This antique cotton quilt from 1850 consists of 38 red and white blocks in varying patterns and three layers with a blue and white backside, all quilted and pieced by hand.

This checkered quilt,  found in the borning room of the Atwood Old House was made by Marjory Smith prior to moving into the Atwood home in 1833. Last fall, the Atwood House Museum, home to the Chatham Historical Society, displayed 23 of its 30 historic quilts, dating 1833-1900, a first for the museum. The staff and volunteers of the Atwood House, a gambrel-roofed house constructed in 1752 and restored by the society, couldn’t be happier. “The display was well, well received,” says Janet Marjollet of Chatham, chair of the historical society’s Costumes and Textiles Department. “I’ve had many people call and say they loved the display. The quilts were shown the way they might have been used in that era, like the silk parlor throw we placed on a Victorian sofa.” Another piece, the bicentennial quilt, was created by Chatham quilters in 1976 and is scheduled to hang at Chatham Town Hall through 2012, Chatham’s tercentennial.

Atwood House staff and volunteers, knowing what a prize they have, are treating the collection as a historical marker. Marjollet and three other volunteers have cataloged the quilts; when the pieces are not on display, they are stored in archival boxes. Last spring, Marjollet and her assistants further documented the quilts by contacting the Massachusetts Quilt Documentation Project (known as MassQuilts) in Lowell, whose staff also cataloged them.

Whether their lives were rich in comforts or more trying, Chatham residents in the 1800s tended to be a very frugal lot. Any bits of leftover cotton, silk, or wool were sewn into quilts. Even women who led comfortable lives usually prepared the bulk of their quilts. Marjory Smith prepared the wool and wove the lining for her quilt, which the Atwood House displayed on the four-poster bed in the borning room. The mahogany-colored border was also homespun.

“She was a very frugal woman,” Marjollet says, quoting Smith’s 1888 obituary: “She looked well to the ways of her household and never wasted a particle of what could be of any possible benefit to anyone.”

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Mary Grauerholz

Mary Grauerholz is the communications manager of the Cape Cod Foundation and a freelance writer.

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