Most readers would be surprised to learn that the craft of quilting bed coverings was not brought to America with the Pennsylvania German immigrants. Quilting seems to have been learned here in the Germanic community from an Anglo practice that employed quilted bedding.
The bedding practice that Germanic immigrants brought with them saw the feather tick as the primary bed covering until late in the 18th century when loom woven coverlets began to be placed on top of the feather beds. Bright and colorful, these coverlets usually had the weaver’s and client’s names woven into a corner of the piece. In the mid 19th century, however, pieced patchwork quilts, some including dates, began to appear and replaced the woven coverlets.
Nancy and “Abe” Roan write in their book “Lest I Shall be Forgotten, Anecdotes and Traditions of Quilts:” “The desire to emulate the Anglo culture present outside the large settlement areas of Germanic Pennsylvania led to the adoption of the quilt as a gradual replacement for the coverlet. The quilt provided women an outlet for their creativity as well as an opportunity to use remnants from the construction of clothing. Simultaneously, with the coming of the quilt was the decrease in the use of clothing made from homespun.”
One type of early quilt saw individuals’ names used as part of the design. Whether printed, stamped, or hand lettered, the placement of names on a quilt signifies a unique bond of friendship which remains for the life of the textile. Signature quilts first appeared in the 1840’s and were most popular in the Germanic community during the 1850’s and ‘60’s, but a small number are also found through the rest of that century. These quilts usually have one name per “block” and so each quilt includes about thirty highly localized names of friends, family, and neighbors.
Some signature quilts have been given the Pennsylvania German dialect name of Beddleman quilts. There existed a folk custom in which a small payment was requested by the maker for placing a name on a quilt. Any quilt so affected was called a Beddleman Deppich (beggar quilt) because the maker begged money for it. Speaking of a quilt dated 1862, an informant said, “Everybody whose name is on it gave a dime.” Since the names, whether written in fraktur or Spencerian style, were usually written by a professional scrivener, it may be that the small payment was to help defray that cost. In any case, because signature quilts are usually dated and include the maker’s name along with the other names associated with the maker, they are highly prized by collectors.
The tradition of signature quilts was employed in a local school to teach history. Back in 1989, local quilt aficionado, Nancy Roan, conceived the idea of having two fourth grade classes at Boyertown School District’s Colebrookdale Elementary School formulate a list of famous people who were involved in entertainment, education, sports, politics, science, literature, and the arts. Each student selected a person and wrote a letter to them requesting a signature for a quilt while their teachers, Linda Manwiller and Cecile Stevenson, wrote a cover letter. The letters included a square of white cloth and a marking pen describing the project and requesting a signature.
The first signed square returned came from Barbara Walters. The second was autographed by Henry Kissinger. Like several other respondents, Kissinger enclosed a letter which reads, “It sounds like a wonderful project, and we hope that it turns out to be a beauty! I am sure it will. Best of luck to you,”
Twenty-nine of the fifty celebrities returned signed quilt patches, among them then Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey. U. S. Senator John Heinz, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Vice President Quayle, Bill Cosby, Ralph Nader, and Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor.
And Dr. C. Everett Koop, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Dr. Seuss, Twice Nobel Laureate, Linus Pauling, Neil Armstrong and many others.
The quilt top was assembled by some of the students’ mothers, and the piece quilted by some students and the ladies of the Bally Mennonite Sewing Circle.
To this very inexpert historian the signatures appear to be authentic, and what also can not be doubted is the value of the learning experience that the project provided for the youngsters.