The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Looking at a Problematic Article in The Smithsonian Magazine (c. 1987)
My quilt history library is big at this point. It’s not half as large as I’d like it to be, but I’m putting a serious dent in the quilt history book and periodicals universe. Because the world of quilt scholarship still has so much room to grow, I feel like I can, if I really work at it, one day own all the books.
About a month ago, though, I realized I hadn’t thought too much about magazines.
I’m not talking how-to magazines—I’ve had my fill of those for a while. I’m talking about periodicals that include important articles about quilts in culture or magazines that deal with quilt culture itself. The former is much harder to find than the latter. Outside of The Quilt Journal, published briefly in the 1990s by Shelley Zegart, Jonathan Holstein, and Eleanor Bingham Miller, Quilter’s Newsletter up until it closed, and, now, Quiltfolk, the number of periodicals about quilts (not just how to make them) is a poor number indeed.
But as of a couple weeks ago, I’m hot on the trail of the non-quilt magazines that contain significant articles about quilts. I found one on eBay the other day and that’s what started me off. The May 1987 issue of The Smithsonian Magazine has a cover story all about quilts which begins on page 114 and runs six spreads.
Don’t get too excited. There are serious problems in the article. Let’s take a look at the most egregious, shall we? WARNING: I am very grumpy!
Smithsonian Magazine, May 1987. Photo scan.
In newspaper and magazine publishing, a “kicker” is a teaser line on the cover that entices people to read the piece. The kicker on the cover of this magazine reads:
After a folksy, countrified past, quilts are now having a ball as costly objects d’art
Now, the cover image I like very much: Virginia Jacobs’ Krakow Kabuki Waltz is very
nice, though we don’t learn if that is Ms. Jacobs sewing or a model. The caption inside doesn’t say. My problem is with the language, this “folksy, countrified past.” People in America have made quilts in the country, yes. But we have made them in the city, too.
Quilts are not inherently “country” objects. This is a lazy word to use, especially on the
cover of a museum magazine.
The photo of a dude
Would it have killed them to at least have him holding a quilt? Maybe a quilt off in the background? Photo scan.On the second page of the article, running larger than the first two images in the piece and as large as the quilt on the same page, there is a photo of a male quilt collector standing in a bar in England. I’m not going to mention his name because I’m not attacking him and I don’t want a google search by a family member or friend to find this column and feel bad. It’s the editors I’m mad at.
It is totally obvious they wanted to confer more legitimacy on the piece by having a male be seen clearly and early on in the reader’s experience. I am reminded of my mother, who once told me that after she and Liz Porter started an actual television show, they got a small mention on the “woman’s page” of the Des Moines Register, with a tiny black and white picture.
Pretty much everything this (outsider) guy writes about quilts
I guess I have to say here that I’m not a “man-hater,” right? Otherwise, some people will think I’m just an “angry feminist”* going off on a tirade. I’m not even going to go there, because this is a bi-monthly column, and not a master’s thesis.
I’m angry as a quilter and quilt lover. Look at some of these sentences:
Like Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain, who spoke prose without knowing it, American quilters found they had been unwittingly producing abstract art long before anyone had even heard of Piet Mondrian.
Quick or not, quilting technique has changed little over time; the saying is that, at about nine months, it takes as long to make a quilt as to make a baby.
There are several kinds of traditional quilt tops; most familiar are “pieced,” now sometimes known as “patchwork” and “appliqué.”
I just…I can’t. I am trembling with righteous indignation. I need to take a few deep
breaths and also not include the other maddening—and outright incorrect—sentences
in this article.
Well, they got ONE thing right; this is a nice photo of Karey and since she gave them the data, that’s probably accurate. Good grief! Photo scan.The word “unwittingly” chafes, as do the bits about quilting technique changing little over time and that nine-months business. But saying patchwork and appliqué are the same thing, essentially, made me almost toss the magazine across the room. (I didn’t, but only because I keep my library nice.) Did anyone fact-check this piece? Correction: Did anyone who knows something about quilting fact-check this piece?
Anger is not my favorite emotion. I deal with it by turning it into positive action. What this article from 1987 (!) taught me was that it’s not enough to explore quilt history and culture only from within quilt history and culture. We must go into the popular culture and see what “they” are saying about “us.” Only then can we understand the history of our work and our love; only then can we make sure our stories are properly, wholly told.
*Please see my last column for more on the oh-so-easy-to-parse topic of quilts and feminism.