Fabric of a Community
A collection of antique quilts at the Atwood House Museum chronicles life in Chatham through the 19th century and beyond.
The historic quilt collection at the Atwood House Museum in Chatham holds a treasure-trove of stories in its folds. Study the quilts’ intricate patterns, deep colors, rich textures—and sometimes even handwritten messages—and a swirl of history passes by.
Consider Marjory Smith, who bought the material for her gorgeous red and green quilt in Boston, when she traveled there to shop for bridal clothes for her 1833 wedding to John Atwood. Or Mehitable Atwood, whose friends and relatives pieced a multicolored “friendship” quilt in honor of her 1848 marriage to Benjamin Boylston and wrote bits of wisdom on its back (“Remember me when night closes in on thee” and “True friendship is everlasting” are just two of many).
With their captivating visuals and messages that were sometimes inked or stitched onto the back, the quilts give a glimpse of Chatham life in the 1800s and early 1900s—life that is as profound as any history book.
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 had, is treating the collection as a historical marker. Marjollet and three other volunteers 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.”
There are also “crazy quilts”—silky throws popular in the Victorian era sewn between 1880 and 1899. One of these is a brightly colored beauty patterned in harlequin diamonds, with colored pompoms attached. The collection also includes doll quilts and a cradle quilt in a pattern called Mariner’s Star.
Quilting was necessary to produce household items, but it was also an important social outlet, a chance for women to chat while they worked. Quilting parties were common, whether it was a gathering of a handful of women or a lavish tea party with cakes, cookies, and tea served in delicate china. After the quilting, there sometimes were dancing and games. “I think it was an introduction to future betrothals,” Marjollet says. “I think young people really looked forward not only to the quilting, but to the good times.”
Although usually the quilting pieces came from scraps of fabric, the handiwork was often superb, as seen in the minute stitches in a friendship quilt that belonged to Azubah Atwood Mayo. The quilt is dated 1848, three years before she married Francis B. Rogers. The quilt was made by family, friends, and neighbors for Azubah, the niece of Marjory Smith Atwood and links several patterns, including Sunburst, Pincushion, and Chimney Sweep, in vivid colors against a pink and off-white background.
The quilt was given to the Atwood House Museum by the Atwood family, who accompanied it with a note that commemorated “the generations of women in the family whose enormous, multifaceted, and creative talents only begin to be reflected in their quilting.” The words are a testament to the reality of the times: With almost no jobs available to them, quilting was one way women could express their creativity. And with its technical requirements and artistic designs, quilting has its complex side.
Margaret Martin, Atwood House administrator, recalls a comment by her late mother. “My mom said she felt a lot of the women (quilters) were frustrated geometers,” Martin says. “They were not expected to go to school. Mathematical education was not encouraged.” Whether the women knew it or not, they created something of great historical importance—as Martin says, “a beautiful picture of what women all over this country must have been creating in that time period.”
The Atwood House Museum is interested in acquiring additional quilts for the collection, including quilts of historic significance created by Chatham residents between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, or quilts passed through families of current residents. For more information on the quilt collection or the Atwood House Museum, visit www.chathamhistoricalsociety.org or call (508) 945-2493.
Mary Grauerholz is communications manager at the Cape Cod Foundation and a freelance writer.
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