I love an untold story. My imagination kicks into overdrive when faced with one. You may or may not know that I am a
collector of vintage blocks, fabrics, linens, quilts, trims, buttons, and things. I can’t help myself, really, it’s sort of a compulsion. As a lifelong needlewoman, I feel a certain connection, a kinship, if you will, to the makers of these various pieces. I can’t help but wonder what things were like when a piece of cloth was embroidered, a seam sewn.
Who embroidered these blocks with Dutch boy and girl? Was this a young wife, making a quilt to keep her coming baby warm? Who stitched them together? Was it a grandmother, eagerly anticipating a “copy” of one of her own beloved children? Was the maker a girl, learning to embroider? What was she* thinking as she so lovingly chose the colors? What was happening in the world around her as she worked? Where did she live? Was it winter or summer? Was she wealthy or poor? Most of the story is untold.
Unfortunately, we will never know the answers to these questions. The piece does give us a few clues, though. For example, the patterns for these embroidered blocks came from a company called Rainbow Block Company. The designer/owner, William Pinch, created a process by which the embroidery lines were actually in color, so the maker didn’t have to guess which floss she was supposed to use where. I know that these patterns were numbered #345-50 for the girls, and #355-60 for the boys. Sharon Fulton Pinka, who has done extensive research on the Rainbow Block Company (including a paper for the American Quilt Study Group‘s annual journal, Uncoverings) tells me that these numbers show that the patterns were released around 1930. She also told me that Rainbow’s heyday for embroidered patterns was between 1925 and 1940, although they continued in business for years after. What that means is that the piece could not have been created much before 1930. It could well have been made anytime after.
The blue in the sashing and border is a very common color. We associate pastels with the 1930s, but you can still find this color today. What does that tell us? Nothing, really, except that, again, the piece was made after the date the pattern became available. After years of looking at this kind of piece, though, I feel comfortable giving it a circa date of 1940. Does that mean it was made in 1940? No. By assigning it a circa date, it means that it could have been made anytime between 1930 and 1950.
It’s finished as a summer spread, no quilting, no backing. It has seen a bit of use, but not a lot. I believe I got this piece on locally, but I am not quite sure. Even if I did buy it locally, it would have been in an antique mall or flea market where dealers bring things they’ve bought at sales and auctions for miles around. Most of the time they are from somewhere in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, or Arkansas. So all we can really say is that it is most likely Midwestern.
At first glance, we think, “old baby quilt,” and not much more. But, we can be more specific. We now know that it is a baby summer spread, made circa 1940, probably in the Midwest, with an embroidery pattern from Rainbow Block Company. It appears to have been made by an accomplished needlewoman. It contains hand-embroidery and both hand- and machine-sewing. But who made it? Why? Unfortumately, while this piece tells us a little, its real story is still untold.
One of the saddest things ever is when I have to record the words, “Maker unknown,” on an appraisal form. If you learn nothing else from these old pieces, please let it be this: label your quilts, whether you made them, or your Great Aunt Sally made them, or you bought them at an auction. Record what you know, however little, or however much. Someday, these quilts will get away and their stories will be untold and lost forever. How sad.
Do you put labels on your quilts?
*Please note that while I use the pronouns “she,” and “her,” I am not implying that women are the only makers of quilts. Far from it! I merely used the terms for ease in reading, nothing more.