Sunday, October 9, 2011

Martha Washington's Penn's Treaty Quilt

Penn's Treaty Quilt
Attributed to Martha Washington, estimated date 1785.

Reading a 1905 biography of George Washington's secretary and in-law Tobias Lear, I came across a picture of this quilt. It's quite familiar although I have never seen a good photo of it. The caption says it was made by Martha Washington and given by her to Mrs. [Frances Dandridge Henley] Lear.

Frances Dandridge Henley Lear
 1779 - 1856
Martha's sister's daughter.

Frances Dandridge Henley, Martha Washington's niece, was Tobias Lear's third wife. Louisa Lear Eyre, granddaughter through his first wife, wrote Lear's 1906 biography, Letters and recollections of George Washington: being letters to Tobias Lear ... explaining how she inherited this "very valuable and unique quilt, made by Mrs. Washington's own hands, which was used on George Washington's bed."

Penn's Treaty Quilt
Attributed to Martha Washington, estimated date 1785.
Collection of Mount Vernon Ladies Associaton
101" square

The quilt is now in the collection of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association which maintains Martha's home in Virginia. The pieced medallion is called the Penn's Treaty quilt because the central panel features a copperplate print of Pennsylvania's  founder Willliam Penn negotiating with the natives to establish a colony. Note one of the treaty gifts is a bolt of cloth in the center.

Above and Below: Two versions of the Penn's Treaty copperplate print.
The fabrics were printed at the end of the 18th century and reproduced several times.
Brown and red versions have been found.
The red one above may be a 20th century reproduction.

Winterthur Museum curator Florence Montgomery in Printed Textiles counted at least three versions. She found an ad from 1788 describing "One set of hair colour [brown?]  furniture cotton bed curtains, pattern William Penn's Treaty with the Indians. Three window curtains to match ditto." The seller: John Penn, Junior.

Diagram of the basic medallion
102" wide x 96" long

The quilt is hard to see in the photos but it's obvious that the composition is rather graceful and would make a good basis for a reproduction medallion. Martha alternated pieced and unpieced borders and used five of the most popular pieced blocks.  So I have drawn it up in EQ7 with pattern information below.

How old is it? It's attributed to about 1785, based on the first printing of the toile fabric (copied from a painting and a paper print of the Treaty.)The quilt would have to be before 1802 as Martha died in May that year and was not feeling particularly well in the months before her death. This is the kind of medallion that would remain fashionable into the 1820s. Later examples would feature more flamboyant chintzes and brighter colors. I would put the date as 1795-1800 based on the span between the toile's appearance and Martha's death.

The funniest thing I found in doing web searches for more information about the quilt and Louisa Lear was this review of her book from a periodical named The Reader.
"WE have heaped many absurdities upon that excellent—though dead—gentleman, General George Washington. We have perpetuated ridiculous juvenile lore about him, have dubbed him "a steel engraving." have eliminated his charm and his magnificence, and held him up to a disapproving generation as a prig, and now we have condescended to accept the very residuum of the most negligible portion of his correspondence concerning domestic affairs.
The Reader, obviously a very sophisticated magazine.

These letters, addressed to his secretary. Tobias Lear, were written in the belief that, their commands having been executed, they would be consigned to the files destined for destruction. They were fit for such uses, and for no others. They dealt with the minutiae of farms, stock, kitchen service, tailors, vehicles, comings and goings, tenants, lawsuits, etcetera, etcetera. They were quite distinctly the affair of General Washington and of no other living soul save those employed to carry out his wishes.
That the descendant of his secretary should betray this orderly, frugal landowner and housekeeper, making his economies known and his shifts common talk, is justified only by one incident. The incident is that this descendant, Mrs. Eyre, has a quilt made by the industrious hands of Martha Washington. The quilt is mentioned early and oft; a fullpaged illustration of the variegated horror is, with misplaced pride, given an honorable place.
Said "fullpaged illustration of the variegated horror"
One long neglected lady whose portrait is published is differentiated from the rest of her sex by the mention that she is one of the series of three wives essayed by Mr. Tobias Lear, and that it was she who was the recipient of the quilt shown in a foregoing illustration. There is a quality of mind that rejoices in dinky historical souvenirs of this sort, but the mutual felicitations of such, their exchanges of trivial confidences and secret heart-burnings, need not be intruded on those of more vital activities."

Well, now we remember why it was hard to get people to pay serious attention to women's work.
Read more of that issue of The Reader by clicking here:

The Plan for the Medallion
There are 9 borders A-I

Measurements (All are Finished Measurements so add seams)

The center finishes to 24" square.
A  Unpieced (?) Strips= 3". Longer one finishes to 30", shorter 24". There is some kind of pattern in Martha's border, possibly a light print. Border makes quilt 30".

B  Pieced Border = 3". Three pieced blocks (B)  in the center of each side. The rest may be strips or scrappy squares finishing to 3". The 4 borders measure 30" without the cornerstones. Border makes quilt 36".

C  Unpieced Striped strips = 2". Each 36" long. Add pinkish cornerstones. Border makes quilt 40".   
D  Pieced Flying Geese border (D) = 4". Cornerstone star (A) = 4" Border makes quilt 48".

E  Unpieced Striped strips = 2-1/4". Each 48" long. Add dark cornerstones. Border makes quilt 52-1/2"

F   Pieced Border = 6". Block F and Cornerstone star (A) = 6". There are odd extra pieces in the original to adjust for the size. For these modify Block E. Border makes quilt 64 1/2".

G  Pieced Border = 2-3/4". Each of four strips finish to 64 1/2" without the cornerstones. But she has pieced some rectangles into the corners of her strips here. Maybe piece each 64 1/2"strip with corner rectangles of  5" brown strips finishing out the ends of 54 1/2" strips. Border makes quilt 70". (Notice I drew the rectangles into strip G because I had a hard time figuring out how to show rectangles just in the corners)

H Pieced Strip = 10" Pinwheels (H) with Four-Patches (C) for cornerstones. Border makes quilt 90".

I Unpieced Border = 6". I see only three borders but the top may be cropped out of the photo. Strips of patchwork finish to 90" without the cornerstones. 3 borders make quilt 102" x 96".

More about the blocks in the next post in a week or two.


Anonymous said...

Great post. Your comments on the 5 pieced borders made me start thinking at how much work she really put into it considering that it all had to be done by hand without our modern quilting tools and techniques. I think her niece must have been a very special person in Martha's life. It makes me wonder if the quilt was made as a wedding gift for the marriage to Lear.

Anonymous said...


This quilt and it's story are a treasure...and so are you!

Cynthia Collier

sewprimitive karen said...

Ar! This would be so great to make.

Mary Simpson said...

Wow. Great post and web-site. We're working on quilts to commemorate the War of 1812 - 1014 here in Ontario. It's a great way for us to learn about our history. We did not realize this area was a war zone for about three years. Let's keep in touch. Check out our web-sites too?

Mary Simpson said...

Mary Simpson said...

We completed the Mr. and Mrs. George Ward Commemorative Quilt and then painted the 30 blocks and hung them on local barns. We're working on two more quilts now and planning an "arts corridor" down Longwoods Road.

Millie en Miles said...

lovely medalion quilt !!! In januari I am starting to make one... but I love this one as well !!!!