The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Quilt Scandal No. 0002917:
The Harriet Powers
I’m not a person who wins things. I don’t win at card games. I don’t win at bowling. I’ve purchased three lotto tickets in my life, and do you think I won anything? No.
Photo Right: Detail of my quilt, straight from my guest bed. Photo: Me
But eBay has allowed me to be a sorta-winner, sometimes, because when you find something awesome on eBay that you can’t buy at an actual store, you feel like you’ve won. Then, if you bid on the item and you win it, you totally won. It’s just like me to be good at winning things I have to pay for.
From time to time, I’ll do an eBay search for the Harriet Powers Bible Quilt. Not the actual quilt, which is safe and secure in the Museum of American History, and is valued in the millions of dollars. But one of the many thousands of repro HPBQs made by the Smithsonian in 1992 and protested by quilters across the land.
After years of never striking gold, guess who won something? There it was: a HPBQ reproduction on eBay, just one click away, for under 90 bucks. I clicked, and now the quilt is on the bed in my guest bedroom for storage. There were thousands of these quilts produced so maybe it’s not that rare a find, but still. I got one with the original plastic and cardboard insert, too.
The story of Harriet’s Bible Quilt is one of the highest profile scandal stories in quilt history and yes, there are enough quilt scandals to have a list of extra juicy ones.
Photo Left: Are the figures not adorable? And with such a strong message! Photo: Me
Harriet Powers, an African American woman, was born enslaved in 1837 in Athens, Georgia. She later married a farmer and they lived in Athens for the duration. Like many quilters of the time, the Bible Quilt was Harriet’s “legacy quilt,” or best effort. The quilt is separated into a grid, and in each box is an appliqué depiction of some of the earliest stories in the Old Testament, starting with Adam and Eve and going through The Last Supper, with some attention paid to the “Holy Family” and Satan, of course.
The figures are charming in their simplicity; they look like a collection of a child’s homemade dolls and animal toys. In 1886, Harriet’s hand- and machine-stitched Bible Quilt was displayed at the Athens Cotton Fair.
The quilt was purchased when Harriet and her husband fell on hard times; it went for an astonishing $5 to an artist in the community who had the sense to keep it safe and document information about its maker and construction. The Smithsonian acquired it at some point and now it belongs to us all, via the museum, of course.
Flash forward to 1992 when the museum hired a Chinese company to reproduce the quilt for sale in the Spiegel catalog along with a number of other iconic quilt designs. Quilters freaked out. The quilts weren’t tagged “Made in China”—they weren’t even tagged “Smithsonian reproduction.”
The worst part was that no royalties were paid to the families, if there were families to pay, for the rights to produce the quilts. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal estimated the quilts raked in anywhere from $500k to $800k for the Smithsonian; the quilts were sold on QVC, too, and we all know how lucrative it can be to feature a product on that network.
Photo Below: The full quilt. Photo: Wikipedia
Quilters petitioned the Smithsonian and even picketed outside! I love that. I also love doing the math on the demographic: if many of those quilters started quilting around the bicentennial, that would put many in their 40s at the time of the protest. The early 90s were the fight-apartheid-protest-Desert-Storm-Seinfeld-Hootie and the Blowfish days; one of my favorite eras. Quilters in Laurel Birch jackets with picket signs? Sign me up. (They were effective, too; the museum agreed to put a copyright tag on the quilts while they were being produced and they ceased production earlier than planned.)
Quilts, Inc. President Karey Bresenhan and Vice-President Nancy O'Bryant also had a direct hand in advocating for this issue with the Smithsonian. But I'll save that story for a future column."
Is it wrong that I want the other Smithsonian repro quilts, now? I feel like we’ve passed the outrage era on the quilts; no one is making money from them now but the people who are selling them on eBay or at a garage sale (gasp.) Just like I’m not a winner, I’m not a collector, either, but this moment in quilt history is too scandalous to pass up. Besides, I don’t have to do the binding.
*Special thanks to Kyra E. Hicks and her Black Threads blog, a fantastic resource for this article. Visit Kyra’s website here.