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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

Mémoires d'enfance...
par Christiane Billard
Childhood memories…

By Christiane Billard, translated from the French version she wrote for
Les Nouvelles du Patchwork, the magazine by France Patchwork.

It has been my pleasure to work with Isabelle and Christiane, who requested the use of baby and doll quilts from my personal collection for this article. For more about Christiane as a quilter in France, who's come to love antique American quilts, see her bio. Above, she stands in front of a quilt called, Prairie Flowers. Her friends made it, using a quilt from the Metropolitan Museum collections in New York for the design.

I want to thank Isabelle Etienne-Bugnot, editor of the magazine, for the translation of the article into English.

They have supplied the photos, unless otherwise noted.

Please visit the French quilting guild website: www.francepatchwork.com

Emotions like tenderness or nostalgia overwhelm us when we discover the little quilts - doll or baby quilts - made for, and sometimes by, the American children.

The first baby and crib quilts

We do not know exactly when the first of these small quilts was made. By the end of the 17th century, baby coverlets were mentioned for the first time in the New England archives - diaries, inventories stored in museums, libraries and historical societies. Around 1750, cribs, rocking cradles and small beds wheels were listed in inventories. It is supposed that the making of small quilts goes with the existence of small beds especially made for children… Until the middle of the 19th century, children very often slept in their parents’ beds or even in the servant’s bed. In 1841, in a book named The American Woman’s Home, Catharine Beecher wrote the following warning: “The baby shall not sleep in his mothers’ arms at night except when the weather is very cold. A crib near his mother, a good warmth and a light cover are the best conditions for a good sleep.”

When they grew a little older, children slept in beds that were pushed under the parents’ bed during the daytime, so that there was more space in the room. The nursery as a room especially intended for children appeared toward 1875, in Victorian times.

Wrapping up the babies to protect them from the cold might be at the origin of these little quilts. Many of them were square (43” x 43”) or sometimes rectangular (47” x 31”). They might have been cut or inspired by the woven wool or silk blankets English Puritans, emigrating to America, presenting the newborn for baptism would warm them in after they had been immersed in the cold water.

c. 1880, child's quilt, Robbing Peter to Pay Paul pattern, two double-pink prints with white, Kimberly Wulfert Collection

Antique baby quilts are real treasures

These pieces are rare. In the 19th century, the pregnant mother or a grandmother would usually sew a quilt for the first-born child, a quilt often washed… And then for the babies coming one after the other in a short period of time, the same quilt would be used for all of them until it was worn-out and thrown away.

Until 1875, the infant mortality rate was very high. The lifeless baby was often wrapped up in a little quilt before he was placed in his coffin.

Then where do the exceptional pieces, in very good condition, which can be found in American museums and in private collections, come from? Here are a few answers:
  • In the well-off families, some quilts had been used very little because the mother owned several baby quilts.
  • We can mention the example of a little quilt dated 1880 given to Fanny Wike, of Shafferstown, Pennsylvania, by her aunts, for her trousseau. Fanny never had children and the quilt remained as new.
  • Perhaps women made such little quilts for pleasure because they were quickly finished, but they did not intend to use them or maybe they served as a sample before taking up a very large work.

How styles of these little quilts evolved throughout the 19th century is related to the “place” children occupied within the family.

1941 embroidered child's quilt, signed by the grandmothers and relatives for a new baby,
Kimberly Wulfert collection

  • In the 18th century and during the three quarters of the following century, God, Home, Country were the three words encompassed a woman’s life . By giving birth to numerous children, the woman fulfilled her duties toward God (according to the Scriptures), toward her Home (because the children provide the labor necessary for prosperity of the family’s activities, being most often agricultural) and towards her Land (by increasing the number of citizens). But women were afraid of pregnancies and difficult childbirths. They were scared about the loss of a child, and each new child meant more work for them. On Sunday, November 25, 1855, Ellen Birdseye Wheaton wearily noted in her diary the birth of her twelfth child: “Another little girl was added to our number… It was a great trial to me to have another child, so that, at times, I was very much unreconciled to it, but I don’t doubt we shall love her, as much as we have any of the others”. (The Art of Independence, Elizabeth Donaghy Garrett).

    Very quickly in large families, as soon as the child was no longer an infant, he was considered a miniature adult, with responsibilities and chores to do according to his age. He went to school when there was not too much work to do at home. He was dressed like an adult. It seemed then quite logical to make baby quilts identical to the adult quilts, with the same fabrics, colors and patterns. The only difference was the size of the quilts and patterns. These were miniature quilts.

    The evolution in quilt styles followed through in baby quilt styles: whole cloth chintz, broderie perse, medallions, hexagons, appliqués, pieced quilts, log cabins and patriotic quilts. The exceptionally well-executed pieces are real historic archives thanks to their fabrics and patterns. Their value is almost incalculable
  • Gradually the attitude of adults towards children began to change. In families well off, the children portraits were painted along with flowers, animals or toys. In the last quarter of the 19th century, books especially written for the children began to appear: nursery rhymes, fairy tales, adventure stories, and history of the land. Handkerchiefs were printed with motifs of animals, boats, everyday life scenes or child game scenes. The children were then considered as children and no more as adults in miniature. A whole new world began to arise around them.

c. 1872, Scenes of Childhood crib quilt, New York; appliquéd and embroidered;
Shelburne Museum Collection, reprinted with their permission

At that time, little quilts reflected the interests specific to the children. The appliqués that they were often made represented animals, building blocks with letters, Noah’s ark stories, and scenes from a circus, puppets or games. Patterns were published in magazines. For example, the quilt from the Shelburne Museum collection, Scenes of Childhood Crib Quilt (circa 1872), describes childhood scenes. One of them at the bottom of the quilt, saying, “Dolly is sick”, seems to have been inspired by a picture published in Peterson’s Magazine in April 1872. The same scene has been found on a printed handkerchief. The child quilt, therefore, had an educational function of stimulating the imagination and by helping one to learn the alphabet, numbers or identify animals.








Pillow Cover made by same maker as the quilt.

First, the famous characters, Sunbonnet Sue and Overall Bill, were embroidered in red or blue. Around 1910, patterns of these appliqués became available (see Katie’s quilt).
At the beginning of the 20th century, fabric motifs as well as patterns and kits especially designed for children began to appear. For example, one can mention the bunnies, a pattern which was proposed by Marie D. Webster in 1914.

In the 19th century, in America, it was essential that a woman could sew, whatever her social class. She had to sew the household linen and most often clothes, a know-how that had to be taught to her daughters. Generally, the little girl began to learn these skills at the age of three, and making a doll quilt was certainly the most attractive way to begin… she had to choose fabrics from the scrap bag, and then measure, cut and sew with small and regular stitches a simple pattern like the four patch, nine patch or hexagons. And during a short time, often half an hour, the little girl had to make a piece of work… while sitting beside her mother or grandmother. Fortunately, these quilts were often small (20” x 20” or 14” x 10”) and therefore rather quickly completed.

circa 1900, doll's quilt, made by a child; hand-pieced, machine quilted;
Kimberly Wulfert collection

Sewing for one’s doll was very stimulating: the little girl imitated her mother’s behavior with babies. The doll was part of the girl’s education. In rural classes, dolls were often very simple objects and were made by the mother or the grandmother. Remember Charlotte, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s doll (Little House on the Prairie, book 2: On the Banks of Plum Creek, chapter 29): “Her red thread mouth and her boot-button eyes were smiling. Laura lifted her up gently, smoothed her waving hair made of black thread and took the pleats out of her skirts. As Charlotte was a rag doll, she had no feet and her hands were simply sewn to the flat end of her arms. But Laura loved her so much.” Very nice American, French or German dolls could also be found. They were dressed like adults.

Sewing a first doll quilt made the little girls very proud of themselves and many of them enjoyed sewing larger pieces. Some others, having encountered difficulties in making their first doll quilt, would never reconcile with sewing. In 1889, Lucy Larcom wrote about her childhood. As a small child, walking behind her father on the way to church, she looked up at him and thought: “How tall he is. And how long his coat looks. And how many thousands and thousands stitches there must be in his coat and pantaloons? And I suppose I have got to grow up and have a husband, and put all those little stitches in his coat and pantaloons. Oh, I never, never can do it.” She never married. (Shelburne, Vermont, The Shelburne Museum, page 19, 1957)

Circa 1930, feedsack fabric sampler, machine pieced and quilted, doll-size;
Kimberly Wulfert collection

Sometimes, the doll quilt was a present sewn by a grown-up: it was then less naïve and less clumsy…

These little quilts were so full of emotions and sentiments: messages of hope for the expecting mothers, messages of love for the babies, or for the little girl who was given a doll quilt, or for the doll… All these quilts tell us the story of childhood, and so we can better understand why these little pieces are dearly coveted by collectors and historians.


Baby, crib and doll quilts
Pat Long and Dennis Duke - America’s glorious quilts - Duke and Harding

Small Endearments - nineteenth-century quilts for children and dolls
Sandi Fox – Rutledge Hill Press

Pieces of the Past
Nancy J. Martin – That Patchwork Place

Quilts américains
Robert Bishop – Dessain et Tolra

1920 - 1940, satin pram (buggy) quilt, could have been quilted by a professional, purchased by the owner, but there is no label; pale pink on one side, pale yellow on other; edges are scalloped, hand-quilted

The Arts of Independence
Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett – The National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution

American doll quilts
Kathleen Tracy – That Patchwork Place

Classic crib quilts and how to make them
Thos. K. Woodard and Blanche Greenstein – Dover Publications, INC.

Art of the Needle
Henry Joyce – Shelburne Museum (Scenes of Childhood quilt scanned from this book, pg 52-53, with permission from Shelburne Museum)

Treasure or Not ? How to compare and value American Quilts
Stella Rubin – Miller’s

Quilts – Their story and how to make them
Marie D. Webster – Practical Patchwork

"Katie's Quilt" circa 1900 bluework blocks, child's quilt, made in 2004 by Kimberly Wulfert   Pattern for: Katie's quilt

The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort 1750-1950
Roderick Kiracofe and Mary Elizabeth Johson

Reflections on fashion dolls and the art of growing up
Deborah E. Kraak and Barbara C. Abrams

Behind Christiane is a quilt made by her friends, from the book, Un trésor perdu et retrouvé, by Sophie Campbell.

* Christane' Billard's Bio

Christiane was a qualified teacher in biology and geology. She has written scientific school books for students. Mother of three boys, her life was full and she had not much time left for handicrafts she loved so much.

In 1972, she discovered quilts and quilting in magazines. A little later, she met two American ladies, Diane de Obaldia, owner of the quilting store Le Rouvray in Paris, and Sophie Campbell: Sophie is the teacher who introduced quilting in France and taught to the first French women interested in that new craft. In 1987, Christiane made her first trip to the East Coast of the United States and soon, she met the quilt collector Patricia Smith and bought her first antique quilt, a grandmother's garden. Two days later, she had the opportunity to visit in private the exhibition "Homage to Amanda". Seeing, understanding and placing antique quilts in their history became a passion for Christiane.

She was at that time very close to Sophie Campbell who knew so well "how to make quilts talk". With her, Christiane learned how to date the quilts, to know the fabrics. She wrote the French text for Sophie's book: "Un trésor perdu et retrouvé" (1995).

She went back to the United States several times and visited wonderful museums: Metropolitan Museum, Folk Art Museum, Newark Museum, DAR Museum (her favorite!), American History Museum, Renwick Gallery, Textile Museum in Washington, Lowell Museum, Williamsburg Museum in Virginia. Each time, she came back filled with wonder!

She also had the opportunity to meet Kathryn Berenson, Betsey Telford, Patricia Cox, Nancy Martin, Marsha McCloskey, Pat Nichols… She would love to meet Kimberly Wulfert one day. She reads many articles about antique quilts and now she can make traditional quilts with the reproduction fabrics available.

She hopes she can soon go back to the U.S. because there are so many more museums to visit …

Easy to make and very cute doll quilt patterns based on old quilts can be downloaded for free from America’s Quilting History: http://www.womenfolk.com/baby_quilts/


* Quilts * Katie's quilt

© 2005 - 2016 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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