Exhibition Review: Civil War Quilts at the New York Historical Society


Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts and Context in the Civil War at the New York Historical Society

ends August 31, 2014

Guest Review by Nadine Stewart

“Cotton thread holds the Union together; unites John C. Calhoun and Abbot Lawrence. Patriotism for holidays and summer evenings, with music and rockets, but cotton thread is the Union.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, May 23, 1846

Homefront and Battlefield is a bland title for a powerful exhibit that gives us a unique look at the reign of “King Cotton,” the fiber that shaped American history. The subtitle “Quilts and Context in the Civil War” is even blander. There are quilts throughout, each with its own powerful story. But was really gives the exhibit its impact are the many, small items that show how important textiles were for those on the battlefield and at home. There are small shreds of fabric—including commorative ribbons, dress swatches, and uniform clothing fragments—that were treasured for the memories they evoked of a loved one or an event in the tragedy that shapes our history to this day. Each piece, no matter how simple, evokes the individuals caught up in a dangerous time and struggling to survive it. The result is a unique exhibit that shatters many of our myths about the past.

The first thing one sees in the gallery is a huge bale of cotton, the raw cotton of the South that accounted for 50% of American exports by 1850. New York State banned the slave trade in 1827, but like all the Northern states, the state’s businesses profited from trade with the slave states. The bonds between North and South were so strong, so strong plantation owners in the South could not imagine that northern businesses could exist without the materials produced by the slave economy. A small example of this interdependence is a book of fabric swatches from Rhode Island. The cheap, coarse material is “negro cloth” intended for the slave clothing. Rhode Island lead the country in producing this material. Nearby is a small child’s vest of that coarse cloth, clothing that would mark the wearer as enslaved. Close by is a “Free Labor Dress” of the 1850s, a blend of wool and silk worn by an abolitionist Quaker, part of a group who refused to wear garments produced by the supply chain that depended on slave labor.

The 1867 “reconciliation quilt,” by Lucinda Ward Honstain of Brooklyn, is in the show “Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts and Context in the Civil War” at the New-York Historical Society.

A full section is devoted to quilts and textiles with patriotic imagery—items as large as full quilts, and as small as “housewifes,” small handmade rolls for sewing supplies that featured flag images. Even children wore clothing to show which side their family was on. One example is a little girl’s cotton dress from Xenia, Ohio printed with a small repeat pattern of Union flags and soldiers. Another is a small apron from 1862 with Confederate symbols appliquéd on its bib and skirt. A garment like this would silently show an entire family’s defiance of the North.

Another section shows more practical things– blankets, bandages, tents, or uniforms for the troops made by women volunteers North and South. When the war began, neither side had enough of these basic supplies. Women filled that gap, volunteering countless hours to roll bandages, knit stockings, and sew uniforms. A soldier could go through on pair of socks in a week. Machine made socks were considered inferior. An 1861 Peterson’s print shows soldiers at Christmas exulting over a shipment of new socks. There are posters for fund raising fairs that sold fancywork of all kinds to raise money for the war effort. It is estimated that women’s volunteerism on both sides raised a billion dollars to support the troops in the four years of the war.

The story of business during the war is not so admirable. Near the section on women’s goods are mosquito nets, tents, uniforms, and blankets all produced by war contractors. There are also pieces that show the dark side of all that production, uniforms made of shoddy. This cloth made of recycled wool fiber, made huge profits for wartime merchants, like Brooks Brothers, but disintegrated in the first rains. Industries often slowed down production to make scarce goods more profitable. Mill owners from Lowell, Massachusetts sold their raw cotton at inflated prices and laid off ten thousand women workers.

Intimate items of clothing tell their own story. On display is a nightshirt modified for an amputated left arm, a money pocket and money belt designed to be worn under women’s crinolines, so money and valuables could be kept safe from marauding soldiers; and, of course, mourning clothing. Dressing properly for mourning the dead was so important that a Confederate nurse scolded her sister, “How could you come out of New Orleans without any black cloathes (sic) for me?” A mourning day dress in a soft lavender print is on display, its voluminous sleeves and gathered skirt remind us also just how much cotton cloth it took for the proper lady’s dress. The hold of King Cotton on fashion was a strong one.

The small textile pieces amplify the stories of this exhibit’s extraordinary quilts, each with a special story. The curators refuse to allow us to sentimentalize these stories or use them to “prettify” history. A simple quilt in dark, somber wool material made of blanket scraps and old uniforms hangs in the first section of the exhibit. A Union soldier in a hospital stitched it after he after he escaped from Confederate troops. An album quilt from upstate New York is beautifully pieced in the Chimney Sweep pattern. But what distinguishes it are the handwritten messages, like “Brave soldier thou will ever be remembered.” on each block. A beautiful piece with floral appliqués shows no sign of the war, but it was sold to raise funds for Confederate troops around 1862.[1]

The exhibit ends with Reconstruction. We usually think Reconstruction ended in 1876 as the nation prepared for its Centennial year, united again. Mourning ribbons for President Abraham Lincoln surround the “Reconciliation” quilt made in Brooklyn, New York in 1867. Two blocks stand out. One shows Confederate President Jefferson Davis next to a young woman holding an American flag. Another shows a black man facing a white man with the words “Master I am free.” It is clear the quilt’s maker hoped the nation could resolve its divisions.

But two items remind us that the problems of the War still affect us today. Mounted in a lone vitrine is a single white Ku Klux Klan hood From the 1920s. Nearby hangs a KKK banner from same period. The Klan resurged in 1915 due to anti-immigrant feeling. A closer look at these pieces tells a chilling story. The hood belonged to a woman. The banner is from the “Realm of Vermont.” When the Klan reappeared, women were accepted as members. Its chapters spread into the North. These mute artifacts confront us with one final question—how much did the Civil War actually resolve?

After Lincoln was assassinated, his secretary of the navy wrote reflected in a diary entry that “…. the incidents are fresh in my mind and may pass away with me by cannot ever by me be forgotten.” Through the display of many objects saved by people of all classes, Homefront and Battlefield gives us an understanding of that troubled time.

Those memories haunt us still 150 years later.

Author’s note: New York Historical has mounted a large sampling of Bill Cunningham’s Facades in the back hall of the first floor, so you will be able to see them when you exit Homefront and Battlefield! A nice bonus!”


[1] The exhibit is careful to dispel a myth about quilts that grew up in the 1990s. The story arose that escaping slaves were guided in on their way north by quilts that were hung out in a special “code.” A label states firmly that no record of this has ever surfaced from escaped slaves or participants in the Underground Railroad. It adds such a story does a “disservice to the true heroism and ingenuity of the slaves who escaped and those who helped them.”

*Made for “AK” in Pennsylvania by an unidentified quiltmaker, this textile illustrates the life of a Zouave soldier. It includes fabrics used by seamstresses at the Schuylkill Arsenal in Philadelphia to make Zouave uniforms. “AK” may have been Adam Keller or Albert Keen, both of whom served with the 88th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, which boasted two companies of Zouaves. Collection of Kelly Kinzle.

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