Wednesday, November 21, 2012

An Outlier Uncovered

Unquilted counterpane dated 1782 with initials E.B.
Collection of the Winterthur Museum
In 1974 the Orlofsky's book Quilts in America gave us all our first real overview of the magnificent history of American quilts. Included was a black and white photo of this unquilted spread with the caption:
"Framed Center Counterpane, 1782. Appliqued and embroidered linen and cotton....The bird at the top of the tree amd the pair of peacocks are cut from copperplate printed linen and cotton cloth that dates from about 1765-75....The coverlet is said to have been made in America from various English textiles." (Page 52 in the second edition.)
The complexity of this design was hard to fit in with the other American quilts dated in 1780s (a low number to be sure. I think there are three others.)
Anna Tuels' Quilt
Dated 1786
Collection: Wadsworth Atheneum

Elizabeth Nace quilt
Dated 1786
Collection: Lancaster Quilt  & Textile Museum
Deborah Wilson Quilt
Dated 1783
Collection: Daughters of the American Revolution Museum
 But just because it was an outlier in the data----a visual outlier---doesn't mean that isn't an accurate date. I tried wrapping my head around it (as we used to say when the Orlofsky book was new.) If this quilt were made here in 1782 the style should be reflected in quilts in 1810.
A detail of the center showing the copperplate printed bird.
A few years ago I saw the E.B. coverlet in person at the Winterthur exhibit and was pleased to see it labeled as Irish. Pleased because I no longer had to wonder about it's origins, its maker or fit it into my concepts of American-made quilts. E.B. is Eliza Patten Bennis (1725-1802) who emigrated from Ireland in 1788, taking this five-year-old bedspread with her, to Philadelphia where it surely impressed her new neighbors.
See Linda Eaton's Winterthur catalog:
 Quilts in a Material World for updated information about Eliza Bennis's quilt
Eliza's life is well-documented. She was born in Limerick and married sadler Mitchell or Michael Bennis. She gave birth to numerous children and converted to Methodism. The Bennises prospered. She was obviously an educated and upperclass woman; the evidence is in her letters as well as her quilt. In 1773 Methodism's founder John Wesley wrote her alluding to the fact that brother Bennis had got very rich.  She phrased it more decorously. "The Lord has blessed my husban'ds industry far above our expectation, [giving] me both the necessaries and conveniences of life."

I like to think that as a prominent Methodist she was acquainted with fellow Methodist and British immigrant John Hewson who lived in greater Philadelphia during the four years Eliza resided there. I can imagine that he and his wife Zebiah enjoyed examining the prints and the workmanship in her spread.

Eliza's prosperity faded at her husband's death although her religious fervor did not. Her obituary:
"Mrs Eliza Bennis died in Phla June 1802...aged 77 years, after struggling with severe and unexpected trials, nearly the last twenty years..."

Eliza's quilt is important because it is NOT an American quilt. The story of how it came here is an example of how easily material culture transfers from one culture to another.

Read more about Eliza and her coverlet here:

See her son Thomas's 1809 publication of her correspondence with John Wesley here:
 Buy Eliza's journal here:
Buy Megan Carroll's pattern inspired by Eliza's coverlet here:



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Donna Romano @ Split-Site PhD said...

Quilting has been a part of America since its independence. It is amazing to have all of these newer photos of very old pieces. Thank you for telling the story of Eliza Patten Bennis, including a description of the difference between Irish and American quilting techniques. Thank you also for including all of the links.

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