A Bride’s Quilt From
New Connecticut: Rebellion or Reflection?
By Ricky Clark
Volume VI, Number 4
By the urban standards of wealthy Baltimore quiltmakers working in the 1840's, Mary Evelyn Nelson’s quilt might seem plain. But by the stark standards of Ohio’s Western Reserve it was nothing short of luxurious. For it was fabricated entirely of commercially -made cloth bought just for that purpose, at a time when the going price for three yards of such material was a wagonload of corn.1 Furthermore, extra fabric was required to accommodate the large curved shapes used in the wreaths and flowers. No two cut pieces shared an edge, as they always did in pieced quilts, and much fabric was wasted in scraps after the quilt top had been cut.
The pattern Mary chose for her quilt was "Rose of Sharon." Appliqued blocks alternated with plain blocks on which she had echoed the motif in quilting. An appliqued vine, derived from the same pattern, meandered around all four borders of the quilt, leading to a cartouche at the quilt’s top, within which Mary had quilted her initials, complete with punctuation: M. E. N.
Mary Nelson had to purchase extra batting and backing fabric. Not only had she quilted and appliqued the motifs, she had stuffed them as well. In the process the backing had apparently been damaged, for she added a fourth layer to this quilt - an extra backing joined to the top three layers in a quilting pattern of leaves and double hearts.
Mary clearly spent more time designing and making this quilt than was necessary simply to create a warm bedcovering. Applying the curved shapes to the background called for great skill and patience, and the border, particularly, required careful design and drafting. The stuffed work was added entirely for aesthetic reasons.
It would not be surprising to find such a quilt being made in prosperous communities where women had the wealth and leisure to devote to them. But Mary Nelson was born early in the nineteenth century on Ohio’s rugged frontier, and her transplanted New England background frowned upon the indulgent. Why did she make such a quilt, given the restrictive value system of the region? And why was this the only one of her quilts to survive?
This quilt, made in 1844, was Mary Nelson’s bride’s quilt, and like bride’s quilts everywhere, was more elaborate, expensive, and time-consuming than the utility quilts required by the dozen in every household. Such quilts were clearly treasured, for of the earliest extant quilts made in Ohio, most are "special" quilts; utility quilts have long since worn out.
In a paean of praise for Rebecca Gilman, one of Ohio’s earliest pioneers, a nineteenth century historian clearly stated the ethic of the state’s New England settlers: "In her domestic concerns she was a pattern to all good housewives, for industry, frugality, order and promptness of execution" (emphasis added).2 pieced quilts express and confirm these Yankee values through their economical use of fabric, including scraps; orderly, repeated shapes; and assembly-line construction techniques. But this bride’s quilt from the Western Reserve, whose conception and execution go beyond necessity, appears to defy them.
The Western Reserve, also called "New Connecticut," is situated in the northeastern corner of Ohio. It lies between the 41st and 42nd parallels (extensions of Connecticut’s northern and southern boundaries), with the Lake Erie shoreline its northern boundary, and extends west from the Pennsylvania border 120 miles. The Reserve was the only portion of Connecticut’s claims to western land which it did not cede to the United States government in 1786. Most of the land in the Reserve was offered for sale, but the state set aside the half-million acres at its westernmost end for refugees from nine Connecticut towns wantonly burned by the British during the Revolutionary War. This region, which includes all of the land constituting Huron and Erie Counties, was called the "Sufferers’ Lands" in Connecticut, and the "Firelands" in Ohio.
The devastations of war, bankruptcy, over-population, and the "Connecticut Spirit" of self-determination,3 supported by claims of land speculators who described the region as "an earthly Paradise" and "a garden of Eden," lured thousands of immigrants to the Reserve during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Most were New Englanders, or New Yorkers with New England roots. The region they settled, which even today is dotted with neat communities surrounding town greens and bearing New England names, has been described as "more like New England than New England itself."4
Some settlers emigrated as individual families, facing the problems of frontier life in lonely isolation. Others came in groups, neighbors in the East or utopian visionaries committed to establishing colonies governed by religious principles, such as Hudson, Oberlin, and the Mormon colony in Kirtland. The Oberlin Covenant, signed by all members of the Colony, declared that group’s intention to establish residence in Lorain County "for the express purpose of glorifying God and doing good to man."5 A minister in Granville, Massachusetts, in his farewell sermon to "a number of families" about to emigrate to Charlestown, Portage County, in 1811, admonished them to ". . . live conformably to the rules of that holy religion you profess. Carefully guard yourselves against temptation - See that you neglect not the education of your children."6 Religious and educational institutions had been the chief agencies of cultural stabilization and preservation in New England, and in nearly every Western Reserve settlement churches and schools were established almost immediately.
Settlers brought bedding, clothing, minimal housekeeping provisions, and tools from the East. Their first homes were quickly built shanties, replaced as soon as possible by log houses. Within a few years those settlers who succeeded in coping with the wilderness had constructed frame houses like those they had known in the East; and many are still in use today.
Nevertheless, most pioneers found that the "Land of Promise" was not as it had been advertised. Dr. Zerah Hawley, visiting Ashtabula County more than twenty years after it had been opened for settlement, was appalled by the poverty he found.7 He described entire communities suffering from what today sounds like clinical depression. Many residents had spent their entire life’s savings in moving west and could not afford to return. Others were too ashamed to do so, and hid their desperate conditions from eastern relatives behind glowing, false accounts. After emigrating to Warren, Trumbull County, in 1801 Joseph Noyes wrote to his mother in Connecticut, "Perhaps there is no Country on the American Continent where people can live more independent and more easy that here . . . Two Days Labour in a Week will afford as good a support as Six in New England."8 She later learned from various travelers to the Reserve that his family had been destitute for some time. Other emigrants returned to New England because of the impossibility of procuring the basic necessities of life; Dr. Hawley specifically mentioned clothing and bedding.9
Settlers had estimated that clothing brought from the East would last three or four years, at which time it would be replaced by domestically produced fabric. In fact, clothing wore out or was outgrown before the first flax could be spun. Flax production is a slow process at best, requiring a period of sixteen months to two years before it is ready for spinning. On the Reserve, however, a flax crop was successful only once in four years.10 Wool production was difficult as well; so many sheep were killed by wolves that there were not enough left to provide all the wool needed by the settlers. Driven by desperation and imbued with Yankee ingenuity, women on the Reserve spun, wove, and knitted raccoon fur, cattle hair, and silk from wild nettles, in order to clothe their families. Even when flax and wool crops were adequate and large quantities of yarn spun, there was a long wait before it could be woven into cloth. All women spun, but few wove. Inventories of ninety-one households in Huron County during the first twenty years of settlement list only six with looms.11
Clothing was remade into new garments whenever possible. Other garments were mended and patched with rags from worn-out clothing, and when these had been used up, patches of deerskin. Thus the settlers, "clad in garments of as many colors as Joseph’s coat, attended social parties and church feeling that economy as well as charity should begin at home".12
Not only clothing wore out sooner than expected; quilts and blankets deteriorated even more rapidly under the harsh frontier conditions. Dr. Hawley found a family in Narpersfield, Ashtabula County, living in a shanty ten by eight feet, whose roof covered only half the structure and leaked everywhere. A similar shanty in Margaretta Township in Huron County housed a family of eleven for two years.13 According to Dr. Hawley, log houses were only a slight improvement. They contained
. . . one room without any fireplace, the log being laid against the logs of the house and the fire built in front . . . A large hole through the roof, answered the two-fold purpose of a vent for the smoke, and the admission of light. The house was also lighted and ventilated by many large cracks or spaces between the logs, which in winter are sometimes filled with clay, and many times are left without filling through the years . . . in many cases little pain is taken to keep their habitation cleanly, and in all it is utterly impossible that neatness should exist in consequences of the continual falling of clay from the crevices between the logs, and of bark from which the roof is in many instances covered, and the constant accumulation of mud which is brought into the only room in the house in great profusion.14
During their first season in Oberlin the Shipherd family of seven lived in such a single-room log house, and for three weeks shared it with another family of eight.
It is little wonder that bedding used in such homes has not survived. In addition to filth, excessive handling and exposure to the elements hastened deterioration, as quilts and blankets were put to uses unimagined by their makers. In many cases they were hung from the roof to provide some privacy for those sleeping in the bed, although this was usually temporary, as comfort took priority over modesty. Quilts were often hung as doors and in front of window openings to protect the householders from the dramatic storms which occur in the Western Reserve year round. Some families lived for several years with quilts substituting for window glass.
Problems in replacing clothing and bedding were compounded by economic conditions on the Reserve. It was fifty years before a sound banking system was in operation, and until then business was conducted almost entirely by barter. For many years black salts, derived from wood ashes, were the only item for which traders would pay cash.15 Settlers saved for months to pay their taxes, for which only cash was acceptable, and were often unable to do so. The Sterling family in New Lyme, Ashtabula County, for instance, had to borrow $7 to pay their taxes and then needed sixteen installments in order to repay the loan.16 Occasionally produce could be bartered for fabric or clothing, but at a high rate of exchange. In 1814 a woman’s dress could be bartered for seventy-two bushels of corn.17 In Ashtabula County, however, leather and cloth were offered only for cash, with the result that most settlers went without either.
When cloth was available for sale the expense of transporting it to the Reserve added greatly to its cost. In 1810 Hiram Russell, Milan’s first merchant, priced broadcloth at $8 to $12 per yard. Many pioneer reminiscences written in the 1850's report the dramatic reduction in prices after railroads were built, making transportation easier and less expensive. In Huron County, for example, the price of muslin dropped from 75¢ a yard in 1811 to 6¢ a yard in 1858.18
Left to their own devices, pioneer women on the Reserve replaced most of their worn bedding with utility quilts made primarily from scraps of worn garments and domestic linen and filled with straw or home-carded tow or wool.19 Detailed descriptions of quilt-making in early documents from the Reserve are rare, although household inventories indicate that quilts were the most commonly used bedcovering. References usually appear in lists of regular household duties and give no indication of the signifying value of any of the events of the writer. Thus Lucy Parker wrote of one year in her life: "When sheep shearing came I sorted, and washed 30 fleeces. Also spun for 2 webs of 30 yards each. Quilted 4 or 5 bedquilts - resigned my infant charge to Louise and transferred my home from Kinsman to Wayne. We were married June 24, 1840"20
References to "quiltings," or quilting bees, are common, although again rarely specific. They are often included in pioneer reminiscences of recreational activities. As with most forms of frontier recreation (house raisings, huskings, sewing bees), quiltings were tied to a form of productive work. The social significance of the quilting is more often revealed in letters than in diaries, as in this letter from a Western Reserve woman to relatives in Connecticut, written in 1841:
"February 7 . . . We have had a deep snow. No teams passed for over three weeks, but as soon as the drifts could be broken through Mary Scott sent her boy Frank around to say she was going to have a quilting. Everyone turned out . . . I took six squash pies for Mary’s supper. My pumpkins all froze. She had two big turkeys and her famous bar le duc. What wouldn’t I give to taste some real cranberry sauce again - and oysters. But of course we don’t have anything like that here . . ."21
Three weeks’ isolation occasioned by snow drifts not only deprived settlers of companionship, but also limited their diet to whatever food they had on hand. Twenty-five years earlier Mary Nelson’s father, similarly isolated by impassable roads, survived for three weeks on corn meal mush and molasses.22
Certain social aspects of the "quilting" conflicted with the values of the perfectionistic Oberlin Colony, whose members had signed a covenant agreeing to "eat only plain and wholesome food," to renounce "all strong and unnecessary drink," and to "strive to maintain deep-toned and elevated personal piety."23 In 1839 Professor George Whipple of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, addressing the Second American Health Convention on the positive effects of the rigorous Graham diet on students at the Institute, described a quilting as "a source of great joyousness and there was also some extraordinary eating and drinking." His remarks must be interpreted as critical, for he went on to speak of a young quilter who "had been a good deal engaged and excited ," went into convulsions, and died. Death was attributed to "drinking strong tea rapidly." As to the unfortunate young lady’s quilting companions, Professor Whipple asked, "What did they learn from that fact? Why this, that if it was our duty to preserve our bodies so that they should be capable of endurance in the cause of God, then it was our duty religiously in all our dietetic and voluntary habits to pay attention and strict attention to the laws of our physiological being."24
Even improvements in textile manufacture were occasionally criticized by Western Reserve citizens who believed that such developments fostered indolence and threatened the Yankee values of industry and self-reliance. In 1819 after a carding mill had been established in Warren, thus releasing women from a particularly time-consuming stage in domestic textile manufacture, the local newspaper moralized: "Idleness is destructive to every social as well as moral principal. If family fabricks[sic] were made of better material, with more care and pride, foreign stuffs would soon be out of fashion and of course out of use."25
In the years before and after the tea drinking Oberlin quiltmaker had succumbed to the excesses of her craft, Ohio quiltmakers were creating bride’s quilts, some in apparent defiance of their New England values. In 1846 Delia H. Beverstock, the sister of Volney Beverstock of Milan, Huron County, made a Carolina Lily quilt for her wedding which she quilted in lover’s knots, hearts, stars, feathers and lilies, using double rows of quilting throughout. A Montgomery County bride of 1852 made an appliqued quilt in a tulip pattern decorated with bright red, stuffed double hearts. Mary Nelson made her quilt to celebrate her wedding to Benjamin Nyman.
Mary Nelson’s father, John Nelson, was one of a group of pioneers from Franklin County, Massachusetts, who emigrated to Peru Township, Huron County, in 1816. That year was the coldest in the history of New England, with severe frosts every month. All crops failed, and cattle died for lack of fodder. The ensuing starvation among New Englanders led many to emigrate to "the Promised Land."
John Nelson’s first home on the Reserve was a lean-to more primitive than the shanties described by Dr. Hawley. It was ". . . rudely fashioned beside a huge oak tree that had blown down. Another was placed on top of this, and poles and puncheons slanted to the ground which they covered with dirt and leaves." A sixteen-foot square log house built a few months later was considered better than some, as the puncheons (split log floorboards) had been planed smooth, and greased paper placed in the windows. The bedstead consisted of two poles with one end of each inserted into the walls of the house and the other ends supported on upright poles. Leaves replaced straw as a mattress, for "there was not then straw enough on the route from Cleveland to Peru to fill a bed."26
Three years after his arrival John Nelson married Almira Sherman from nearby New London, and Mary was born December 12, 1823, the first of four children. Almira Nelson died at the age of 34, and for a while her sister, Polly Sherman, raised the Nelson children. After Polly’s death, however, the responsibility fell to Mary Nelson as the oldest child.
The experiences of John Nelson’s children, raised successively by their mother, their aunt, and finally by Mary Nelson, were common to Western Reserve life in the first half of the 19th century. Frequently women died young, leaving large families of young children to be cared for. John Nelson’s single marriage under such circumstances was rare; far more often widowed parents remarried, usually quite soon.
Occasionally courageous women, knowing they were dying, selected women to replace them as their husbands’ wives and children’s mothers. Alice Welch Cowles, first wife of Professor Henry Cowles of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, and mother of five children under age thirteen at the time of her death, was just such a woman. Before she died in 1843 she presented her husband with a list of four friends whom she considered suitable to replace her. After her death Henry Cowles selected the widowed Minerva Dayton Penfield, oldest of the four recommended candidates, as his second wife. John G. W. Cowles, describing his father’s second marriage, wrote "that wedding was by no means festive, but solemn and religious, as was life itself." Solemn indeed! Professor Cowles’ second marriage increased the number of his dependents from six to eleven, all to be supported on an annual salary of $600!27
The indispensible[sic] contributions of both husband and wife led to youthful marriages as well as rapid remarriages. An early visitor noted the Western Reserve women "marry very young and are very Prolifficke," citing a Mrs. Walker of Conneaut, who married at twelve and had three children by the time she was seventeen.28 Marriage was assumed to be the goal and vocation of every woman, and the Western Reserve woman who chose to remain single was a rarity. Margaret Van Horn Dwight, traveling from Connecticut to her new home on the Reserve in 1810, noted in her diary: "There is a curiosity in the house - a young lady who has come from New Connecticut unmarried - after staying in Warren a year - a thing I never before heard of, and had begun to think impossible. I feel quite encouraged by it - and do not believe the place as dangerous as is generally reported . . ."29
For residents of the Reserve marriage was not simply desirable, it was mandatory for survival. The family - self-sustaining, productive, and interdependent - was the basic economic unit for many years, and the home was not just the result of marriage, but its most highly valued purpose.
In spite of the practical need for marriage, a recent study of courtship in America from 1770 to 1900 shows that through those 130 years domesticity and romance have remained constant as its basic ingredients.30 The tradition of the bride’s quilt throughout much of the same period supports this. The bride’s quilt, a domestic textile decorated with symbols of romantic love and made to celebrate a woman’s passage from the home of her childhood to the new home she was about to establish, is a superb symbol of the marriage relationship. Even on the Western Reserve, where the personal values of "industry, frugality, order and promptness of execution" are so aptly mirrored in the pieced scrap quilt, women were permitted and encouraged to set aside these values once in a lifetime in order to affirm through the lavish bride’s quilt the centrality of marriage as one of their society’s most significant institutions. Rather than existing in defiance of an ethical code, then, bride’s quilts from the Western Reserve are strong cultural documents, reflecting still another cherished value of its transplanted New Englanders.