Sunbonnet Sue — The Quilt Block Born on a Dare

I love to write blogs about the history of quilt blocks!  There is so much more involved than just fabric and thread with many of them.  I had such wonderful response to my blog about background of log cabins that this week I would like to discuss the ancestry behind this block:

Sunbonnet Sue.

Admittedly, there are very few quilters who are neutral about this young girl.  If you poll just about any group of quilters, strong feelings will rise to the surface.  Several in the group will absolutely hate her.  Then there will be those who love her to pieces. 

I place myself in the second group.  I grew up in the 1970’s – barreling through that decade from age 8 to 18.  Sunbonnet Sue was present in my house through a series of watercolors my mother painted (remember, she’s an artist).  I fell in love with the pictures of the sweet, little girl dressed in a pink pinafore dress and big bonnet.  For whatever reason, they made me happy.  My day could have completely gone to hell in a handbasket, but those prints made me smile (I think it had something to do with my obsession with the Little House books). 

When I moved away, and the Sunbonnet Sue prints were left behind along with my high school yearbooks and stuffed animals, I completely forgot about her.  Until I began to quilt and realized there were not only entire quilts made of Sue, but there were BOOKS explaining how to applique and quilt her.  My love affair with the pudgy, sunbonnet miss was renewed.  Through years, I’ve acquired several Sunbonnet Sue quilts and have made a few blocks.  I do have a Sue quilt in my plans.  I’m collecting fabric now and may begin it this summer.  Currently, I have three hand sewing projects which is really two too many and want to wait until I get one of them complete. 

I’ve never really understood why some quilters have such animosity towards such a sweet, quilty soul.  Afterall, she’s a quilt block born on a dare….And we all love a good dare.

Let me explain.  But first, let’s delve into the ancestry.com DNA of Miss Sue.  Like a lot of us, Sunbonnet Sue began her existence as an English immigrant. Her “grandmother” was Kate Greenaway.  Greenaway was an illustrator of  children’s books and fashion plates.  Her work was published in America in both Ladies’ Home Journal and Harper’s from 1880-1890.  If you look at her illustrations: 

It’s easy to see how her art influenced the American version of her work.  Greenaway and her drawings were nearly as well known here as they were in England. 

Then in 1900 a woman named Bertha Corbett self-published a book called The Sun-bonnet Babies.  

This version of Sue was born in Minnesota and is the one we’re most familiar with.  And this is the one birthed on a dare … or challenge, if you like that word better.  Prior to 1900, Corbett had attended several art schools and had illustrated for many newspapers and magazines.  Around 1897, she began working on her early Sunbonnet Sue’s – lots of rough sketches, but nothing definitive.  Then an artist friend asserted emotion could only be shown in the face.  Corbett countered by saying that pose and gesture could do the job. 

“Prove it,” the artist friend is claimed to have said.  And Corbett did.  She drew a child in a long dress with a simple white bonnet covering her face and hair.  Thus, the American Sunbonnet Sue was born – on a dare.  To prove a point. To assert Corbett’s faith and trust in a little girl and her friends who were destined to invade the art, book, and quilt world.  The longer Corbett drew Sue, the more the little girl evolved.  An apron was placed over the dress to protect it as Sue worked and played.  Her shoes went from the high-button models to patent leather Mary Janes.  In many of Corbett’s drawings, Sue held a four-leaf clover.  When asked about the clover, Corbett said, “The clover is the reason why all succeeding babies were healthy, happy, lucky, and wise.” 

During the time span of Sue’s early popularity, Corbett also wrote poems to accompany Sue’s adventures.  She published two editions of poems and drawings in 1900.  She also wrote the poem “The Unexpected Guest,” which was published in Good Housekeeping in 1898.  It was all good work, and the money earned from poems and drawings paid the bills, but Corbett wanted a larger audience.  So, in 1901, she submitted her ideas to Edwin Osgood Grover, who was an editor at Chicago’s Rand, McNally.  Grover had a sister, Eulalie, and Eulalie (a former elementary school teacher) had just begun what would become a solid career writing children’s books.  Eulalie was a bit of a rebel herself.  She thought the primers and early reading books used in primary schools were “colorless and dull.”  She set out to change them into something interesting and colorful.  Eulalie liked Corbett’s drawings and suggested they collaborate on a book.  

Over the course of three decades, the pair published nine books about the Sunbonnet Babies.  They added their masculine counterparts – The Overall Boys – who, for the most part, wore large straw hats which covered their faces.  And here’s where I will blow another quilting gasket:  for years, we’ve called her Sunbonnet Sue.

That’s not her name.

Her name is Molly:

Yes.  That’s right.  We’ve been calling her the wrong name for years.  Corbett named her bonneted darling Molly in The Sunbonnet Babies Primer in 1902.  Later she introduced Molly’s sister, May.

The Sunbonnet Babies became just as popular as Kate Greenaway’s.  At the height of their popularity, Corbett had 15 assistants helping her draw, paint, and publish.  The Sunbonnet Babies were on everything – Christmas cards, booklets, blotters, calendars, valentines, etc., etc. 

Eulalie and Corbett collaborated until 1908, when Corbett, who was clearly not happy with the arrangement, asked for a pay increase of either a flat fee of $2,500 per book or a 10-percent per-copy royalty.  We don’t know if Rand, McNally agreed to either demand or not.  It is apparent Corbett moved to another publishing house for her new projects in 1905.  She continued to illustrate the Sunbonnet Baby books for Rand, McNally, but the publishing house received none of her new or other ongoing projects.  Eventually Corbett moved from Minnesota to Chicago to be near her publishers.  Here she met other artists, enjoyed other collaborations, and met George Melcher, whom she would marry in 1910.  They would go on to have two of their own Sunbonnet Babies – Charlotte and Ruth.  She would continue to draw, write, and illustrate until 1928, when arthritis ended her career.  She divorced Melcher in 1930 and moved to Los Angeles to be with Ruth.  She died in 1950 at the age of 78. 

And that is how Sunbonnet Sue (or Molly) was birthed into existence – which in no way explains how she evolved into a quilt block.  You can clearly see the drawn Sue:

Looks radically different from the quilty Sue:

How did all of this happen?  By 1910, Sue was so popular that embroidery artists transformed her into a red work image, which still remained strikingly similar to Corbett’s drawings.

For quilts, Sue would have to be appliqued and until this moment in quilt history, most quilts were pieced.  Applique was still a foreign concept to most quilters.  Marie Webster (who I’ve mentioned before – seriously, if you’ve never looked at her applique quilts, do yourself a favor – as soon as you’re through reading my blog, Google her and spend a few moments being inspired and awed by her work) interpreted Sue for applique in her quilt “Keepsake,” which appeared in Ladies Home Journal between 1911 – 1912.

From this point on, quilt designers used Sunbonnet Sue in quilts.  As applique goes, she’s an easy figure to assemble, even for a beginner.  There are only four pieces: the bonnet, the dress, arm, and a roundish figure to represent a hand and a shoe.  Sue reached her height of popularity between the 1920’s and 1930’s.  It was also during this time the Sunbonnet Baby’s name changed from Molly to Sue.  And after this period, the quilt world slowly began to turn it’s back on the cherubic child. 

By the time the 1930’s drew to a close there were at least 200 different examples of the Sunbonnet Sue pattern.  Seventy-nine Sue quilts won the sweepstakes awards at the Kansas State Fair in 1978.  The saturation of the applique pattern in the quilt world soon had quilt historians calling her “too cute, too corny, and too trite.” (Jean Ray Laury, Quit Historian).  And evidently too easy.  Sue was great for a beginner project, but was far too simple for an advanced quilter to consider serious work.

Thus, the quilting revolt on our heroine began. Two groups designed different quilts which outlines her tragic demise.  The Seamsters Local 500 of Lawrence, Kansas created a quilt they named “The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue,” showing Sue’s death by hanging, lighting strike, nuclear fallout, etc.

The Bee There quilters of Austin, Texas took a different tact.  Their quilt is called Scandalous Sue, and it shows the bad side of Sue.  In this quilt she drinks, smokes, and is pregnant. 

The shock factor is obviously there.  It appears to be a deliberate attempt by the quilt world to rid itself of a saccharine-sweet, far-to-easy quilt pattern from the past.  As a quilt collector and semi-historian, an ample part of my soul rebels against this because I remember how Sue made me happy during the trying days of adolescence.  Maybe it was my over-identification with Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House Books.  Or maybe it’s the very grown-up part of me, who at this point in her life, longs for some of the innocence of childhood again. 

However….

Another part of me – the feminist, modern, worked-my-way-up self realizes Sue needs to evolve in order to maintain a place in our quilt world.  In many ways, Sue is a part of a long link in our quilt history.  She began as an English immigrant in 1880.  She survived and thrived through the end of the 1930’s.  During this time span, she took over a good chunk of the marketing world, changed the entire universe of young children’s readers, and made the dark days of the Depression a little bit cheerier.  She spawned another young marketing maven in the 1970’s through her influence on Holly Hobbie. 

It seems a shame she’s kind of been, well, given the shaft by many of today’s quilters.  There are great books about her in today’s market place:

So, if you want to make a Sunbonnet Sue quilt, there is certainly ample opportunity to do so.  However, the pinafore-bedecked Miss is still hopelessly out-of-step with today’s twenty- and thirty-something quilters.  That’s why, while shlepping through stacks of research for this blog, I was soooooooo delighted to find this:

Let me introduce you to Sinbonnet Sue embroidery by Urban Designs.  She is great.  She is current.  She is relevant.

And you still can’t see her face.

Did I purchase this embroidery program? 

Absolutely. 

Once a Sunbonnet Sue lover, always a Sunbonnet Sue lover.

I hope this blog has at least spike some interest in Sue/Molly (Molly-Sue?  As a southerner, I love a good double first name).  You may never want to make a block, but at least you know how she got here and the influence she has.

Until Next Week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

Here are a few of my Sunbonnet Sue Quilts.  They’re all made of feed sacks.  They live on a quilt ladder next to my bed.  And she still makes me smile every morning.

References for this blog are:

Bertha Corbett Melcher, Mother of the Sunbonnet Babies, Moria F. Harris.  Minnesota Historical Society (www.mnhs.org/mnhistory), Spring 2010

The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Sunbonnet Sue, Carla Tilghman.  AMS 801, Dr. Hart, December 2012.  Graduate papers.

One of my favorite Sunbonnet Sue Quilts by Peggy Kranges. Breaking Wind, 2015.

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2 Comments on “Sunbonnet Sue — The Quilt Block Born on a Dare”

  1. February 3, 2021 at 10:36 am #

    I read this blog quite happily. In the 60’s I was the recipient of a Sunbonnet Sue quilt made be my grandmother Kate. She made Sues for all her granddaughters and bow-ties for all her grandsons. Amazingly, I still have my quilt. It’s not in the best shape, but I am loathe to cut it up and use the good blocks for anything else. Perhaps I will photograph it and write my own Sunbonnet Sue post.

    • February 3, 2021 at 10:45 am #

      Please do!!!! I’d love to see the quilt!!

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