I had the good fortune of taking part in last night’s #drinkingaboutmuseums event at the New-York Historical Society (NYHS), which included a guided tour of Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War. A fascinating show that has largely been under the city’s art radar, it tells the story of American slavery through period quilts, fabrics, and textiles. Amid the lavish patriotic quilts, colorful hand-sewn flags, and refined period costumes, a darker and more gruesome story is woven through the exhibition.
The symbolic nature of quilts seems clear when they are displayed in a gallery. Often bright, sometimes filled with representational panels, and surprisingly modern to contemporary viewers, they communicate with a visual language that feels familiar. At one point a visitor asked the tour guide about the history of quilts and “slave signaling,” which is a widely held belief that quilts were used to send messages to slaves escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad. To our surprise she replied that it was all a myth. I followed up today with NYHS Curator of Decorative Arts Margi Hofer, who explained how this myth emerged:
The myth of slave signaling, generally known as the “quilt code,” originated in the 1980s but was fueled particularly by the publication of the 1999 book Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, written by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard. Tobin’s information was based on her conversations with an elderly black woman who sold quilts to at a Charleston tourist mall. Hidden in Plain View was immensely popular and enjoyed a special boost when it was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show. Thanks in large part to this book, the quilt code entered the public imagination and became accepted as historical fact. Despite historians’ efforts to debunk the myth of the quilt code, it is still included in some school curricula.
Homefront & Battlefield presents more nuanced stories about how quilts were used as means of opposing slavery. For example, the quilt stitched by Quaker women entirely from Free Labor cottons (fabrics made without the use of slave labor); or the bold American flag design quilt made to proclaim the maker’s support for the union.
Modern folklore aside, three objects in the show tell the story of American slavery in a particularly powerful way:
Tennessee Slave Quilt
Not all the quilts on display were bright and detailed, but some, like this quilt made by American women enslaved by the Bushong family of Sullivan County, Tennessee, were more humble and practical.
The Bushongs held three female slaves before and during the war: Rosey, Sarah, and Martha. While Rosey died in her teens, Sarah and Martha pieced this quilt of subdued colors for their own use, and it passed into the Bushong family after their deaths. The women also spun yarn and wove cloth during their enslavement, and it is believed that the fabrics used in this piece may be their handiwork.
John Brown’s Noose
Then there was the noose that was used to execute revolutionary abolitionist John Brown. The display in Homefront & Battlefield is believed to be the first time the hemp-rope noose and the hook from the gallows have been reunited since that fateful day on December 2, 1859. While some may question the provenance of the noose, when the item was donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society the donor included a note attesting to its origin.
And then there is this horrible object of American white supremacy, a Ku Klux Klan hood from the 1920s. The hood is from Vermont and marks the admittance of women into the KKK. It is an absurd object that, like the quilt and noose, offers a fuller picture of the context of the Civil War and its aftermath.
Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War continues at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through August 24.
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