Sunday, February 10, 2013

New York Beauty: Why THAT Name?

Mountain Mist New York Beauty, c. 1930.
Whenever I talk about my "New York Beauty" collection, I tell the story about how these quilts came to be recognized primarily by that name. It's actually a family of pattern variations, a genre, inclusive of many pattern names. These quilts have been made since the middle 19th century and originated in the southeastern United States. The pattern had many names such as Sunrise/Sunrise in the Pines, Surveyor, President Polk in the White House, Rocky Mountain/Rocky Mountain Road/Rail Through the Mountains, and Crown of Thorns - to name just a few.

This 1880s pieced quilt is an early pattern variation.
Because this pattern was among the most difficult to make, it was most often a "best" quilt. Any pattern name associated with a quilt would've had great meaning to the maker. Crown of Thorns, for example, was thought to be a reference to the Crucifixion. The Rocky Mountain group of names was thought to refer to exploration and westward migration. Early names and meanings were maintained in oral histories and rarely, in written documents. Around the last decade of the 19th century, published patterns started to appear as interest in quiltmaking spread. But as we would realize many decades later, histories provided by pattern makers and mass media sources were not always the most reliable accounts.

Mountain Mist New York Beauty pattern, c. 1930
The name New York Beauty was not in use until 1930, when Mountain Mist released a pattern by that name. So, why THAT name? At first, it just doesn't make sense to call a Southern quilt by a distinctly Yankee name. These quilts didn't originate in New York. But there were several important events in 20th century quilt history that led to New York Beauty becoming the most popular and widely used name. First, there was the pattern, itself. To really understand this part of the equation, you must read the description and "history". Click the photo to enlarge it, and see if you can believe what you read.

The history includes romanticized notions of the pattern's origins.
Quilt history, not being quite the well-oiled machine it is today, included a mix of early published patchwork designs, written documents, oral histories, and romanticism. Today, the notion that the New York Beauty originated in 1776 is absolutely ridiculous. It's laughable, an embarrassment. During lectures, I quip about it, rolling my eyes, and the audience always laughs along. Back in the 30s, enough people must've believed it, because New York Beauty soon became the most widely used name.

Pages 52-53 from "Patchwork Souvenirs of the 1933 World's Fair" 
Rose Tekippe and her New York Beauty quilt
The Mountain Mist name for the pattern spread quickly through quilting circles. It even reached non-quiltmakers when a New York Beauty was exhibited at the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition as one of the award winners in the Sears National Quilt Contest. The quilt, pieced by Rose Tekippe using the Mountain Mist pattern and quilted by the Twelve Faithful Quilters of Fort Atkinson, Iowa in 1932, won third prize in the Minneapolis regional contest.

Pages 60-61 from "Patchwork Souvenirs of the 1933 World's Fair" 
Leila Rawls Porter and her quilt
Interestingly, there was another variation on the pattern in the mix, a Crown of Thorns, also called Rocky Mountain, made by Leila Rawls Porter of Hollins, Alabama in 1933. According to the story in "Patchwork Souvenirs of the 1933 World's Fair" by Merikay Waldvogel and Barbara Brackman, Porter won a green merit award ribbon, but no cash prize. Since Rose Tekippe's quilt was exhibited in the Sears Pavillion at the World's Fair, it was seen by many more people and received far more recognition than Porter's quilt. That certainly boosted the name recognition of Mountain Mist's pattern name, but there were other factors worth considering.

Chrysler Building, New York, completed in 1930
In the 1930s, the name New York Beauty may have seemed more appropriate to the design than some of the earlier, lesser known names. New York Beauty conjured images of the crown of the Statue of Liberty, and the crown ornamentation on the Chrysler Building, which was completed in May, 1930. These landmarks of the New York City skyline and the American urban landscape - one neoclassical and the other art deco - both seemed related to the graphic design in the quilts. Both became associated with the pattern's lore.

Another significant event that boosted the name recognition of the New York Beauty was a cover feature in the April 1981 issue of Quilter's Newsletter Magazine. The cover quilt was a Mountain Mist New York Beauty, c. 1935, from the collection of Bryce and Donna Hamilton of Minneapolis, Minnesota. According to Shelly Zegart's book "American Quilt Collections: Antique Quilt Masterpieces" the Bryce and Donna Hamilton collection included four best-of-kind nineteenth century examples of the pattern known as New York Beauty. Two of those appear in the Quilter's Newsletter article, which was penned by Louise O. Townsend.

If you haven't read the article, it's a must, because it includes much speculation about the pattern's origins and other enlightening commentary about the quilts. Here are a few snippets.

"Most existing examples of this classic American quilt design have been acquired by collectors and museums, and it is a rare treat to see one. Yet nearly all of us recognize the design when we see it because of the strikingly bold colors and intricate piecing. It is a dramatic design which commands respect- one that is hard to forget."

"...the New York Beauty has a very sketchy history. Although the pattern probably first appeared in New England in the early 1800s, there are examples as well as name and color variations during the 19th century which suggest that it moved quickly to the southeastern United States, and farther west to Texas."

"Most well-known examples of New York Beauty quilts date from the last century or the early 1900s, possibly because the intricate piecing and elaborate quilting that are so characteristic of this classic design require much time- a commodity that we are often lacking in our modern, fast-paced world."

"...the Stearns & Foster Company took its New York Beauty pattern from a red, white, and blue original which it dated from 1776."

"...whenever we see one in a museum or at a quilt show, the New York Beauty is truly awe inspiring and spectacular, and we are likely to pause for a long time to admire it. It was, and is, a masterpiece quilt pattern- an American quilt classic."

1870s variation by Florence Caldonia Corley Shealy of Saluda County,
South Carolina. No pattern name was passed along with the quilt's history.
It's interesting to read this article knowing what we know today, but much of it was actually known in 1979, when Barbara Brackman released her first edition of the Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns. The Quilter's Newsletter article included a reference in Brackman, the Modern Priscilla "Sunrise" quilt, and one from a 1931 Capper's Weekly, the "Springtime in the Rockies" pattern.

Quilt from the Shelburne Museum (left) and one from Mississippi (right)
Unfortunately, the article went down the wrong path with three important presumptions: first, that the Mountain Mist history dating their original inspiration quilt to 1776 was true; second, that the quilt pattern originated in New England; and third, that the quilt from the Shelburne Museum collection, found in Seatauket, New York (page 12), supported a mid-19th century use of the name New York Beauty. Around the same time as the Quilter's Newsletter article, the first statewide quilt documentation project was underway in Kentucky - a state where they would find important early examples of the pattern. Until quilt history caught up, some of those quilts would be called New York Beauties.

Pages from Award Winning Quilts & Their Makers, AQS, Vol. 1 1985-1987
Six years after the Quilter's Newsletter article, Martha B. Skelton of Vicksburg, Mississippi won first place in the Traditional Pieced pro category of the 1987 AQS Show and Contest with a quilt she called New York Beauty. "This is a very old design with many variations," said Skelton, whose quilt is now in the AQS collection at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah. Skelton's prizewinning quilt brought even more name recognition for the pattern known as New York Beauty.

In the 1990s, artists Karen Stone and Jean Wells were highly influential in revolutionizing the genre and promoting the New York Beauty's already widespread name recognition. An article called "New York Beauties" by Jean Wells appeared in the fall, 1992, issue of American Quilter; and Karen Stone's New York Beauty book was released in 1995. These artists introduced foundation piecing to the genre. During the remaining period leading up to today, there have been more books- Stone's "Karen K. Stone Quilts" (2004), which included the daunting Cinco de Mayo quilt; Valorie Wells' Radiant New York Beauties (2010); Linda Hahn's New York Beauties Simplified (2010); and Hahn's recently released New York Beauties Diversified (2013). All of these publications have promoted the name recognition of New York Beauty.

Cinco de Mayo, 2008, by the Buda Bee Quilters, Texas
Of the early names for the pattern, two seem to jump out- Rocky Mountain Road and Crown of Thorns. These patterns first appeared in turn-of-the-century publications such as Modern Priscilla, but the true origins remain a little murky. Some clues may be revealed by oral histories and written documents by earlier quiltmakers such as Dorinda Slade Moody and Talula Gilbert Bottoms. However, given the many events that led to the widespread name recognition of New York Beauty, it's doubtful any new information about the other pattern names would override the most commonly used term for the genre.

a variation from Kentucky made in 1868
That leaves quilt historians with some problems to resolve. What do we call the older quilts? In the case of the 1868 example from Kentucky (block detail pictured above), there was a record on the Quilt Index that needed updating. The quilt had been called a New York Beauty, and if that name really originated in 1930, it wasn't the most historically accurate name we could use. The question was, what name would we use?

With the help of Beth Donaldson, the record was updated last week, and now includes a new full-view image and information about my ownership and previous owners. Although we know the name of the maker's family, we do not know the specific maker or what the maker called the quilt, so it is listed as an unknown pattern. In the record, it is noted that the pattern was later called Rocky Mountain Road, Crown of Thorns, and New York Beauty. When you search for any of the above names, the record will appear. The record includes one additional name, Kentucky Beauty. It's one of my nicknames for the quilt, because a picture of the quilt appeared in the book Kentucky Quilts. The name appears under "owner's name". Most often, I call it the MacMillan Family Quilt, because that's what it really is.

an early variation, c. 1860, from Kentucky
There are a few quilt historians who would disagree, but what is known about regional trends in quiltmaking of the nineteenth century does not support the idea of assigning pattern names to old quilts made with this pattern. There's not much information to support when the other names came into use, and there aren't enough early examples with provenance to provide good data. On a personal note, I feel it is the job of a quilt historian to understand what has transpired with the nomenclature, rather than trying to revise it. I'm not the one who decided what the genre would be called, but given the history, I can certainly understand why it happened the way it did. There's much more to it than what I've outlined in this blog post, but I think there's enough information here for people to get the point.

A 1940s example with unusual Nine-Patch cornerstones
My exhibit of "New York Beauty" quilts will be on display at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles in San Jose, California, from July 31 to October 27, 2013. The exhibit will include many examples from the family of patterns, made between 1850 and 2011, representing the life story of the genre. For more information about the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, including directions and hours, click here.


  1. A thoroughly researched and well written article! I learn so much from these and other blog posts. Quilt information and scholarship certainly has come a long way since I began quilting. Of course then we had to weave the cloth first! Good job, Bill.

    1. Thanks, Mimi! All of these things have been sitting around my house - I've collected articles and ephemera as aggressively as I've collected the quilts - and spinning around in my mind. There hasn't been as much research as I'd like to see, but it's partly because I've been able to acquire some of the finest examples that have been available in the last 20 years. There's much more to be written about these quilts. Glad you enjoyed the blog. :)

  2. Thanks for this post. I've always associated the New York Beaty points with the crown of the Statue of Liberty, and the "beauty' of the name with Lady Liberty. I guess I've also assumed that the Chrysler building crown derives from the statue...

    But it's definitely interesting to consider what was happening in the early 20th century that made New York an inspiration for the country, perhaps even the south.

    1. One of the intriguing subjects of the time was the effort to build the tallest building in the world in New York City, and how it almost became a competition. The Chrysler Building, then the tallest building in the world, was dedicated in 1930, the same year the Mountain Mist New York Beauty pattern was released. So, while the design of the crown ornamentation of the Chrysler Building may have been influenced by the crown of the Statue of Liberty (I'd need to do more research before saying for sure), it was the Chrysler Building that was in the news in 1930.

  3. Great blog post Bill. Your book on New York Beauty quilts is one of my favourites. I just wish I lived close enough to see the exhibition.

    1. Thank you, Kimme. Maybe some day I can bring the quilts to Australia! Until then, keep reading. :)

  4. Excellent! Thank you so much for mentioning my books in this article! I'll look forward to hopefully seeing a review on Diversified from you soon!

    1. Can't wait to see the new book. Will review it as soon as it's in my hot little hands! Keep up the great work!!

  5. Barb in southeastern PAFebruary 11, 2013 at 6:27 PM

    Thank you, Bill, for compiling all this information in one place. A great, and much appreciated, article.

    1. Thank you, Barb! I'm especially glad you enjoyed it. <3

  6. This is the best consideration of quilt pattern names I've read. Certainly a classic essay on the subject to bookmark. One consideration I also think about when discussing quilt names is this: we need a common language so we can talk about quilts among ourselves and visualize the pattern being referred to. If for example we all started call this pattern "forks" tomorrow, that name would be important for purposes of contemporary communication and quilt indexing and comparison, even if there was no historical context. Re period names for antique quilts, we want to know pattern names that were in use at the time, but in most cases we'll never know what name, if any, the quiltmaker used for the pattern or her quilt. This concern to me is why all New York Beauties no matter when made should be classified under that 1930's name as well as the other regional and older names, because this way we can all envision what the quilt generally looks like and we can find all the similar quilts, even those made earlier, in the Quilt Index and the IQSC Collection and elsewhere. No matter how it came about a commonly understood reference word for a pattern is extremely helpful. You've done a brilliant job of showing why, at the present time, "New York Beauty" seems to be the most commonly inderstood reference for this pattern. Great work!