Every once in a while, we are lucky enough to experience a phenomena.
Phenomena can be defined in two ways. The first definition deals with scientific observation — a fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen, especially one whose cause or explanation is in question. The second definition is a little less scientific and a bit more personal: a remarkable person, thing, or event. During the mid-to-late 1920’s until the 1940’s, quilting experienced a fantastic growth period. Quilt shows were established. Techniques were changing and expanding, trending away from the traditionally pieced quilts to include applique. And over in the sleepy, small town of Emporia, Kansas, there was a quilting phenomenon taking place. As a matter of fact, it was such a bright spectacle quilt historians call it “The Emporia Phenomena.”
First, let’s take a brief stroll through Emporia. Emporia was founded in 1857 and drew its name from ancient Carthage – a city known as a historical place of commerce. It is nestled between the larger cities of Wichita and Topeka and became the county seat for Lyons County. Living up to its name as a city of commerce, it attracted several railroad lines during the 1800s. One of the railroad executives, John Byers Anderson, donated his entire library of books to the city in celebration of his 50th wedding anniversary. Not to be outdone, his friend Andrew Carnegie donated the funds to build the library. Nowadays it’s home to about 24,139 people (according to the 2020 census) and it’s known as the Disc Golf Capital (each year it hosts one of the largest disc golf championships in the world) and the first weekend after Memorial Day, it hosts Unbound Gravel. Unbound Gravel is a dirt bicycle race through Flint Hills. The bike routes are 35, 50, 100, 200, and 350 miles long, if you’d be so inclined to register for the event.
The Emporia Phenomena took place between 1925 – 1950, with most of the creativity hitting its peak in the early to mid-1930’s. Three quilters were responsible for the phenomena – Rose Francis Good Kretsinger, Charlotte Jane Whitehill, and Hannah Haynes Headlee. This blog will look at each one of these women and then try to explain why the Emporia Phenomena happened. We will begin with the most well-known quilter, Rose Good Kretsinger.
Rose Francis Good Kretsinger
If this quilter’s name sounds vaguely familiar to you, it’s probably not because of her -quilts, but the book she co-authored with Carrie Hall, The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America. This book is considered to be one of the classic quilt history books, and even though copies can be difficult to come by (it was first published in 1935), the book is still out there, especially if you’re content with an e-version.
Rose was born in Hope, Kansas on November 29, 1886, but lived most of her adult life in Emporia. Interestingly, her father was a partner in Good & Eisenhower, a dry goods store. Shortly before Rose was born, her father sold his share of the store to David Eisenhower and moved to Abilene. However, the store didn’t prove to be profitable, so Eisenhower moved to Texas, where he and his wife had a son, Dwight David, who grew up to be President.
From Abilene, Rose’s family moved to Kansas City, Missouri. By this time Rose was in her teens and she headed to Chicago to study at the Art Institute in 1908. After graduation, she spent a year in Europe before returning to Chicago where she designed jewelry. In 1914, she retired from design work and married William Kretsinger, an attorney and rancher. She had two children, a boy named William and a girl, Mary Amelia. During this time she attended all the meetings and activities the women in her set did and became an influential leader in her group of friends. Her life rocked along until 1926. This year was a watermark in Rose’s life. First, her mother died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Rose was close to her mother and her grief was deep. Second, this was during the Colonial Revival, which promoted arts and crafts such as quilting. Partly to deal with her grief and partly to participate in the Colonial Revival, Rose took up quilting. She was now forty years old and had inherited an antique bed from her mother. After consulting with some of her friends and magazines, she decided a quilt would be just the thing the antique bed needed to set it off.
Not finding a quilt pattern to suite her tastes, Rose copied an antique quilt. She found the handwork soothed her and provided a form of grief therapy for her. Her friends made quite a fuss over the quilt and encouraged her to enter it in the local fair. She did, and to her surprise, she won first place. Both shocked and pleased, she began a second quilt and over the next two decades produced a remarkable group of quilts which ignored the current commercial trends. Rose didn’t follow commercial patterns, instead focused on antique quilts. She didn’t like the patterns or kits of the day, which produced the same type of quilts over and over. “Women are depending more upon the printed pattern sheet to save time and labor. These having been used time and again often become tiresome,” she stated. Rose instead turned to old quilts, finding her inspiration in them. She borrowed family heirlooms from friends and sketched museum quilts. And while feed sack prints and other new multicolored dress prints were available, she preferred to use calicoes and antique fabrics to get the look she wanted.
The characteristic which made her quilts so different from others was their design. While Rose did copy old quilts, she only copied them to a certain point. They were her inspiration, but not her destination. Her gift to the quilting world was her reworking of the old designs. Because she was trained as an artist, she knew how to add drama with vivid colors and black accents, how to add line with an overlay of quilting and a scalloped edge, and how to add a touch of sophistication by reorganizing compositions by tightening up some items and filling blank spaces. Then she would finish the quilt center off with bold borders. Her unique combination of traditional standards and modern design earned her local and national fame, as she won contests from the Lyon County Fair to New York City.
After the Kansas City Art Institute held an exhibit of her quilts in the early Thirties, she earned national attention as a quilter. So much so that Carrie Hall asked Rose to co-write The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt. Rose’s contribution was the section on the history of quilting, and she added photographs and diagrams of both antique and contemporary designs to augment her writing.
Rose’s only original quilt design was The Orchard Wreath. Designed in 1929, this quilt was inspired by a Coca-Cola advertising card she picked up at a soda fountain. Rose’s daughter, Mary, asked for an orchid quilt to match her bedroom and this time instead of finding inspiration from antique quilts, Rose found it in a Coca-Cola ad. All of her other quilts were either inspired by antique quilts or were redrawn from older patterns. Regardless, they all were outstanding quilts and garnered lots of attention in the national quilt shows in the Thirties and Forties.
The 1942 National Needlework Contest (sponsored by Woman’s Day) awarded her quilt Calenduia second place. The first-place winner was Pine’ Hawkes Eisfeller and her medallion wreath quilt called The Cottage Garden. The Cottage Garden was a variation of a quilt made in 1857 by Arsinoe Kelsey Bowen and was featured in Ruth Finley’s Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them. To say Rose was a little disappointed (and maybe even a little miffed) about second place would be an understatement. Beneath the picture of The Cottage Garden in Woman’s Day, Rose tersely wrote, “Poor Design.” However, not to be outdone, Rose designed her own version of Eisfeller’s quilt and called it Paradise Garden. ***
Many people consider Paradise Garden to be Rose’s masterpiece. This quilt, along with Orchard Wreath, were selected by a panel of experts for the exhibit America’s 100 Best Quilts of the 20th Century.
It is interesting to note that Rose didn’t quilt her own quilts. Like many of the “professional” quilters of her time, Rose hired local quilters to quilt her tops. The names of these quilters are long forgotten, but Rose’s children remember her designing her own quilting motifs to send along with the tops to her quilters.
Locally, Rose was generous with her time and talent. Her quilts were displayed in Emporia and inspired other quilters to attempt their own designs or request her patterns. She readily shared both her patterns and her knowledge and assisted others in making quilts. She was in every way, the heart of the Emporia Phenomena. Rose appliqued most of her quilts between 1926 and 1932. In 1940, she became a widow when William Kretsinger died of heart failure. Paradise Garden was begun shortly after his death. In 1949, Farm Journal Magazine sold two of her designs, Oriental Poppy and Old Spice. Rose continued living in Emporia until her own death in 1963 at the age of 76.
In 1971, Rose’s daughter, Mary, donated twelve of Rose’s quilts and two of Rose’s mother’s quilts to the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. Rose, along with Carrie Hall, was inducted into the Quilter’s Hall of Fame in 1985 – which in a way was bittersweet. The women had a sort of falling out over the royalties of The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America. Whether Rose felt slighted or if it was something else, was never made clear. It’s ironic one of the events which propelled both women into the Quilters Hall of Fame (besides their quilting) also battered their friendship.
Rose Kretsinger’s influence did not stop after her induction. In 1992, the Wichita Art Museum and the Kansas Quilt Project organized the exhibit Midcentury Masterpieces: Quilts in Emporia, Kansas, which featured the work of Rose and her Emporia friends. In 1998, her quilts toured Japan and were featured in the publication American Quilt Renaissance: Three Women Who Influenced Quilt Making in the Early 20th Century. The other two women were Carrie Hall and Marie Webster.
Charlotte Jane Whitehill
One of the most frustrating things about quilt/quilters research is the fact quilting was considered “women’s work” for so long and didn’t merit the attention and documentation granted to anything men did. Even though the Emporia Phenomena occurred after women received the right to vote and were gaining recognition momentum, some of the ones who left truly indelible fingerprints on our art received little to no attention by newspapers or other publications. Charlotte Jane Whitehall is one of those quilters, who despite leaving behind beautiful quilts, little is known about her. We do know she was born in 1866 in Wisconsin and lived in Emporia during the 1930’s. Like most of us, Charlotte picked up quilting as a hobby and made her first quilt when she was 63. She was a district manager for an insurance company and found quilting was a great stress reliever (sound familiar?).
Charlotte was known for several of her quilts. The Album Quilt: Lennartson Family Album
Indiana Wreath named one of the top 100 in The Twentieth Century’s Best American Quilts.
The Rose Tree
One very important fact set Charlotte apart from the Rose Kretsinger and Hannah Headlee – her job required her to travel. This allowed Charlotte a much more varied fabric stash than the other two women. She would arrive in a town and visit dry good stores to find fabric not available in Emporia.
Like Rose, Charlotte copied antique quilts. She preserved many 19th century and museum quilts (perhaps she also visited museums when she traveled?) by reproducing them. Whether Charlotte did this on her own, or was prompted by watching Rose Kretsinger, we don’t know. We do know, that like Rose, Charlotte eschewed the kits and patterns available to her.
Charlotte moved to Denver, Colorado in the 1940’s and continued to make quilts for about another five years. She remained in Denver until her death in 1964. In 1955, she and her daughter donated 28 of her quilts to the Denver Art Museum.
Hannah Haynes Headlee
Of the three women who sparked the Emporia Phenomena, I consider Hannah Haynes Headlee to be the rebel.
Like the other two women, Hannah came to quilting a bit later in life. She was born in Topeka, Kansas about 1867. She was an artist, quilter, teacher, and china painter. She supported herself primarily through teaching and painting china. She was married three times and is remembered as the first woman in Topeka to own (and ride) a bicycle. In 1914, she accompanied her niece (Hannah had no children of her own) Paulina Haynes Shirer to the New York School of Fine Arts and paid their living expenses by teaching and painting.
She is renowned for this quilt:
Iris Garland. There is some school of thought which suggests Hannah was inspired by Rose Kritsinger’s Orchard Wreath. If she was, she left no written record of such inspiration, although Hannah and Rose were acquaintances.
To me, the characteristic which sets Hannah’s quilts apart from both Rose’s and Charlotte’s is their almost watercolor quality. Hannah was a painter and came from that artistic background. She used fabrics which were subtle in contrast, but her borders were nearly gothic in design.
Basket of Roses
Many of her quilts were given to her nieces, nephews, and cousins, although seven eventually found their way into museums.
One interesting side note about Hannah Haynes Headlee. She was one of the needlework judges who gave Pine’ Hawkes Eisfeller’s The Cottage Garden the winning vote over Rose Kretsinger’s Calenduia.
Rose Kretsinger, Charlotte Jane Whitehill, and Hannah Haynes Headlee are the three quilters whom history claims are responsible for the Emporia Phenomena. There are several characteristics all three quilters have in common:
- They bucked commercial patterns. All three eschewed the readily available patterns found in magazines. They found their inspiration from antique quilts or quilts in museums.
- They did not use many (if any at all) of the fabrics available to them at their local dry goods stores. They preferred antique fabrics, unusual fabrics, or calicoes. All three had the means to get those fabrics.
- They all preferred applique medallion quilts.
- All three began quilting later in life, and two of them had art backgrounds.
- All three gained national and international attention in the quilt world during their lifetimes.
You have to wonder, especially with the quilts bearing similar designs and fabric choices, if they were inspired by each other. History does tell us Rose’s quilts were predominantly displayed throughout Emporia. Did Charlotte and Hannah draw inspiration from them? Did the three actually ever meet in some capacity and talk quilts? Did they know of Marie Webster — who was designing her beautiful applique quilts during this same time period – and were they inspired by her quilts? Regardless, to have so much quilting talent concentrated in one small area at one time was indeed unique and wonderful. There is no wonder they caused a phenomena. However, there still is so much we don’t know about these women and their quilts. The sad part is, we may never know. We can imagine. We can speculate. But we may never know the entire story behind these three amazing women and how they and their quilts sparked the Emporia Phenomena.
Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!
Love and Stitches,
***One last footnote about The Cottage Garden Quilt. When I write quilt history blogs, I often refer to Barbara Brackman’s writings, as I did in this blog. She is one of the best cataloguers of quilt blocks and quilt history. However, when researching this blog I found a contrasting article about The Cottage Garden Quilt and its maker from the Kansas Historical Society.
The KHS lists Josephine Hunter Craig, not Pine’ Hawks Eisfeller, as the maker of the quilt and calls the quilt The Garden instead of The Cottage Garden. It also lists Josephine Hunter Craig as one of the top contenders in the fiercely competitive quilting environment in Emporia. This is her quilt The Garden:
The article goes on to state: “Along with other top Emporia quilters like Rose Kretsinger and Charlotte Jane Whitehill, Josephine Craig’s quilts often swept state fair contests as well as captured national awards.
The Garden is one of the best examples of Craig’s skill and artistry. Appliqued and quilted in Emporia in 1933, it was inspired by an 1857 version of the garden medallion which appeared in Ruth Finley’s book, Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women who Made Them (1929). Finley called the garden medallion the ‘acme of the branch of art’. These quilts became the standard of excellence for Emporia quilters, who were inspired to create their own medallion designs.
Friends Elizabeth Goering and Maud Leatherberry collaborated with Craig on the pattern and quilting for The Garden. Although Craig was a contemporary and competitor of well-known Emporia quilter Rose Kretsinger, Craig was a farm wife and therefore not in the same social circle which involved membership in the Garden Club and other city organizations.
Craig’s version of the garden medallion won numerous local and national contests. In 1934, Hannah Haynes Headlee (herself an award-winning quilter) was one of the judges who awarded The Garden first prize in a national contest sponsored by Capper’s magazine. It also captured First Place at one of the first national quilt contests, the Eastern States Exposition at Springfield, Massachusetts in 1936. Other honors for The Garden included first prizes at the Kansas Free and Kansas State fairs in Topeka and Hutchinson, respectively.
This spectacular quilt was donated to the Kansas Museum of History by Paul and Frances Carpenter of Kansas City, Kansas. Dr. Paul Carpenter is Josephine Craig’s grandson. Four other quilts by Josephine Craig also were donated to the museum by the Carpenter.”
In my opinion, when you compare the two quilts, it’s easy to see where Rose pulled her inspiration and yet changed the design. Both quilts won numerous awards. Both quilts are (in my opinion) equally lovely.