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The History of America in Quilts : San Jose Museum Has Designs on Being Bedcover Center

August 20, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The director of the Education Activities Committee of the American Museum of Quilts & Textiles was in her element.

"If you know the history of patchwork quilts, you know the history of America," Mary Lou Breithaupt told 35 fifth-graders at San Jose's George Miner Elementary School last spring.

In fact, Breithaupt's visit to the school launched the San Jose museum's program--to show Bay Area students how quilts relate to historical events--for the 1987-88 school year.

Holding up examples of a dozen quilt patterns from the early 1800s to 1920, Breithaupt showed the fifth grade American history students quilt blocks with designs such as "Jacob's Ladder," "Log Cabin," "Lincoln's Platform," "Kansas" and "Schoolhouse."

" 'Jacob's Ladder' symbolized the movement of slaves from the South to freedom in the North via the underground railroad," Breithaupt explained. " 'Lincoln's Platform' had to do with the famous 1858 Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates."

She noted that the meaning of the designs was known to quilters but not necessarily to others. To the eye, "Lincoln's Platform," for example, is simply a blend of red, white and blue colors.

The "Kansas" pattern is a sunflower, representing the sunflower stalks burned for warmth in pioneer sod houses. "School House" related to the passage of child labor and compulsory education laws which made it mandatory for children to go to school. "Log Cabin" was simply a symbolization of early American homes.

"Patchwork-quilt links to history are exciting," Breithaupt said in an interview at the museum. "These were quilts created by women who had no voice in their government at the time and who were making statements about their beliefs."

Down through the years women wove portraits of Presidents, presidential candidates and campaign slogans into their quilts, she said. For example, a quilt made in 1800 depicted the death-bed scene of America's first President; in 1865, there was an "It's Old Abe Forever" quilt, and a 1933 quilt entitled "Hope of a Nation" contained the likeness of Franklin D. Roosevelt encircled by historical depictions.

Betty Sampson, a member of the museum staff, observed that women expressed what life was about in their quilts. Sampson called it a little known slice of America, living history. "History until recently was about men, you know, not women," she said. "Few women put their names on their quilts or the dates they made them. Anonymous was a woman."

Now, she said, "We tell quilters to be sure to include their name, the date and the story behind the quilt on the finished product."

Sampson mentioned wedding quilts, baby quilts, mourning quilts. "In the Civil War, when young men were killed, women would weave the military garments of their dead loved ones into quilts as mourning blankets," she noted.

The American Museum of Quilts & Textiles is located at its new permanent home, 766 S. 2nd St., in San Jose. Founded 10 years ago by the Santa Clara Valley Quilt Guild, the museum was incorporated as a separate entity in 1986.

"So far as we know, this is the first quilt museum in the nation and the world, something we are extremely proud of," said museum director Patricia Leach.

Converted from a late-1920s Spanish revival style home, the museum features special exhibits in addition to its own collection of more than 100 quilts dating back to the 1850s. At the museum from now through Oct. 3 is an exhibit of 13 19th-Century quilts from the collection of the Denver Museum.

Recent exhibits have included the winners from several states in the 1986 Great American Quilt Contest, which was held in conjunction with the centennial celebration of the Statue of Liberty; a collection of historic Amish quilts; quilts reflecting feminist issues; quilts by men; and kite quilts.

On display during the Great American Quilt Contest exhibit was Monica Calvert's vividly colored "Glorious Lady Freedom." The Carmichael, Calif., mother of six won the $20,000 grand prize in the contest for her quilt which showed the Statue of Liberty encircled by mountains, plains, oceans and New York City.

Charlotte Warr-Andersen of Kearns, Utah, won the $7,500 second prize for her design showing the Statue of Liberty surrounded by Mount Rushmore, the Golden Gate Bridge, the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima and the moon walk.

From Illinois, Sidney Allee Miller's "Freedom's Children" quilt showed the shadow of the Statue of Liberty falling over a crowd gathered at its base. Indiana's winner, Mary Kay Horn, stitched a quilt depicting Americans from different time periods, different countries and different occupations, the Statue, and famous patriotic sayings such as "Give me your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . . ."

In the kites and quilts exhibit were kites using quilt patterns, and quilts made in the shape of kites or with kite designs.

"Quilts are much more than merely covers on beds. They are an art form dating back to 4000 B.C. in Egypt, Persia, China and India," explained Leach.

She noted there are more than 800 quilting guilds across the nation. "People think quilts are made mainly in rural homes. Not true--urban women are quilting just as much as their country cousins. There is a renaissance of quilting all over America."

Fifty quilters from Japan recently visited the museum. A group from the Santa Clara Valley Quilt Guild went on a Japanese quilting tour last year and will embark shortly on a quilting tour to England.

Quilting lessons are taught at the museum, which boasts one of the finest quilting libraries in existence, and a gift shop sells quilt covers, quilt hangings, quilt pattern postcards, "I'd Rather Be Quilting" license plate holders and books on quilting.

Members of the museum (mem Members of the museum (membership costs $25 a year) receive a bi-monthly newsletter, free admission to the museum, invitations to special events and new exhibits and discounts at the gift shop.

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