Early American Quilts

Dr. Lori shows you tips to identify valuable quilts from the 19th Century.

by Dr. Lori Verderame

Colonial Quilts

In Colonial times, quilts were objects of the wealthy as threads, needles, and cotton were very expensive. It was only after Connecticut inventor Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793 that Americans had the opportunity to produce quilts economically. Whitney’s cotton gin separated the cotton from its annoying hulls and revolutionized the textile industry.

By the 19th Century, the American shipping industry gave quilters greater access to fabrics than before which resulted in quilts made of wool, cotton, and imported silk. By 1850, new trading opportunities with Asia reduced the price of silk so silk quilts with elaborate stitching and appliqué work grew in popularity. By 1859, mercerized threads treated to improve strength were embraced by quilters.

Some of the most common designs like the Nine Patch, Patchwork, and Ohio Star quilts were produced using plain blocks of fabric in the form of flowers, baskets, and wreath designs. The process of stuffing a quilt was popular from about 1800 to 1840. By 1850, egg or honey glazed fabrics, polished cottons, and chintz were all the rage for quilts.

Quilts of the 1800s

The 1800s marked tremendous change in American quilt-making. In the early 1860s, men took quilts along to serve as bedding during the war. The wartime quilt was used to communicate a soldier’s religious beliefs, to smuggle secret messages, and even to provide supplies through enemy lines. Due to wartime shortages, many quilts were made of discarded clothing. The patchwork or “scrap” quilt became popular. Fallen soldiers would be rolled up and buried in family quilts on battlefields. Many quilts have been discovered with such histories. Today, applique quilts, album quilts, and Amish quilts from particular areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan have spiked in value into the $5,000 to $50,000 range.

Another important event changed the face of American quilts. In 1846, Elias Howe Jr. redesigned the sewing machine for use in the production of shoes. Howe’s main competitor, Isaac Singer, received a patent in 1851 for a sewing machine with a foot pedal that allowed for hands-free operation. Singer’s primary contribution to sewing machine history was his marketing techniques. Singer offered an installment plan and a trade-in allowance in an effort to put a sewing machine in every American home. By 1870, Singer sold 200,000 sewing machines annually. The sewing machine became a well-documented status symbol of 19th Century life. This appliance like an oven or an icebox would be prominently displayed in the best of American homes.

Victorian Quilts

The 1876 Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia, PA had a pronounced influence on American quilts and quilt collecting. Traditional Colonial style quilting designs were reintroduced after 1876. Many quilts were produced in black and white, gray on gray, burgundy and deep purple from madder brown, copper brown, cocoa, and chrome dyes. These dark colors were enhanced by the period that marks the first appearance of reliable, colorfast synthetic dyes. These dyes made fabrics easier to wash.

By the Victorian period or the late 1880s until 1900, the Crazy Quilt was very fashionable. These were quilts made of silk, satin, and other materials and embellished with extensive embroidery, ribbons, needlepoint work, and sometimes hand painted blocks. Many collectors will invest between $2,000 and $5,000 for a period Crazy Quilt in good condition.

Read my tips about American Quilts of the 1900s.

Request an online appraisal of your quilt from Dr. Lori.