Quilts in Context

Quilts are objects that can be appreciated simply for their aesthetic value. Indeed, pivotal exhibitions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1971 Abstract Design in American Quilts presented quilts largely as works of art, emphasizing their strong formal, graphic qualities and along the way countering the stereotype of quilts as simply functional or merely decorative.

To look at the visual qualities of quilts alone, however, is to neglect the complex roots of American quiltmaking generally and the individual quiltmakers’ stories specifically. For instance, to understand Crazy quilts beyond their haphazard and elaborately embellished appearance, we need to examine the West’s historical obsession with Eastern art and design, the influence of England’s Aesthetic and Arts & Crafts Movements and needlework revival, the late-19th century development of mail order businesses, the rapid expansion of women’s magazines, and the establishment of the American silk processing industry.

To understand a specific Crazy quilt within the context of the larger fad, we must consider the individual maker and her world. Mary Hernandred Ricard, the maker of My Crazy Dream (in the image carousel), was a woman of modest means from the Boston area. Mrs. Ricard (1838-1915) worked on her Crazy quilt for 35 years, likely using materials obtained through her occupation as a milliner and her husband’s as a salesman of household furnishing goods. The quilt demonstrates that “middle-class families could aspire to luxurious-looking goods and that artistic sophistication was not dependent on formal education or family income.”1 Learning about the cultural, economic, and family contexts of quilts can give us a richer understanding of their role in American society.

Contemporary images and descriptions are one way of learning about antique quilts and their contexts. To see how old photographs can help us identify some of the many contexts in which American quilts were made and used, visit our online exhibition, Posing with Patchwork

1. Beverly Gordon, “My Crazy Dream” in Marin F. Hanson and Patricia Cox Crews, American Quilts in the Modern Age, p. 135.