Lucinda Ward Honstain of Brooklyn commemorated the Civil War and chronicled post-war life in her remarkably detailed quilt, which is the most expensive quilt ever sold at auction. It fetched $264,000 at Sotheby’s in 1991. Lucinda Ward Honstain (1820-1904), “Reconciliation Quilt” (1867), cotton, appliquéd. (International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

On the left is a KKK hood, while on the right is a quilt made by Lucinda Ward Honstain of Brooklyn to commemorate the Civil War and chronicle post-war life. The quilt is also the most expensive quilt ever sold at auction, as it fetched $264,000 at Sotheby’s in 1991. Lucinda Ward Honstain (1820-1904), “Reconciliation Quilt” (1867), cotton, appliquéd. (International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

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.

American women Martha and/or Sarah, who were enslaved by the Bushong family of Tennessee, Quilt, 1850s–60s,
Stony Point, Sullivan County, Tennessee, linen and wool, hand spun and woven, twill weaves; pieced and tied
(Historic Crab Orchard Museum, Tazewell, VA, Bushong Collection, 93.27.8)

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.

The noose and hook believed to have been used to kill American abolitionist John Brown in 1859. When this was donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society, it was accompanied by a note by the donor claiming to be the rope used to hang John Brown. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

KKK Hood

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.

This “Woman’s KKK march” Ku Klux Klan hood from the 1920s is from the collection of the Vermont Historical Society. (image courtesy the New-York Historical Society)

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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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

One reply on “Relics of Slavery and Hate, on Display in New York”

  1. It’s good I think to bring these topics out in the open. I recently moved to the south and was so surprised to see how many people still talk about Civil War related things as if it just happened. In California where I’m from this is a subject that hardly ever gets brought up. I believe we need more reminders of the past to remind people how hideous hate can be.

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