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The history of textiles and of the development of quilting in America have been explored in both general and specialized volumes by many authors. These and other valuable sources of information are listed in the Bibliography and contain a wealth of specific, if sometimes contradictory, information.
With the recent surge of interest in collecting American folk art, there has developed an unprecedented fascination with crib quilts among collectors. In fact, fine crib quilts and Amish quilts (both of which were taken for granted for years but are now somewhat scarce) are two of the most sought-after items in the entire antiques market. Inevitably, with this sudden, in some cases fanatic, enthusiasm for crib quilts, we have seen prices soar. Because crib quilts are small, they can be hung as "textile paintings" in spaces that cannot accommodate full-size quilts. And viewed as original works of art, they still are a bargain, even at the dramatically increased prices recently recorded. One crib quilt that we sold in our gallery three years ago for under $100 is now appraised at $600. Another, purchased originally for $300 in 1976, is now worth over $4,000.
Of course, not all crib quilts are rising in value as quickly. Few are so desirable, and some are not even crib quilts at all, but rather cutdown versions of full-size quilts or reproductions of crib quilts. These, which are glutting the market and are even sold at the most famous auction houses, are worth no more than any other newly made craft item. Some of the most convincing fakes have been sold as old Amish crib and doll quilts and are very skillfully stitched miniatures of the traditional Diamond and Bar patterns (the Sunshine and Shadow design is, presumably, too complex and time-consuming to reproduce), using beautiful old Amish materials in characteristic colors. Most authentic old Amish crib and doll quilts were quite primitive—sometimes just random patches, made by children for fun or practice.
So that we might better understand this preoccupation with small quilts and related textiles, we set out to explore this phenomenon, to look into the crib quilt's part in America's past, its place in American life from the early days to the present. Most important, the many full-color illustrations in this book faithfully reproduce the unique qualities of color, form, and design achieved by anonymous American folk artists. Of special interest to us were the makers' feelings, the sentiments-rather than the sentimentality—of people who chose to make beautiful crib quilts, often under difficult physical and emotional circumstances. We were curious about the motives impelling these artists and hoped that we could increase our understanding of their desires, the folk art through which they expressed themselves, and possibly even something about their descendants—ourselves.
DEFINITIONS AND GENERAL HISTORY
The story of crib quilts in early America must be largely inferred from records of household inventories, probate records, and diaries, which fortunately have been preserved by libraries, museums, and historical societies. Some are in manuscript form, several have been transferred to microfilm for a more permanent record, and a few have been published and arc readily available in bookstores (see Bibliography). In any form, these records are important and fascinating treasures of information about what life was like in the first years of America.
It is impossible to say who made the first crib quilt, or to whom the idea first occurred to make a small quilted spread of pieced or appliqué work complete within itself and never intended to be any size but small.
The idea of quilting ties us to ancient history, when it was discovered that two layers of material filled with some light stuffing material provided excellent protection and insulation against both heat and cold.
The word quilt derives from the Latin word culcita, meaning a stuffed sack, mattress, or cushion. It comes into English from the Old French word coilte or cuilte. Today, the word quilt refers to two cloths sewn together with a soft filling between the two layers. Although it usually means a kind of "textile sandwich," the general term also includes some exceptions, such as the single layered, all-white candlewick spread illustrated in figure 2 ("Little Sadie Maud") and the Log Cabin, figure 50, which is layered but has no filling.
A crib quilt, then, is simply a small textile sandwich. The average size of a crib or cradle quilt—the terms are used interchangeably here—is one square yard, although many were made smaller or larger, or in varying proportions of length and width. The predominance of one square yard as the size chosen for crib quilts recalls a tradition in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England of a white handkerchief offering by a woman to her country parish. A reference to this custom can be found in the register book of Wickenby, Lincolnshire, dating from the early seventeenth century: "The chrysom and a grace penny is always to be given at ye woman's churching. The chrysom must be a yard of fine Lennen Long and a full yard in width." The white handkerchief evidently represented the chrisom cloth, a special cloth in which the baby was wrapped for the christening in earlier times.
Doll quilts are often less than twelve inches long, and trundle bed or cot quilts sometimes reach over five feet in length. Often one discovers a small-size quilt, which was originally full size, but has been cut down to fit a smaller bed or to salvage a worn spread in the frugal tradition of the American homemaker. Although such "cutdowns" are interesting examples of the sensible recycling of very scarce materials in the early days of this country, they are not crib quilts in the strict sense of the term. We also, obviously, must eliminate modern cutdowns, quilts that have recently been made smaller to benefit from the intense competition in collecting crib quilts.
Although the term crib quilt implies that it was intended for use by infants, the majority of those illustrated in these pages have survived in fine condition, and some show no signs of use. This indicates that perhaps the most beautiful and interesting crib quilts were made more as a creative expression, enhanced beyond the purely functional, and treasured as such by the owner. While it is true that numerous crib covers were made primarily for utilitarian purposes, examples of this type, such as tied or tufted comforters made from work clothes or other coarser materials, lack the design and individuality of our most interesting folk art, and are often very badly worn from the rugged use for which they were intended.
Crib quilts trace their history to ancient times. From the period of the Egyptian First Dynasty (c. 3000 B.C.) people have known the advantages of quilting. An ivory carving of a pharaoh from that period, now at The British Museum, wears the earliest known quilted garment.
Probably the oldest existing quilt dates from around 100 B.C. and is in the form of a carpet discovered in Mongolia in the tomb of an ancient Siberian chieftain. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance quilting appeared in the form of defensive armor, wall hangings, curtains, bedcovers, and quilted undergarments. The armor consisted of an outer layer of linen or leather padded with wool, cotton, or flax.
Were it not for the present resurgence of interest in quilting, the story of one of the most refined and popular forms of American folk art might have ended with the last great quilting revival in the 1920s and 1930s. A century ago quilting was at its height; frugal housewives, using bits and scraps of cloth, transcended their mundane existence to become astonishing folk artists. With intuitive sense of design these inventive women created decorative objects for the home that may never by matched in originality, vigor, charm, and beauty. The characteristics of these artistic expressions closely reflect the way of life from which they sprang, conditions that no longer exist in modern times. The high standards of quilting established in the nineteenth century provide both constant inspiration and an awesome challenge to today's quilters.
THE HISTORY OF INFANT CLOTHING
To begin, let us take a look at certain social and cultural mores of ancient history that, although they now seem remote, have left traces of their influence on the development of crib quilts.
Claudius Galen (c. A.D. 130-200), the court physician to Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Rome, was second only to Hippocrates in medical renown. A prolific writer, he produced more than 100 treatises dealing with various subjects, including the care and feeding of infants. As did his predecessors and his successors for many years thereafter, he subscribed to the theory that newborn infants must be bound or wrapped up tightly in swaddling clothes. These bands of cloth were widely regarded as a healthy and necessary means to give the correct shape to the body and limbs through pressure.
An Italian physician, Paolo Bagellardo, was still recommending swaddling in the fifteenth century. He instructed the midwife to wrap "a linen cloth, not hard," around the newborn infant. He also gave detailed instructions on how to use the "bearing cloth," with notes on binding up the trunk and limbs; the main purpose was to give the child a proper shape.
François Mauriceau published Traité des maladies des femmes grosses in Paris in 1668, a work that was translated into English and published in London five years later. Mauriceau was no different from his contemporaries in his support of the ancient fallacy that infants would not grow straight unless they were molded by tight binding:
... let his Arms and Legs be wrapped in his bed and stretched strait and swathed to keep them so, vis. his Arms along his sides and his Legs equally both together with a little of the bed between them that so they may not be galled by rubbing one another : after all this the Head must be kept steady and strait with a stay fastned on each side the Blancket, and then wrap the Child up in Mantles or Blanckets to keep it warm. He must be thus swaddled to give his little body a strait Figure, which is most decent and convenient for a Man and to accustom him to keep upon the Feet, for else he would go upon all four as most other Animals do.
Swaddling disappeared gradually in the eighteenth century. In 1768 an anonymous essay "by a physician" was published by the Committee of the Foundling Hospital in London urging the abandonment of several age-old customs and introducing more progressive, rational methods. Titled "An Essay upon Nursing and the Management of Children from Their Birth to Three Years of Age," the work, which was credited to "William Cadogan, of Bristol, M.D." in subsequent editions, was a force in advancing new thought and had a strong influence in improving child care. In order to strengthen his case for change, he suggested to doubters that they "look over the Bills of Mortality, there he may observe that almost half the Number of those that fill up that black List are under five Years of Age." With that grave introduction, he proceeded:
The first great Mistake is that they (the ignorant) think a new-born Infant cannot be kept too warm: from this Prejudice they load it and bind it with Flannels, Wrappers, Swathes, Stays etc commonly called Cloaths, which all together are almost equal to its own Weight [he advises light loose garments, which he thinks] ... would be sufficient for the Day, laying aside all those swathes, bandages, stays and contrivances, that are most ridiculously used to close and keep the Head in its Place and support the Body, as if Nature, exact Nature, had produced her chief Work, a human Creature, so carelessly unfinished as to want those idle Aids to make it perfect ...
At this same time an almanac was published with advice on the "easy rearing of children" by an anonymous writer,6 who recommended that children sleep orr top of quilts rather than feathers. This recommendation came approximately 100 years after John Locke had adequately covered the subject in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693):
Let his Bed be hard, and rather Quilts than Feathers. Hard lodging strengthens the Parts, whereas being buryed every Night in Feathers melts and dissolves the Body ... Besides, he that is used to hard lodgings at Home will not miss his Sleep (where he has most Need of it) in his travels abroad for want of his soft Bed, and his Pillows laid in Order.
The New Theory of Generation by John Cooke, M.D., was published in London in 1762. According to the author, it was at least partly a compilation of other works, and, therefore, represents a cross section of current thought on infant management. In one of his chapters on newborn babies he advises:
If swathed up undo it directly to give room. But if they were not swathed but allowed as much freedom as puppies it would be much better for them as I have shewn in a former discourse on the cause of the surprising mortality of Infants under two years of age in the London Magazine for 1768 ...
This long-overdue warning against excessive swaddling was the beginning of the end of an obsolete custom.
The fifth edition of a book by George Armstrong, M.D., originally titled "An Essay on the Diseases Most Fatal to Infants to Which Are Added Rules to Be Observed in the Nursing of Children: with a Particular View to Those Who Are Brought up by Hand," appeared in London in 1808. First published in 1769, this edition contained an "Introduction by the Editor," which was significant because in it the reader is told that by now people have mostly given up the custom of "squeezing the baby into shape by tight swaddling." The editor also makes mention of his contemporaries having memories of the swaddling tradition within their lifetimes.
By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, popular periodicals such as The Family Magazine carried articles recommending more freedom for a child's body in order to improve his physical state, and, of great importance, to develop good moral character. In 1837 an article was published forbidding swaddling and "overdressing in 'caps, hats, bonnets, cravats, pelisses, frills, muffles, gloves, ribands, and other paraphernalia.'"
Strong morals and healthy bodies needed more freedom in which to grow. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were mentioned as exemplars of the high virtue that can result from the "right to creep." Excessive pinning was thought harmful. Simplicity was recommended to avoid encouraging the child to put too much faith in "expensive deceiving ornaments" and thereby losing "directness of character."
Thus, the strictures of an ancient custom were finally discarded. Modern thought holds to the theory that swaddling interferes with the baby's muscular development. If the infant cannot stretch and wiggle, his limbs become weak from disuse. Some practitioners still recommend swaddling for a limited time as a treatment for a fussy baby. It is interesting to note that if the baby is folded and wrapped in the position in which it was carried in the uterus—either left leg over right or vice versa—it will stop crying.
Swaddling cloths were the original bedclothes for children, the precursors of crib quilts. Although generally discarded long ago, this centuries-old tradition of swaddling must have lived on somewhere in our unconscious. The extent of the awesomely skillful handwork, the patience, and devotion so evident in exquisitely made crib quilts, particularly in the nineteenth century, reminds us of the compelling, instinctive need to wrap the infant, to surround him with soft, reassuring warmth. It is a fact that as the custom of swaddling faded, the fashion of making beautiful crib quilts grew. Although many utilitarian crib quilts undoubtedly were hurriedly stitched together, the most beautiful—those whose function was more decorative than utilitarian—are the ones that have survived. The delicate finery of such quilts as the Bird applique chintz cutout (fig. 19) was never intended for everyday use; it is hard to imagine putting so fragile a piece near a baby. More likely, the quilt is a symbol: an expression of encircling, protective love, a statement of one's desire to comfort, to stop an infant's crying. Additionally, in the accomplishment of creating such an intensely personal, symbolic gift, the maker must have received in turn a measure of joy and calm for herself in the celebration of newborn life.
Excerpted from CLASSIC CRIB QUILTS and How to Make Them by Thos. K. Woodard, Blanche Greenstein. Copyright © 1993 Thos. K. Woodard and Blanche. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted January 1, 2009
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