Monday, December 3, 2012

Red, white, and green

This quilt, c. 1840, came from an eBay seller in Baltimore, Maryland
Is it already time to drag out the red, white, and green quilts again? The year 2012 really flew by! Today, I noticed people were posting red, white and green quilts on Facebook - we like to celebrate holidays by posting pictures of holiday appropriate quilts. It just kind of crept up on me this year.

This stamp is available for the Holidays through Zazzle
My first antique quilt was red, white, and green. c. 1850, Kentucky
Why was red, white and green so popular in mid 19th century quilts? I asked the Facebook group "Quilts- Vintage and Antique" and came up with a few leads, but no definitive answers. A few people said the colors were popular in decor and fashion. Others said the available materials played a role.

c. 1840, eastern U.S., possibly NJ
The stable, bright Turkey red fabric was all the rage in the mid 19th century, and the fabric could cost ten times more than other fabrics due to the labor involved in its production. It was one of the most precious and expensive fabrics, but it was used often in quilts. To me, that suggests quilts had a high level of importance.

Crossroads, c. 1870
I still wonder if red, white and green had specific significance. Certainly, the colors have taken on meaning after being associated with the Christmas holiday, but I'm not sure those colors were clearly connected to Christmas in America in the 1850s. Marsha McCloskey offers some enlightening comments in her book, Christmas Quilts.

"Red, green and white are the natural colors of winter in Northern Europe, where most of our Christmas traditions originated," said McCloskey. "White snow provides clear contrast with evergreens and red holly berries." She also pointed out the significance of the colors in Christian liturgy. Green stands for eternal life, red for passion and the blood of Christ, and white for purity and new beginnings.

Rooster Album, 1868, Hannah J. Swin, NJ
The interesting thing about red, white and green is it continued to be part of the vocabulary in quiltmaking long after the colors fell out of fashion. Once synthetic red fabrics were widely available and much less expensive than Turkey red, bright red fabric wasn't as much of a rare commodity as Turkey red had been in the mid 19th century. Yet it remained popular in quilts.

Star, c. 1900
New York Beauty, c. 1940
Even quilts that wildly depart from tradition pay homage red, white and green. The wacky and wonderful New York Beauty with the chunky, green and white bar sashing is a good example. Certainly by the 20th century, these colors represented Christmas to Americans, and in other cultures around the world. But it would be impossible to even say what the maker of this quilt was thinking, let alone whether Christmas was a consideration.

So, the topic is still open for discussion. What do you think? Was and is there special significance in red, white and green quilts?


  1. I don't know the reason but I will say its the red, white and green antique quilts that make me the happiest and are the quilts that wanted me to study antique quilts. (oh and add in the hint of cheddar and wow!)
    Look forward to seeing your collection again this month...
    I think of your rooster album a lot, especially since its from NJ...
    love the combination of unique blocks and then the rooster in the center just makes me smile. thanks for sharing again.

  2. Speaking as a quilter - I just find it very harmonious!

    Maybe that's one of the reasons (including those you already mentioned) that we have adopted this colour scheme for Christmas - it makes us feel good.

  3. They are such clean,strong and invigorating colours and seem to be naturally associated with celebrations. I adore that "Rooster Album" - there is a quilt that is quirky, fresh as a daisy and makes you smile ! What more can you ask? Every Stitch

  4. I do think that red and green would have been considered Christmas colors in early America.
    Evergreen plants, like Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe have been used for thousands of years to decorate and brighten up buildings during the long dark winter. They also reminded people that spring would come and that winter wouldn't last forever.
    The Romans would exchange evergreen branches during January as a sign of good luck. The ancient Egyptians used to bring palm branches into their houses during the mid winter festivals.
    In many parts of Europe during the middle ages, Paradise plays were performed, often on Christmas Eve. They told Bible stories to people who couldn't read. The 'Paradise Tree' in the Garden of Eden in the play was normally a pine tree with red apples tied to it.
    An early use of red at Christmas was the apples on the paradise tree. They represented the fall of Adam in the plays.
    Red is also the color of Holly berries, which is said to represent the blood of Jesus when he died on the cross.
    Red is also the color of Bishops robes. These would have been worn by St. Nicholas and then also became Santa's uniform.
    Red and green poinsettia plants, native to Mexico, (Today the plant is known in Mexico and Guatemala as ""La Flor de la Nochebuena” Flower of the Holy Night, or Christmas Eve) were introduced to the United States in 1828.
    From the perspective of the color wheel red and green are complimentary colors, colors that are directly across for each other on the color wheel….so they “go together” well. Complimentary colors create the strongest possible contrast and therefore the boldest color combination….I think red and green in quilts was popular because of this bold contrast. Yellow and purple are also complimentary colors…why didn’t they use them in 19th century quilts so much? I say because they didn’t have a good true purple fabric

  5. Fantastic quilts Bill. I really love the one with the red diamonds, and that last one makes me smile. I think there must be a Christmas connection, but I've always loved red and green quilts any time of the year.

  6. that last one with the green and white stripey sashing just makes me sigh and wish it were mine. sigh. love love love. would be wonderful to know more about the maker and if she was making it this way because it pleased or was it agony and disappointment that it wasn't going together the "right" way.

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