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November 2012

Rethinking Zoeth Knowles

A sharp-eyed and knowledgeable blog reader recently got in touch with us to suggest that a previous post about a Civil War era photograph in our collection was due for re-examination.

96_045_3DP1DBBased on the information provided to the museum by the Cloues family, who donated the photograph in 1996, staff had identified the subject of this and the previously posted photograph as Zoeth Knowles (b. 1843).  Research undertaken for our 2007 exhibition, “Remember Me:  Highlights from the National Heritage Museum”, told us that Boston resident Knowles served in the Civil War as a member of the Signal Corps.  A late 1800s history of this group included an interesting reminiscence that at their instruction camp in 1862, “Members were collected from all points of the compass….Those who were present at the camp will recollect the varied uniforms, Zouave and others, worn by the various members.”  The case for Zoeth Knowles as the subject of the photograph seemed strong, until a new opinion came our way.

Our blog reader told us that, based on the portrait subject’s particular uniform, this soldier could not have been a member of the Signal Corps but was, in fact, part of Company K of the 19th Massachusetts Regiment of the Infantry, known as the “Boston Tiger Fire Zouaves.”  A history of the regiment noted that members of this company wore light blue baggy trousers, dark blue jackets with buttons and dark blue fez caps.  This may be the uniform depicted in the photographs.96_045_1T1

These photographs came to the museum with a quilt made for Mary Eliza Knowles (b. ca. 1844) in recognition for her service as president of the Massachusetts Women’s Relief Corps.  The Women's Relief Corps was an auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for Union veterans of the Civil War.  It also carved out its own areas of interest and action. In the 1890s the WRC promoted "patriotic instruction for our public schools" and the related project of displaying flags in schools and other public places. Each of the 64 blocks in this quilt bears the identification number of a Women's Relief Corps' local chapter and, in some cases, the chapter's name and location.

Mary Eliza Knowles married former Signal Corp member and cabinetmaker Zoeth Knowles in 1866.  Prompted by our reader’s suggestion, I looked into the connections between the Knowles and Cloues families.  Soon, a feasible explanation for the donors’  probably incorrect identification of Zoeth Knowles as the subject of the photograph emerged.  In making the gift of the quilt and photographs to the museum, the donor related that Mary Eliza Knowles was her great aunt (she was actually her great-great aunt). As generations passed, it appears the Cloues family lost sight of which uncle the images that accompanied the quilt portrayed.  Both the husband and the brother of the quilt-recipient served in the Civil War, so it would be easy to mistake one for the other!  Like his brother-in-law, Mary Knowles’ brother, Theodore Cloues (ca. 1832-1919), fought in the Civil War.  He served in Company K of the 19th Massachusetts Regiment of the Infantry--the “Boston Tiger Fire Zouaves.” Before the war and after he earned his living as a sail maker in the Boston area.  Based on the question and information posed by our reader, Theodore Cloues is likely the subject of this photograph and the other view posted earlier. 

Regardless of this mix-up, we are grateful to the Cloues family's gift to the museum as well as to our knowledgeable blog readers.  Please keep your comments coming!


J. Willard Brown, The Signal Corps, U. S. A. in the War of the Rebellion, Boston, Massachusetts:  U. S. Veteran Signal Corps Association, 1896, pages 59 and 812.

Ernest Linden Wiatt, History of the Nineteenth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1865, Salem, Massachusetts: The Salem Press, 1906, pages 2-3.

Photo credits:

Theodore Cloues, ca. 1864. Unidentified Photographer, Probably Boston. Gift of the Cloues Family, 96.045.3.  Photograph by David Bohl.

Quilt, 1890-1891. Various Makers, Massachusetts.  Gift of the Cloues Family, 96.045.1.  Photograph by David Bohl.


A Crazy Quilt

89_25S1As an amateur scholar of historic textiles and museum intern, I was excited when asked to assist the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum’s Collections Manager with transferring rolled textiles to a new, customized storage rack. During the process I was introduced to crazy quilts. Their heavily stylized designs struck me as modern and innovative for their time period. Crazy quilts became popular in the United States during the last quarter of the nineteenth century (1875-1900). Bright colors and embroidered motifs sprawling across a dark ground are characteristics of their Japanese influence. This brief glimpse at the treasures stored away inspired me to take a closer look at the textiles in the Museum’s current exhibition, “Threads of Brotherhood: Masonic Quilts and Textiles,” which includes a crazy quilt.

I asked my friend and colleague, Kate Herron Gendreau, to join me in attending a gallery talk led by Dr. Aimee Newell, the Museum’s Director of Collections (see our previous post). By trade, Kate is a handcrafted artisan specializing in embroidery and hand sewing. We share an interest in the details of female domestic roles throughout American history. When I mentioned my fascination with the crazy quilts in the Museum’s collection, I learned that Kate recently inherited the unjoined blocks of her family’s crazy quilt. I was eager to hear her opinion on the quilt in the exhibition in hopes that she might be able to enlighten me with some uncelebrated details. We never could have imagined that on the day of the gallery talk, family members of J. Bruce Spilman, who donated the crazy quilt to the Museum (in memory of his relation, Charles Hadley Spilman of Illinois, for whom the quilt was made in 1886) would be present!

The size of this quilt tells us that it was a decorative piece - at 76 inches wide and 68 3/4 inches long it is not quite large enough to be used on a bed - likely used as a sofa throw blanket or piano cover. Crazy quilts often functioned as status symbols, demonstrating that their female makers had leisure time and wealth at their disposal. Textiles made in the homes of women belonging to the working class were often simple or purely functional since daily chores and household budgets limited women's time and resources.  Unfortunately, the Spilman family members present at the gallery talk could not add to the quilt’s history, but by sifting through the notes I scribbled down while Kate swooned over “heavy hand stitching” on velvet and silk, I could see the lost story of this quilt come to life.

As Kate began rhythmically rhapsodizing about “isolated daisy chain, turkey trot and fern stitch … or maybe this is a zigzag blanket stitch,” I began to feel as if I was sitting next to the woman who created this masterpiece. While Kate explained that variegated stitching with this many color changes is something that is rarely created or appreciated today, I could envision the quilt in progress spread across the embroiderer’s lap. I was delighted to learn that many of the blocks are composed of clothing scraps. Kate identified several men’s ties and shirts as well as women’s dress and blouse material in the quilt. From these scraps we can perhaps form an impression of the personal style maintained by the household in which the quilt was made. Often quilters of this era repurposed fabric from clothing that had been stained or torn and could no longer be worn. This decorative status symbol may exhibit more frugality than we initially assume. 89_46_138S1

One feature that distinguishes this particular crazy quilt is the abundant fusion of conventional fabric and Masonic ribbons. Most of the ribbons in this quilt commemorate Knights Templar meetings in Chicago and San Francisco, dating from 1880 and 1883 (similar to the one at right from a Knights Templar meeting in 1892). Twenty-nine of the quilt’s thirty blocks include ribbons, some arranged in geometric shapes to mimic symbols used in Freemasonry. Most of the ribbons are outlined with an embroidered motif in yellowish-gold stitching that resembles the glory rays surrounding the Masonic symbol of the all-seeing eye, signifying watchfulness. As do many of the textiles in this exhibition, this crazy quilt presents a noteworthy example of the way Freemasonry has intersected popular culture throughout American history.

Masonic Quilt, ca. 1886, unidentified maker, United States, gift of J. Bruce Spilman in memory of Charles Hadley Spilman, 89.25.  Photograph by David Bohl.

Masonic Knights Templar Ribbon, 1892, unidentified maker, probably Connecticut, gift of Jacques Noel Jacobsen Jr., 89.46.138.  


Baseball Players Cannot Be Beavers: Fraternal Benefit Societies

Beavers_Constitutions_1907_webFraternal life insurance companies occupy their own niche in the life insurance market today. All trace their roots back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when hundreds of mutual benefit societies were formed in order to provide death benefits and life insurance to individuals who joined. Most of these organizations had initiation rituals which were later dropped as these fraternal organizations morphed into more traditional life insurance companies.

Life insurance companies are, naturally, risk averse. And they were back when they existed as mutual benefit societies. The 1907 Constitution and By-Laws of the Beavers' Reserve Fund Fraternity (pictured here), a mutual benefit society established in Stoughton, Wisconsin in 1902, made it clear that people whose occupations were dangerous were disqualified from being members. Here's Section 9 of the By-Laws:

No person engaged in any of the following occupations shall become a beneficial member of the Fraternity:

Railroad conductor, brakeman, switchman, fireman or locomotive engineer; miner employed underground; mine inspector or mine tracklayer; pit boss; professional rider or driver in races; professional baseball or football player, aeronaut; sailor on the Great Lakes or seas; engineer or fireman on any steamer; plow polisher, plow grinder; submarine operator; paid fireman in any city of more than fifteen thousand inhabitants; empoyee in slag furnace or lead works; soldier in the regular army or in time of war; employee in any factory where gunpowder, nitroglycerine, dynamite or any other dangerous explosive is manufactured; glass blower, oil well "shooter," brass finisher, steel blaster, professional nurse, employee in color or white lead factory, circus equestrian or trapeze performer.

The list is both a chilling reminder of some dangerous occupations (oil well "shooters") and also contains some reminders that even the whimsical-sounding jobs (trapeze performer) are there for a reason.

As for the Beavers' Reserve Fund Fraternity, it was established in Stoughton, Wisconsin in 1902. In 1912, the organization changed its name to Beavers National Mutual Benefit. In 1931, they dropped "Beavers" from the name and simply became National Mutual Benefit, the name they still go by today.

Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of occupational injuries and fatalities [pdf], which you might be more familiar with as a news story about the most dangerous jobs in America.

Stay tuned for more on the Beavers in an upcoming post.

Constitution and By-Laws of the Beavers Reserve Fund Fraternity, Adopted by Grand Colony. (Mount Morris, IL: Press of Kable Brothers Company, [1907])
Call number: HS1510 B42 1906
Gift of Michael T. Heitke