Early 20th-Century Ideas of Quilts & Art

In the early 1900s, quilts began to gain attention as art due to significant cultural and societal shifts, as well as the influence of aesthetic movements ranging from Arts & Crafts to Modernism.

Proponents of the Arts & Crafts movement argued that even practical everyday objects should be beautiful. This gave rise to consumers’ desire for artistic interiors and products for the home, creating new opportunities for women as artisans, designers, and decorators. Also, new design schools, often founded by women for women, equipped graduates for careers in design and artisanal manufacture of textiles, jewelry, glassware, and other useful items.1  Some of these women created new, modern designs for quilts that helped propel the early-20th-century quilt revival.

Ruby Short McKim is one of these women. She studied at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (now Parsons, The New School for Design) in 1910. Returning to Independence, Missouri, she created and sold hundreds of restrained modern designs for pieced and embroidered quilts and other decorative textiles for the home. Many newspapers throughout the country syndicated McKim’s designs for quilts in the 1930s, widely disseminating her artistic influence.

American collectors of folk and decorative arts, including trendsetters such as H.F. du Pont (whose country estate later became Winterthur Museum), used quilts in interiors as aesthetic objects. Winterthur curator Linda Eaton has made connections between du Pont’s decorating choices and modernist works by Matisse and others who exhibited at the influential International Exhibition of Modern Art (the Armory Show) in 1913.2

Museums and galleries began to recognize the artistic aspects of quilts in the 1930s and 1940s. Bertha Stenge, who studied at the San Francisco School of Design in about 1910, exhibited her original quilts in 1941 by invitation of the University of California-Berkeley’s art gallery. Two years later her work was shown in a solo exhibition at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago.3

1. Pat Kirkham, ed. Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), 49-55.

2. Linda Eaton, “In Themselves a Textile Museum,” in Quilts in a Material World: Selections from the Winterthus Collection (New York: Abrams, in association with The Henry Francis du Point Winterthur Museum, 2007), 168.

3. Merikay Waldvogel, “Bertha Stenge,” in The Quilters Hall of Fame: 42 Masters Who Have Shaped Our Art, eds. Merikay Waldvogel, Rosalind Webster Perry, and Marian Ann Montgomery (MInneapolis: Voyageur Press, 2011), 179-80.