The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Scandal! The Century of Progress Quilt Contest
The announcement for the “best” quilt. Grr!Image scanned from “Patchwork Souvenirs of the 1933 World’s Fair” by Merikay Waldvogel and Barbara Brackman.There are some pretty juicy scandals in the quilt world.
Fashion designer Ralph Lauren cut up quilts
for use in garments in the early 1980s. In 1992, the Smithsonian sold made-in-China copies of Harriet Powers’s Bible Quilt. And I heard about someone throwing paint on a quilt at a show
at one point, but I can’t find much about that. (Please get in touch with me if you know about that—I’m dying to hear the story.)
But perhaps the most depressing scandal was the Century of Progress Quilt Contest scandal.
It’s pretty much agreed by people who lived through it and people who have studied it since, that the worst year of the Great Depression had to be 1933, and this is where we set our scene.
In 1933, 25% of Americans were unemployed in a country without any public aid infrastructure. Children stood in breadlines with their mothers while men rode the rails from state to state in search of work. It was bad out there.
In the midst of this, a World’s Fair was planned for Chicago. The theme: “A Century of Progress.” Fair organizers hoped a grand, even extravagant event would instill hope in the desperate public—and it did, kind of.
Chicago-based retail giant Sears & Roebuc—who at the time was a major retailer of fabric and sewing machines, of course—announced a national quilt contest a few months before the fair. More than $7,500 in prize money (more than $141,000 in 2017 dollars) would be awarded to the best quilts in America. First Prize was set at $1,000 (nearly $19,000 in 2017)—which was enough to buy a kit home. This contest was a very big deal.
The quilts flooded in: over 25,000 of them to be exact, from every corner of the nation. Whole families often aided in the construction of a quilt in order to complete it by the deadline. Most of the quilts never came close to the finish line, of course, doomed by sheer volume. Well, that and a last-minute switcheroo of the judges, which was very, very uncool.
The contest organizers encouraged entrants to use the theme of the fair, “A Century of Progress” in their quilts. A special prize of $200 (more than $3,750 in 2017) would be be given to the quilt that did this most successfully.
Quilters stitched into their quilts the faces of U.S presidents; appliquéd Chicago’s landmark buildings; painstakingly measured, cut, and pieced stars and comets; designed entire alphabets to use in spelling out words of hope and pride. These quilts remain some of the most remarkable—and idiosyncratic—in American quilt history.
Brackman and Waldvogel’s book is the best on the topic you’ll ever find. Find one and buy it, if you don’t have one already.
But the organizers who encouraged that creativity? They weren’t the judges at all. Several of the original judges were swapped out at the last minute and the new judges prized traditional piecing; not out-of-the-box quilts, no ma’am. The three quilts they chose for first, second, and third place made no mention of the Century of Progress or the fair. Make no mistake: The two star quilts and the Delectable Mountain quilts in the top spots were extraordinary. But—and I hope I won’t catch too much heat for this—they lacked soul. They were beautifully made, but they were safe.
And guess what? Because they were so disdainful of these wild, exuberant, pictorial quilts, the judges never even awarded the $200 prize for including the fair’s theme. Ugh.
Sadly, the scandal doesn’t even end there, and I am already thinking about how to end this column on an optimistic, hopeful note, as much for me as for you: This stuff is such a bummer. (Don’t worry; I’ve already got an idea.)
The top honor went to Margaret Rogers Caden of Lexington, Kentucky and I’m just going to put it plainly: The woman didn’t need the money. At least, not as badly—as desperately—as so many others. She ran a fine sewing business that seemed to do pretty darn well, as evidenced by pictures of her wearing a nice hat and pearls.
You can see a bunch of the Century of Progress quilts at the Quilt Index, so check ‘em out at quiltindex.org. [Screenshot]To add to the woe, Caden didn’t even make her quilt. She hired people to do it, for a pittance, of course, then signed the official Sears form certifying the quilt was “entirely of [her] own making.” As a Lexington resident told a reporter, "Margaret Caden did not know which end of a needle to thread." If you’re about to throw your tablet/laptop/phone at the wall, I’m with you, sister.
Okay, now the good news. Many other quilters did win money for their efforts; there were regional prizes and things. So that’s good. But the better news is that it was an extraordinary time for quilts in America: Merikay Waldvogel and Barbara Brackman, in their seminal book on the contest (Patchwork Souveniers of the 1933 World’s Fair), figured one in 2,000 women entered the show.
They weren’t all amazing from a technical or design standpoint, but all of the quilts were amazing because they were designed and made by everyday Americans—the overwhelming majority of them women working from their homes, at a time when most families struggled to keep food on the table. That’s something we can celebrate.