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The Problems with the Quilts, the Sears National Quilt Show, and Re-inventing Applique

Welcome back to the second part of this blog! Buckle up as we talk about the problems with the quilts and the Mother of All Quilt Shows.

Problems with the Quilts

Quilt collectors and historians can easily spot Depression Era Quilts.  They’re scrappy, infused with every pastel fabric (both solid and print) imaginable, and white fabric is the neutral of choice.  Making the quilts was a popular pastime.  It was a cheap hobby which made use of scraps and feedsacks.  Both women and men enjoyed the construction and swapping feedsacks.  Therefore, there still are quite a few of these quilts around.

The biggest issue with these Depression Era quilts isn’t the workmanship nor the use of kits. The biggest issue is putting a date on them.  When you see a quilt obviously made from feedsacks, it’s easy to think, “Oh, that quilt was made in the 1930’s,” since feedsacks were used a lot during that decade.  However, this isn’t completely true.  Actually, feedsack use hit its height of popularity and usage in the 1940’s  during World War II.  When you think about Depression Era quilts, you really must take into consideration the years between 1929 through 1950, as women enjoyed making and using the bright scrappy quilts into the fifties.    This means even the name – Depression Era quilts – is wrong.  Unless a quilt as a solid oral or written history behind it, or is inscribed somewhere with a date, it’s very difficult to pin even a year with any accuracy.  We have to give it the vague time period 1929-1950.  Too bad there wasn’t a Quilt Day Project back then like we had in the ‘80’s.  Too bad people didn’t label their quilts (like the should be doing now). 

What We Do Know About the Quilts

There is a “snapshot” of these quilts — The Sears National Quilt Contest held 1933.  This contest was organized by Sears, Roebuck, and Company and was held in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair.  The fair’s theme was a Century of Progress.  There were a couple of unique attributes about this fair.  First, was the prize money.  A total of $7,500 in prizes would be awarded, including a $1,000 grand prize.  Second, was the number of quilts entered: conservatively the number is 24,000 – the most any quilt contest has ever had on record to date. 

It began innocently enough.  The contest was announced in Sear’s January 1933 catalogue, along with the prize money amounts. The rules were pretty simple. 

  1.  Enter a quilt of your own making
  2. The quilt could not have been exhibited anywhere else before the contest
  3. There was a category which followed the theme of the Chicago Fair – A Century of Progress.  Quilters were encouraged to enter quilts into this category as well as the traditional ones.

While Sears realized the prize money was a big draw during the Depression, they didn’t realize how big of an incentive it was and how many quilts would be entered.  The prize money set a huge amount of quilting in motion.  People who had never quilted before decided to try.  Husbands, brothers, sons, and boyfriends helped.  A plus for Sears they didn’t see coming – they sold out of fabric, supplies, and patterns.  And in the end, the quilts were displayed in Sears stores from coast to coast. 

While the contest was announced in the catalogue and on radio in January 1933, the quilts had to be finished and turned in by May 15 – giving the quilters only four months to complete the quilts.  The top three winners at the local round were sent to one of the ten Regional Mail Order Houses for another round of judging – Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City, Dallas, Seattle, and Los Angeles.  The top three from each region was sent to the national round.  Of those 30 quilts, the judges chose the top three and an Honorable Mention.    

According to newspaper reports and the written records which remain, all 30 of the quilts were exhibited the first summer in 1933.  However, for quilt historians, it’s disappointing to note there are no pictures of all the quilts.  There were some publicity photos of the top three quilts with the judges and these pictures were sent to local newspapers.  The local paper may decide to interview the winner, such as the Lexington, KY newspaper did with Margaret Caden, whose quilt “Star of the Bluegrass” was awarded first place.

Star of the Bluegrass — the grand prize winner of the Sears National Quilt Contest. After the Chicago World’s Fair, it was given to Eleanor Roosevelt. Since then, the quilt has disappeared. The internet has been scoured, the Roosevelt family doesn’t have it in their possession, and it’s not in the Smithsonian.

Traditionally pieced and appliqued quilts won the big prizes at the Fair.  However, remember there was a particular category – the one which followed the theme of the Fair, Century of Progress – which deserves some particular attention.  Sears even offered the bonus incentive of an additional $200 if one of these original designs won the grand prize. Of course, this didn’t happen.  The quilt above is the one which won the grand prize of $1,000.  However, what is interesting is how quilters handled this theme.  Some quilters simply embroidered “A Century of Progress” across the top border of the quilt made from a standard pieced pattern.  Others dug into the topic, and thoroughly researched inventions and technological advances to include in their quilts.  Chicago quilters took the challenge and often incorporated aspects of the World’s Fair itself (remember it was held in Chicago).  The Fair commemorated the Centennial of Chicago, so the dates 1833 and 1933 were embroidered, appliqued, and/or quilted into their designs. 

Only two of the commemorative quilts reached the final round, and neither was one of the grand prize winners, so the $200 bonus was not awarded.  Chicago quilters grumbled loud and long that the local and regional judges had not treated the Century of Progress quilts fairly.  These hard feelings grew and festered among the local quilters, to the point letters of protest were sent to Sears.  By this time Sears had heard enough of the grumbling and issued curt response letters.  The local quilters were not happy.  A compromise of sorts was reached in the summer of 1934, when the Fair managers decided to keep the Fair open for a second season.  By this time, Sears had already returned the 30 quilts on display to their owners.  Sue Roberts invited the top 10 winners to send their quilts back to the Sears Pavilion, as well as invited all the local Chicago quilters to bring their commemorative quilts back for display.  At this time, Sears photographed the prize quilts and the commemorative Century of Progress Quilts. 

It is critical you realize how crucial this was.  At this point in quilt history, quilting was still considered to be “women’s work” and not deemed as important as the other displays of inventions and tools for crop improvement and mechanized industrial processes.  To have these photographs gives us a tangible history of these uniquely wonderful quilts.  It gives us a true visual of design and color.  It also went a long way in smoothing hurt feelings from the local quilters and Sears shoppers. 

In the late 1970’s, quilt historian Barbara Brackman lived in Chicago.  Well aware of the quilt contest, she visited Sears headquarters and asked about the contest archives.  Armed with a few photos and a catalogue listing the 30 winners, she decided to try to find all thirty quilters and document their stories and their quilts.  She reached out to local newspapers, mentioned the project in her lectures and workshops, and in all the various quilting publications she wrote for.    As word spread, she slowly began to get referrals.  Eventually through the work and research of Barbara Brackman,  Merikay Walvogal, and other dedicated quilt historians, a total of 150 quilts were located, giving us a verbal or written history as well as photographs.

If you think you may have inherited or come across one of these quilts, I’ve already explained how hard the “Depression Era” quilts are to date.  However, the contest quilts often had the theme of the Fair (A Century of Progress) or the date 1933 or 1833-1933 somewhere on the quilt.  If you locate a quilt with a contest entry tag or ribbon attached, you’re golden.

What the Sears Quilt Contest Taught Us About the Quilters

Research has yielded as much (if not more) information about the quilters as the quilts.  When digging though the written records, it is revealed women of all economic backgrounds entered quilts.  It was just as common to find women who were hard hit by the Great Depression – those who lost everything and had to move in with their parents or other relatives – as it was to find the social elite.  There are two groups not represented – women of color or immigrants and men.  Men may have helped with the quilts, but the quilt was entered under the wife’s/girlfriend’s/sister’s name, or their name may have been listed as part of a collaborative effort.  However, there was not one quilt listed as solely constructed by a man. 

And while a great number of these quilts were made from fabric scraps left over from dressmaking, there was a surprising number of original pieced or appliqued designs constructed from expensive cotton fabric purchased solely for the contest.  It’s easy to assume these quilts were made by women of monetary means (remember not everyone was poor during the Depression).  However, this assumption would be incorrect.  Working class and unemployed women managed to find the money to buy fabric off the bolt for their quilts.  Therefore, there is no real correlation between the quilts and the economic class the women were from. 

It also may be this contest birthed what we term the “art quilter” and “art quilts.”  The quilts which commemorated the Chicago World’s Fair theme – A Century of Progress – were original because most of those were pictorial by design.   This was a new form of quilting.  It was so new that the quilt judges had not seen this type of quilt before and didn’t know what to make of it.  They were used to traditionally pieced and appliqued quilts.  Because these “art quilts” were so new to the quilting world, it’s felt the judges didn’t give serious consideration to them when awarding prizes. 

The contest also yielded quite a bit of information about professional quilt makers.  Several of the women who entered the contest made quilts for a living.  The first prize winner was a group project, coordinated by Margaret Caden who paid professional seamstresses a small price to piece, stuff, and quilt her entry.

Margaret Caden — she paid professional seamstresses to piece and stuff the grand grand prize winner “Star of the Bluegrass.” She paid these professionals a pittance and they received none of her prize money.

There were other quilts entered in the contest which were either made by professional quilt makers and entered under their own name, as well as quite a few quilts which were made by professional quilt makers, purchased by another woman, and was entered into the competition under the purchaser’s name. 

What Does All This Information Mean?

After sifting, reading, analyzing, and re-reading all the information, what can we learn from this Sears National Quilt contest?  If you’ve my previous blogs about Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Sunbonnet Sue, and the Double Wedding Ring, you may remember these Depression Era quilts weren’t necessarily made for frugality or warmth.  A good many were (such as my great-grandmother’s quilt), but a significant number were made for entertainment, competition, and pleasure.  It’s truly important to remember the quilts made from 1929-1950 were a product of social and cultural factors far more complex than the cliches which surround the Great Depression.  Those quilters were like us in many ways.  They liked sewing.  Many of them enjoyed competition.  They believed pretty fabric is a wonderful thing.  And sometimes we pinch pennies and save  — just like they did — to purchase material we simply must have. 

What the Depression Era Quilts Did for Applique

If you’ve followed my blog long enough, you know my favorite quilting technique is applique.  Couple that with Depression Era Quilts and I’m one happy quilting camper.  Applique is the quilting technique by which you sew pieces of fabric onto a quilt block to form a picture.  The sewing can be either by hand or machine.  The picture can be as simple as this

Or as complicated at this.

Applique has been around since 980 BCE in Egypt – at least that’s when we can actually document it.  And this technique had been going strong in American quilts since the 19th century.  So, this technique was not new to the Depression Era quilter.  However, what they did with applique was new and, in many cases, ground-breaking.  Let’s start with the woman who I consider the founder of the Modern Applique Movement, Marie Webster.

Marie Webster

If there is one individual who championed this quilt technique and in her own quiet way pushed the limits on an early woman-owned business, it’s Marie Webster.  Born in 1859 in Wabash, Indiana, she attended public schools.  When an eye condition kept her out of college, she read widely and took Latin and Greek from a tutor.  It’s interesting to note she had no real art training.  Like many women of her day, she loved to garden and held a special affinity for flowers.  As a young girl, she was taught fine hand sewing by her mother.  Hand sewing remained a hobby for her until around 1909, when her husband became ill.  She took up quilting to pass the time while she cared for him.  Then at the age of 50, she designed her first quilt, a Rose of Sharon.

 Marie’s friends encouraged her to send it to Good Housekeeping.  The editor was impressed, and she was asked to design quilts as well as write articles. She became well-known (she was really the first quilting celebrity of her time) and her quilts were displayed in various places across the United States.  She continued this line of work until 1911 when she launched The Practical Patchwork Company, which sold quilt kits – primarily applique kits.  Her plan was unique.  She and her sister, Emma Daughtery, pre-stamped the applique figures on fabric so they could be easily cut out.  Also included were colored tissue patterns allowing the quilter to play with applique placement.  The company also offered full quilting services – from making a quilt for you, to basting, to quilting.  The company became so successful Marie had to hire local quilters to keep up with the demand.  And while her son eventually helped her (and took over the business when Marie decided to retire at the age of 83), The Practical Patchwork Company was a woman-owned and woman-run business.  Most of the quilt kit companies during the time period may have had a woman’s name on the letterhead, but they were owned and run by men.  And in the middle of all this, Marie found the time to write Quilts:  Their Story and How to Make Them – the very first book on American Quilt History.

 Webster designed dozens of quilts and became a leader of the early twentieth century quilting revival.  Webster’s designs rejected the bright colors and heavily embroidered Crazy Quilt patterns of the late nineteenth century in favor of the simple, appliquéd quilts that were popular in the mid-nineteenth century. The Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 1900s also influenced her simple, handmade appliquéd quilts. The hallmarks of her work have been characterized as “balance, harmony, restrain, elegance, and above all, simplification.”

Webster frequently used a palette of soft, muted pastels and modern designs that were less elaborate and more realistic, as opposed to the stylized forms and bright colors of the late Victorian era. Her appliqué quilt patterns became especially known for their beautiful, mostly floral designs, done in pastel colors. These qualities also made her designs unusual for that time. Her quilt motifs were typically inspired from nature, especially flowers from her garden, with popular pattern such as “Iris,” “Poppy,” “Daisies,” “Sunflower,” “Poinsettia,” “Morning Glory,” “Pink Rose,” and “Grapes and Vines.” Webster’s modern quilting designs and her patterns, published in women’s magazines and in advertisements for her mail-order quilting business, inspired adaptations from other quilt designers, pattern makers, and quilt producers, although they did not always attribute her for the original design idea. The biggest culprit who stole her designs and did not give her credit in my opinion?  Mountain Mist.  For instance…this is Marie’s Sunflower pattern.

This is Mountain Mist’s.

Marie’s Practical Patchwork Company fed the Colonial Revival and the Arts and Crafts Movement through the 1920’s.  By the time the Great Depression rolled around, and Sear’s announced its contest, quilters were very familiar with applique.  When the special category “Century of Progress” was announced, quilters didn’t miss a beat.  They designed applique like this:

And this:

Without so much as a hiccup. 

The clear pastels Marie used easily fit right into the scrappy look and color palette used from 1929 – 1950.  She also was one of the first (if not the first) quilt designers to develop a Sunbonnet Sue pattern.  Marie suffered at stroke from which she never fully recovered and died on August 29, 1956, at the age of 97, leaving behind a quilting legacy of applique and fine handwork which was finally recognized in 1991 when she was inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame – which is now housed in her former home in Marion, Indiana. 

We can see her work and dedication reflected in today’s applique artists such as Kathy Wiley, Esther Aliu, Deborah Kemball, Kim Diehl, Alex Anderson, McKenna Ryan – the list could go on and on.  Every time I work on floral applique Marie comes to my mind and I’m thankful she had a vision of what quilting could be and was daring enough to simplify applique so anyone could enjoy it. 

The time of the “Depression Era” quilts was truly remarkable on so many levels.  The pastel colors lightened and brightened homes, pushing back the darker colored fabrics of the Victorian Era.  Quilters challenged themselves to make blocks smaller and use more pieces of fabric.  They made do with feedsacks yet managed to purchase the fabric they wanted.  Applique changed and developed into a technique less fussy, with clean cut lines and beautiful floral arrangements.  Art quilts were birthed, and Sears, Roebuck, and Company held the mother of all quilt shows.  From 1929 – 1950, quilting was an ever-changing art field.  However, by 1955 enthusiasm for quilting waned as more women entered or remained in the workforce after World War II.  The majority of them no longer had time to make quilts (even though we know the really cool women kept quilting).  There wasn’t another such quilting revival until our Bicentennial in 1976. 

If you would like to read more about Depression Era quilts, I’ve included my sources at the bottom. It’s truly a fascinating period of quilting.

Until Next Week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

SONY DSC

Patchwork Souvenirs of the 1933 World’s Fair by Merikay Waldvogel and Barbara Brackman

Feedsacks:  The Colorful History of a Frugal Fabric by Linzee Kull McCray

Softcovers for Hard Times  by Merikay Waldvogel

A Joy Forever:  Marie Webster’s Quilt Patterns by Rosalind Webster Perry and Marty Frolli

Marie Webster’s Garden of Quilts by Rosalind Webster Perry and Marty Frolli

The Sears National Quilt Contest in the Journal of Antiques and Collectibles online edition

The Quilt Index – Depression Era Quilts

5 replies on “The Problems with the Quilts, the Sears National Quilt Show, and Re-inventing Applique”

This was a very enlightening article. It was interesting to see some of the designs the women came up with to celebrate the Century of Progress. Thanks for sharing all your research, Sherri.

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