Wednesday, April 9, 2014

romanticism, and romantic regionalism

pieced quilt, unknown maker, cottons, c. 1880, Texas
If you have followed this blog, you may have heard the term "romanticism" mentioned, but may not have known exactly what I meant by it. Romanticism is defined as a movement in arts and literature that originated in the late 18th century, emphasizing inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual. Romanticism was a reaction against the order and restraint of classicism and neoclassicism, and a rejection of the rationalism that characterized the Enlightenment.

"Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes" 1800-1802
by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson - not exactly reality
(public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
In art history, it is very clear what constitutes romanticism. The painting "Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes" by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson is a good example. Although figures are rendered with realism, the painting does not represent reality.

"The New York Beauty quilt design did not originate in New York. That was the first thing I ever learned about the complicated patchwork pattern."

In quilt history, romanticism is not always as easy to pinpoint. The New York Beauty quilt design is a prime example of how romanticism got its foot in the door, even after much of it was scrutinized and disproved by historians. The origins of this design have remained murky, and much of the misinformation in recent years is directly attributable to romantic regionalism.

Quiltmania #100 - "Collecting New York Beauty Quilts" article
The opening of my article in the current issue of Quiltmania Magazine (Issue #100) says, "The New York Beauty quilt design did not originate in New York. That was the first thing I ever learned about the complicated patchwork pattern." It is a very important statement because it establishes that we have known since 1989 (or earlier) that the origins were not in New York. But the statement does not preclude the widespread acceptance of New York Beauty as the genre name.
New York Beauty, Mountain Mist, c. 1930, Kentucky
The patchwork design is thought to have originated in the southeastern United States, and that is one of the main reasons why romantic regionalism still affects the study of the design. The widespread popularity of the name New York Beauty is very well established, and I have addressed it. The Quiltmania article and the essay in my "Collecting New York Beauty Quilts" (2013, Blurb) catalogue from last year's exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles, include the most up-to-date ideas.

My 2011 "Beauty Secrets" catalogue - out of print for a reason
My previous exhibition catalogue, "Beauty Secrets, 150 Years of History in One Quilt Pattern" (2011 Blurb) included some of the romantic regionalism, which is why the book is now out of print. One of the pieces of information that did not hold up to later scrutiny was the statement, "The most prevalent names before 1930 were Rocky Mountain Road and Crown of Thorns."

Where did that statement come from, and why was 1930 a key point in the history? In short, the statement came from a very superficial reading of the available information, such as documentation records on the Quilt Index, and I accept full responsibility for going along with that and not asking enough questions. It happened in a much earlier stage of my research, but I still wish I could take it back. The year 1930 was important because that was when Mountain Mist released the New York Beauty pattern.

Mountain Mist New York Beauty Pattern, Stearns & Foster, Ohio 1930
How did romantic regionalism become part of the discourse? There has been a small, vocal group of historians who felt the name New York Beauty was inappropriate for a quilt with southern origins, despite it being by far the most widely recognized name. Other names have been suggested, and touted as more historically accurate, particularly with regard to the 19th century. However, none of the other names was definitively traceable to a time earlier than the beginning of the 20th century.

So, how was I able to get to the bottom of it? By looking a lot more closely at documentation records, understanding how names were designated during the documentation process, and learning more about the primary resource for identifying pieced quilt designs, Barbara Brackman's "Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns" - one of the most brilliant quilt history research projects ever done, but also one of the most misused and misunderstood books.

Why would I say such a thing? Isn't that like...blasphemy? Back in December 2013, I exchanged e-mails with Barbara Brackman regarding the recent discovery of a reference to the term "New York Beauty" in a diary from 1854. During the e-mail exchanges, I said her book "...continues to reinforce the idea that universal pattern names were more of a 20th century thing..." in the context of historians assigning 20th century names to 19th century quilts. She agreed, and encouraged me to keep telling people.

pieced quilt, unknown maker, cottons, c. 1880, Kentucky
formerly part of the collection of Phyllis George
The quilt from the Phyllis George collection was discovered by the late Bruce Mann in Kentucky. It appeared in George's book, "Living With Quilts: 50 Great American Quilts" (Gt Pub Corp, 1998), and in the book it was called a New York Beauty. We cannot change the reality that this information appeared in print. We can address it, but assigning another 20th century name is not the solution.

So, how does all of this discussion tie in with my research, and how does it affect the way I describe the quilts? Very simply, if I have a quilt made by an unknown maker and no published pattern source, I do not profess to know what the maker called it, as some folks have suggested I should do. Instead, I will call it a "pieced quilt" and "later called New York Beauty" to reference the name most readers would recognize.

Civil War montage (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
Now is a good time to talk about romanticism because I am writing a book about these quilts and need to look at romantic regionalism with as critical an eye as possible. The War of Northern Aggression is still being fought over the name of this quilt design, and it's time for that war to conclude. Since most people call it the Civil War, and most people call the quilt New York Beauty, it may be time for the few remaining confederate troops to concede.

Thanks for reading!


  1. Replies
    1. it gave me an idea for a new reality show - Quilt Wars - LOL!!

  2. Yeah, and I was one of those romantics.... My family roots are in New York State and I've always loved the NYB so much--it's become sort of a quilting talisman for me. But I'm glad to learn the real story, and there's no reason why it can't still be a talisman. Greatly looking forward to your book.

    1. But I have a feeling you were OK with the name New York Beauty. :)

    2. Well, of course I was, when I didn't know any better. Going forward, glad to have the benefit of ongoing research. And I still love it and intend to make at least one more, no matter what it's called.

    3. You can feel happy knowing the most widely accepted name for the design is New York Beauty, but also know it would have never been the original name of the quilt, if there even was one. Back in the middle 19th century, one of the few publications that included quilt designs was Godey's Lady's Book, and they called it all "patchwork"... :)

  3. Your scholarship and sense of humor are a winning combo:) Can't wait to read your book!

    1. It is nice to see the humor in these things, would be dreadful without it.

  4. Ah, but would a rose by any other name...