The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Red, White, and Blue’s All Right: On Patriotic Quilts
By the time you read this, Fourth of July celebrations will be done for another year.
The traffic to the fairgrounds or the beach to see the fireworks will be a distant memory, thank goodness. The streamers and the miniature flags glooped up with frosting from grocery store cupcakes with those little plastic toothpicks in the top that say, “Happy 4th!” have long been stuffed into the garbage. But the sun never sets on an object that often shows up in our homes or at our picnics around July 4th: the patriotic quilt.
Fly, patriotic eagle, fly! This very patriotic quilt was likely
made in Pennsylvania around 1840. Image: Wikipedia.
Quilts that express love for God and country have been a staple genre in American quilts for a long time. The earliest quilts in this country were definitely not patriotic, since the first quilts in this country were mostly imported from England and we wouldn’t have anything to be patriotic about for awhile.
But once we beat King George and established our republic, it was open season for quilters who wanted to show their communities they were on Team America. Since the heyday of the Industrial Revolution was still a few decades away, fabric for quilts wasn’t as easy to come by there at the beginning. But within a generation, the calicoes, muslins, and indigos needed to make red, white, and blue quilts were a’flowin’—and patriotic quilts were hot.
Many teachers will incorporate the making of a quilt into their curriculum;
this quilt was made by a high school class in Atlanta, honoring 9/11 victims. Image: Flickr Commons.
If I asked you to picture a patriotic quilt from the 19th century, you’d probably picture a quilt with a big flag in the center of it, or maybe a quilt appliquéd with eagles or important dates, e.g., 1776. You’re right on the money: There are a lot of quilts that look like that, and many of them survived, arguably because it feels bad to throw out a family quilt, but it’s got to feel really bad to throw out a family quilt that has the American flag stitched into it with the words, “God Bless America” painstakingly sewn into the border.
But not all patriotic quilts back then looked like that. In the 1840s in particular, Baltimore Album quilts, those feats of design and technical accomplishment, often featured civic buildings, symbolic floral wreaths, and always the obligatory eagles.
As time marched on, patriotic quilts incorporated motifs and themes related to important local or national anniversaries like the Centennial, or to major national events like the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Many quilters with even a passing interest in quilt history know about the big quilt contest Sears & Roebuck held at the World’s Fair; the majority of the 25,000 quilts entered had an explicit or implicit patriotic quality.
Could there be a lovlier quilt, patriotic or not? This quilt, ca. 1861,
is housed in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Image: Wikipedia.
When you get into the 1970s, things get more complicated. Because it’s at that time that you start seeing what are known generally as “protest” quilts. Protest quilts are quilts made to express a political statement, as opposed to a patriotic quilt, which is a quilt that appears to have been made to share a positive, “Yay, America!” feeling.
Protest quilts are sometimes made with appliquéd figures or words, or is perhaps used in a protest march, or is hung on the walls of a gallery, not shown at quilt guild show-and-tell. If you think the most patriotic thing you can do as an American is to exercise your freedom of speech, these sorts of quilts definitely qualify as patriotic. If you think they’re disrespectful and not even quilts anyway…well, I think you’re wrong—but I absolutely respect your First Amendment right to argue with me!
As far as I see it, those quilts made for U.S. veterans by organizations like Quilts of Valor and others like it absolutely qualify as patriotic; so do all the paper cut-out quilted maps of the country posted on the walls of fifth-grade classrooms across America. These sorts of quilts are made with a spirit of pride in who we are as a nation and what we believe in. What’s more patriotic than that?
Capt. William Hemme, awarded with a Quilt of Valor quilt in 2015,
given by quilters in California’s Apple Valley Regional Chapter of Quilts of Valor. Image: Wikipedia.
We’ve all heard that America is a “melting pot,” but sometimes when I watch the news, I’m not so sure. Are we melting together in a big pot to become one delicious whole? Are we actually merging our beliefs, goals, and dreams? It might be a better metaphor to compare America to a quilt. There are different patches around here. There are twisted seams. But we’re still together. We’re still stitched together, still sewn the same way, all across the top, stitch after unified stitch.
Happy Fourth of July, America. Don’t be a UFO, okay?