts. Most wealthy families supported the Whig Party and showed it with a quilt pattern named for the party called the Whig Rose. Traditionally it was made in madder red, pink, chrome yellow and green on white muslin.
Being such a beautiful appliqué pattern, many ladies even in rural areas made a version of this quilt to decorate their home following the fashion of the time. Also it could have been an expression of their support for public school education. Which was part of the Whig Party platform to build public schools and normal schools to train women teachers to educate children to build a better economy for the country. Public schools was a radical new idea in education and was not being done in Europe and an issue that would have appealed to mothers.
Another notable pattern in quilts in this period of time was the Whig defeat pattern.
Ladies that supported the Democrat Party would have made this pattern. It was linked to the election of James Polk a Democrat that defeated Henry Clay a Whig in 1844. The block was both pieced and appliquéd traditionally in madder red, white, blue and indigo. The appliquéd plumes traditionally was done in indigo and represented rooster tail feathers because the rooster was the symbol of the Democrat Party at that time. It was a pattern that was suitable for scrap quilting and would have been done in less affluent homes of immigrants that supported the Democrats. The quilters also made of version of the Whig Rose pattern that they called the Democratic Rose that was less elaborate and more folk art and the pink sometimes would have been replaced with cheddar orange..
The campaign quilt for James Buchanan was the Rose of Sharon. He was the democrat candidate that won the election in 1856. Former Whig President Millard Fillmore nominated by the Know Nothing Party and John Fremont the first candidate of the Republican Party were defeated by Buchanan. This was the end of the area of the Whig Party that had been divided by the issue of slavery and could no longer hold a coalition together. This pattern was a red rose because Buchanan was from Lancaster, Pa. In the War of the Roses in England the Lancaster’s was the red rose and the York’s was the white rose.
Probably the most famous quilts of this political period was the Baltimore Album quilts. They were presentation quilts made by a group of wealthy women known as the Ladies of Baltimore. A presentation quilt was made and given to men that was retiring from office or from a business. Many of the ladies would buy the block kits from a designer Mary Simon. Her husband owned a rug shop in Baltimore and had immigrated from Prussia. According to journals left by these ladies they would meet often to make these quilts to give at a special occasions including weddings and birthdays. Many of the blocks in the quilts that survived in museums have political themes. The cornucopia with flowers is actually the knit caps that the Whigs put on the polls out side of their homes during the American Revolution and expressed the Whig party affiliation of the person that the quilt was given too. The quilts were only made for 10 years and stopped after a cholera epidemic that devastated the population of Baltimore in 1854.
Women do have a history of their own in political activities that isn’t well known but they left clues in their quilting, recipes, and journals. Historians of the time didn’t see them important enough to write about it. But with out their help in opening up their homes for guests and cooking for the elections it would not have been possible to have efficient elections in the early days. Also the Whig party only lasted for 20 years when the American art form of quilting first became popular.
I am looking forward to your comments and questions.