Little did Linda Lipsett realize that a trip to the Rose Bowl Flea Market one day in 1972 would be the beginning of a journey back into 19th-Century America. Her ticket back in time was a friendship quilt made in 1854 for Ellen Spaulding of Vermont.
Friendship quilts, Lipsett explained, are distinguished by the inked or cross-stitched signatures within their quilted squares. The quilts, sometimes called album quilts, commonly were made in America between 1840 and 1860.
"I started wanting to know who the people were on that quilt," said Lipsett, 38, who is a violist with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
Her curiosity about the signatures on the quilt and more than 100 others Lipsett has since collected led her to spend summers sleuthing through graveyards, churches, town halls, museums, libraries and historic homes throughout the country tracking down descendants and the stories connected with the quilts.
Compiles Quilt Stories
Although Lipsett keeps her quilts on the beds of her Northridge home, "friendship quilts were made for the very special purpose of remembrance" rather than for actual use, she explained. She has compiled the stories of eight such quilts in a poignant book published last October, titled "Remember Me: Women and Their Friendship Quilts." It is illustrated with photographs taken by the author and is published by the Quilt Digest Press, San Francisco.
Between Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performances, Lipsett works as a studio musician. As a result, it took seven summers to complete the genealogical research for her painstakingly documented but engaging book, the first of several volumes on quilts that she hopes to publish.
Lipsett often begins her research by tracing the masculine names on her quilts, since women's names usually do not appear in public records of the period. She has located the living descendants of many of the quilt owners and has formed close relationships with many of them.
"Ellen's families are my families," Lipsett said with emotion as she described how she "went to every town where Ellen lived."
It was Ellen's story that prompted Lipsett to begin writing her book in 1978. Nineteen-year-old Ella-Elizabeth Spaulding (called Ellen), the well-bred daughter of a prosperous Ludlow, Vt., family, married her first cousin, Willard Reed, 21, in 1854. According to Lipsett, most young men starting out then had little opportunity to prosper in New England.
"A boy had to either rent land or inherit a parcel of his father's," she said. Since Willard Reed had no prospects for doing either, his plan was to seek his fortune in the "Far West"--that is, Wisconsin, which was then touted as the land of opportunity.
Collection of Letters
Before they left Vermont, however, Ellen's sister gave her the quilt now owned by Lipsett as a remembrance of the family and friends Ellen was leaving behind. From the same dealer who sold her the quilt, Lipsett obtained a complete collection of letters written home by Ellen from Wisconsin, starting with a letter written on her gold-edged wedding stationery six days after her marriage to Willard.
In anticipation of a fine life style out West, Ellen took only good silk dresses with her. Disillusioned and lonely in Wisconsin, Ellen wrote:
"We have got a little thing such as they call a house out here but it is very small, one room on the ground and one chamber, you think you are crouded (sic) to death almost."
Ellen soon developed a "hard cough" that did not respond to the common remedy of the day, Wisters Balsom of Wild Cherry. They had little to eat and the situation grew worse as the depression of 1857 set in.
Eventually, in a letter to her parents, she revealed the gravity of her sickness.
"You need not think it is the seven nor nine months consumption (tuberculosis) that ails me either, if you do you are mistaken."
Ellen died just before her 23rd birthday in July, 1858. She had expressed a deathbed wish to be buried at home in Ludlow. Her parents, who had been visiting when she died, complied by temporarily burying her remains in Wisconsin until the summer heat ended.
The following winter they exhumed her body and moved it the 1,500 miles by "train, stage and wagon" to Vermont, where it was put in cold storage until the ground thawed in the spring when she finally could be buried, nine months after her death.
Linda Lipsett says she wept when she found Ellen's gravestone in Ludlow. The engraved stone does not carry her married name because, Lipsett speculated, Ellen's father was upset that Ellen's husband so quickly married the 19-year-old girl who had taken care of his daughter during her illness."
Other stories Lipsett discovered in her quilt research are equally heart wrenching. There is the Civil War-related story of Betsey Wright and Abner Lee of Woodstock, Conn. Despite being the father of five children, Abner, 35, was recruited into the Union Army in 1863, along with all other "able-bodied male citizens between 20 and 45."