Quilts have often appeared as props in literature, film, and theatre. But perhaps never as crucial to the plot as in a well-regarded play by Susan Glaspell. And even though it is more than a century old, it touches on an aspect of women’s place in society that still resonates today.
Susan Glaspell (1876-1948) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist, who also wrote bestselling novels and award-winning short fiction.
She was a founding member of the Provincetown Players, which is known as the first modern American theater company, and is remembered for discovering playwright Eugene O’Neill.
She is regarded by feminists as one of the earliest writers who dealt with subjects from a woman’s perspective. When Glaspell was a young newspaper reporter working in her native Iowa, she covered the sensational 1901 trial of a farmwoman who was accused of murdering her husband as he slept next to her.
In 1916, Glaspell drew on that story to write a one-act play called Trifles. The title comes from a line in the play in which a male character says, "Well, women are used to worrying over trifles," indicating that women's actions and concerns are considered by the men as having little importance.
In the play, two women accompany the sheriff and county attorney to a farmhouse where a man has been murdered. The women are there in order to gather some clothing to take to the dead man’s wife, who has been arrested as the prime suspect.
The men are trying to discover evidence to support the murder charge, but can find nothing. The women, however, quickly figure out that the wife is indeed guilty, and they do so partially by looking at the quilt that she was making prior to her husband’s death.
They can tell from the Log Cabin blocks she was working on that something caused her to snap—the workmanship that had been consistently neat and precise suddenly had become wildly irregular in the block where the wife’s needle remained.
The women then go on to discover other clues that lead to their conclusion. They do not reveal what they know to the men, however, out of compassion for the wife, and the terrible life they knew she had endured with her abusive husband.
In 1917, Glaspell reworked Trifles into a short story called A Jury of Her Peers. Trifles is considered to be among the best short works of American theatre, and A Jury of Her Peers is frequently found in short fiction anthologies.
The story continues to resonate with audiences. In the 1950s it was adapted into an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series, and in 1980, director Sally Heckel made it into a 30-minute film that was nominated for an Academy Award.
The use of a quilt as a secret code that is recognized and understood only by women is crucial to the resolution of Glaspell’s story. It represents something distinctly female: both an item and an activity flying under the radar of male detection or interest.
That Glaspell would select a quilt for such a pivotal role in the story speaks to the role that quilts themselves would have played in rural life in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. While social mores have changed more than a century on, the tale still has the power to make us think about the way society views women’s work. It also reminds us that quilts tell stories—if we only take time to read them!
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Column 134: Deaf Initiatives—Communicating Through Quilts
Column 133: My Betty Boop Quilt
Column 132: Maura Grace Ambrose
Column 131: All You Need Is Love
Column 130: Chicken Linens
Column 129: The Quilted Chuppah
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Column 127: The Bowers Co-Op Quilts
Column 126: Fon Appliqué and Haitian Voodoo Flags
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Column 123: Quilters de Mexico
Column 122: An Appliquéd Surprise
Column 121: Matisse’s Fabric Stash
Column 120: Soogan—The Cowboy’s Quilt
Column 119: The Ron Swanson Quilt
Column 118: HClarkdale, Georgia—A Thread of History
Column 117: How WWI Changed the Color of Quilts in the United States
Column 116: Wagga—The Bushman’s Quilt
Column 115: All in the Family
Column 114: The Alabama State Quilt
Column 113: Balloon Quilts of Albuquerque
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Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
Column 109: Community Cookbooks and Fundraiser Quilts—Parallel Histories
Column 108: Quilting to Freedom
Column 107: National Quilting Day
Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
Column 105: A Call for a National Juneteenth Commemorative Quilt
Column 104: Dominoes
Column 103: 1936 Texas Centennial Bluebonnet Quilt
Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
Column 101: Montana CattleWomen Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 100: 100th Suzy's Fancy Column!
Column 99: Montana Stockgrowers Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 98: The Tobacco Sack Connection
Column 97: Meet the Sisters Who Are State Fair Quilting Queens
Column 96: The connection between fairs and quilts.
Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
Column 94: Rebecca Barker’s Quiltscapes
Column 93: The Thread and Thimble Club Mystery
Column 92: The Ballerina Quilter
Column 91: Grandmother's Flower Garden Comes Alive at Texas Quilt Museum
Column 90: Leitmotif for a Lifelong Love Affair
Column 89: Quilting in The Bahamas
Column 88: Joan of Arc: A Quilter's Inspiration
Column 87: Home Demonstration Clubs and Quilting
Column 86: Linzi Upton and the Quilted Yurt
Column 85: A Bounty of Quilts
Column 84: Desert Trader
Column 83: Quilts and the Women’s Liberation Movement
Column 82: Replicating the Past: Reproduction Fabrics for Today’s Quilts
Column 81: Why So Many Quilt Shops in Bozeman, Montana?
Column 80: Southeastern Quilt and Textile Museum
Column 79: 54 Tons of Quilt
Column 78: Ollie Steele Burden’s Quilt Blocks
Column 77: Quilting with AMD
Column 76: Maverick Quilts and Cowgirls
Column 75: The Modern Quilt Guild—Cyberculture Quilting Ramps Up
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Column 73: Maximum Security Quilts
Column 72: Author: Terri Thayer
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Column 70: New Mexico Centennial Quilt
Column 69: Scrub Quilts
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Column 67: Righting Old Wrongs.
Column 66: 100 Years, 100 Quilts - More on the Arizona Centennial.
Column 65: Arizona Centennial Quilt Project
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Column 63: The Fat Quarters
Column 62: Quilt Fiction Author: Clare O’Donohue
Column 61: Louisiana Bicentennial Quilt
Column 60: The Camo Quilt Project.
Column 59: Thread Wit
Column 58: Ralli Quilts
Column 57: Preschool Quilters
Column 56: The Story Quilt
Column 55: Red and Green Quilts
Column 54: On the Trail
Column 53: Quilt Trail Gathering
Column 52: True Confessions: First Quilt
Column 51: Quilted Pages
Column 50: Doll Quilts
Column 49: More Than a Quilt Shop
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Column 47: Literary Gifts
Column 46: A Different Way of Seeing
Column 45: Sampling
Column 44: Hen and Chicks
Column 43: A Star Studied Event
Column 42: Shoo Fly Pattern
Column 41: Awareness Quilts
Column 40: Tivaevae
Column 39: UnOILed UnspOILed Coast Quilt Project
Column 38: Katrina Recovery Quilts
Column 37: Quilted Vermont
Column 36: The Labyrinth Quilt—A Meditative Endeavor
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