What Was In The Old Library

Lynn Schoeffler © 2006

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I won't keep you in suspense: as promised in our July issue, here are the remainder of the photos from a box of crazy quilt blocks that were donated to the Escondido History Center by Mrs. Gladys (Bean) Smith, born in Maine in 1895. The blocks are stored in the original Escondido town library built in 1895, along with the Center's extensive photo collection, research material and changing exhibits.

As my friend Kris and I studied and photographed the blocks, we had many questions. Why did so many of the blocks feature a painted floral patch? What thread would keep its color and luster after so many years — a professional appraiser has dated the blocks to circa 1880. Many of the blocks have intriguing pictorial references, such as this one that depicts a nude child (?) and an alligator! What could that have been about?!! 


Kris is of Dutch descent and was very interested in the peach satin patch that bears the printed logo “D. Van Baalen”. Research by Kris from the book Dutch Chicago indicates that Joseph Israel Van Baalen, had arrived in Chicago via Buffalo and Detroit by 1870; he married into the prosperous Philadelphia Litt merchant family, which operated a large department store. Sons of both Israel and his brother were engaged in merchandising — the oldest son of Joseph was a hatter. A listing of prominent Chicago families by Dutch Chicago includes The Andrews, Van Gelders, Greenburgs, Litts, and Van Baalens.

Other interesting embroideries on this block: the skillfully executed chair and sets of initials. Could the patch titled “4 In Hand” refer to the “Pied Piper of Hamlin” or is it a reference to how husbands tied their neckwear? Does the simple outline of the cow refer to the infamous bovine owned by Mrs. O’Leary that is reputed to have kicked over the lantern that started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871?

Along with the delicate satin stitched blue ribbon, note the Kate Greenaway--like figure done in outline stitch to the right. Embroidery patterns were readily available in women's magazines, and used as incentives to customers ordering packages of thread ends, for what was called “waste embroidery”. (1) These blocks have many such examples, most done in stem or outline stitch. Can any of you figure out what the embroidery on the turquoise patch at center left signifies? Neither could we! 


This block contains the first example of the many patches that appear to be hand painted. According to Penny McMorris in her book Crazy Quilts, painting on fabric was a popular pastime. “ Some women created landscapes and portraits of family members or pets, and some saw painting on the fabric patches as a quick alternative to embroidery. Those who wanted a painted effect quickly could use sheets of paper that had been specially printed with oil-color designs. These could be moistened and transferred to fabric by pressing with a hot iron.” (2)

The light peach and turquoise patch at left center of this block shows an interesting, almost contemporary, effect done by couching a single line of black thread with white cross stitches.

Other blocks:

There are many figures other than children on these blocks, such as the grandmother with the bonnet and cane seen here. Interestingly, Peggy McMorris also writes: “Figures of children are more commonly found on crazy quilts than are adult figures. The main reason seems to lie in the embroidery patterns that were available; designs showing adults were generally not available, with the exception of some patterns showing women doing household chores. In general, then, most embroidered or appliquéd adult figures found on crazy quilts were original designs, while those of children came from patterns.” (3) 


Here's one block with a hand-painted baker, and center motif of roses and forget-me-knots on black velvet. 


Along with all the interesting seams, this last block seems to be done as a remembrance of Gladys’ family:
The pained good luck horseshoe in the center reads “H.P. Bean and Mrs. H.P. Bean”, with a lady's shoe for C.G. Bean. There are also several depictions of children at the shoreline, including the ink drawing of children in a boat which reads “See me row”. Could it be a reminder of fun on the beach at Lake Michigan?  


Kris and I had a wonderful time admiring and speculating about these old crazy quilts. Many cities and towns have societies that work to preserve their unique heritages. Maybe you'll find a Crazy Quilt treasure near you!

Thanks again to the Escondido Historical Center: www.escondidohistory.org. and to Kristine Herman for the references to Dutch history in Chicago, and her interest in all things Quilt!

(1) Penny McMorris, Crazy Quilts, p.34.
(2) Penny McMorris, Crazy Quilts, p.21.
(3) Penny McMorris, Crazy Quilts, p.64

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