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.  


Made in Japan

77_70_38DI2 With the exceptions of pieces owned by famous people, or particularly rare or valuable examples, ceramics are often overlooked as important aesthetic and historic objects. This is unfortunate because dinnerware, vases, figurines, and the like have much to tell us about the people who made and used them, and their societies. The National Heritage Museum owns a diverse group of ceramics, ranging from commemorative mugs for Masonic events to delicate porcelain teacups. The sugar and creamer set and the vase, seen here, were donated to the museum in 1977, and have been waiting for their stories to be told.

Both the sugar and creamer set and the vase are examples of the so-called "Nippon China" that was popular in American homes between 1865 and 1921.  "Nippon" is the transliteration of the more formal Japanese name for Japan. While Japanese craftsmen had made high-quality porcelain for centuries, the Western world only developed a strong interest in Japanese culture in the late nineteenth century, when many American and European artists began to incorporate Japanese-inspired motifs and imagery into their work. 77_46_1DI1

The end of the Tokugawa policy of seclusion in the 1850s meant that Japanese borders opened to foreigners for the first time since the early seventeenth century. This allowed Westerners to discover Japanese fine art and decorative arts, triggering a new fashion for Japonisme - the influence of Japanese art on Western art and design - that lasted into the early twentieth century. Likewise, Japanese artistic influences inspired many notable decorative artists who were active in the Art Nouveau movement, such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and Edmond Lachenal.

Like most other pieces of Japanese export porcelain during this period, the Museum's objects were hand-painted by Japanese artists with designs that were specifically created for Western audiences. Americans who purchased porcelain tableware and housewares in the early twentieth century were drawn to the ornate and the exotic.  They were also used to the gilded, highly decorative designs hailing from Limoges and Staffordshire. Both the floral motif of this vase and the idyllic landscape pictured on the sugar and creamer set reflect the popular designs of contemporary products from France and the United Kingdom, which had dominated the American market. Ironically, during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), when these objects were made, the Japanese favored simpler designs.  Gilded lusterwares, like this vase, were unfashionable in their country of origin.

77_46_3DI2 The marks on each of these objects provide insight into their history. Both the sugar bowl and the creamer are marked on the bottom with a trademark consisting of an “M” encircled by a wreath, with the words “Hand Painted” printed above and “Nippon” printed below the wreath. The “M” signifies that these pieces were made by the Morimura Brothers factory, which later developed into the Noritake China corporation. Morimura Brothers used this mark from 1911 to 1921. Likewise, the maple leaf stamp on the bottom of the vase was also a trademark of Morimura Brothers, which branded various products with this distinctive mark between 1891 and 1921.  

The year 1921 signaled the end of an era for Japanese export porcelain, as a new American law required that foreign manufacturers mark the country of origin of their products in English. Japanese products designed for the American market began being labeled with the anglicized name “Japan.” In turn, this evolved into the once-ubiquitous “Made in Japan” label that came to appear on everything from toys to electronics sold in the United States later in the twentieth century.


Alden, Aimee Neff, and Marian Kinney Richardson. Early Noritake China: An Identification and Value Guide to Tableware Patterns. Des Moines: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1987.

“Japanese Porcelain Noritake Marks.” Antique Chinese and Japanese Porcelain Collector's Help and Info Page. Nilsson, Jan-Erik, 2006, http://gotheborg.com/marks/noritake.shtml, accessed September 29, 2010.

“Nippon China Dinnerware History.” Antique China Porcelain & Collectibles. Nacq Partners, Ltd., 2010, http://www.antique-china-porcelain-collectibles.com/nippon_china_dinnerware.htm, accessed September 29, 2010.

Van Patten, Joan F. Collector’s Encyclopedia of Nippon Porcelain: Identification and Values. Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 2001.

Vase, 1891-1921, Japanese, National Heritage Museum Collection, gift of Dorothy A. and Albert H. Richardson, 77.70.38.

Creamer, 1911-1921, Japanese, National Heritage Museum Collection, gift of Edith V. Carlson, 77.46.1.

Sugar Bowl with Lid, 1911-1921, Japanese, National Heritage Museum Collection, gift of Edith V. Carlson, 77.46.3a-b.