“It is impossible to imagine a world without flowers. The most arid of urban landscapes, the driest of deserts, the most frozen of Arctic tundra is brightened with some kind of blossom at some point during the year.” These words were written by noted quilt magazine editor Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff in the opening lines of her 1984 text, A Garden of Quilts. She goes on to say that “flowers have been the inspiration for artists since the cave painters.” Indeed, flowers do have a central place in the arts. Poetry abounds with references to flowers. William Shakespeare writes about “nodding violets,” “luscious woodbine,” “sweet musk roses,” “hot lavender,” and “pale primrose” as well as Pansies, lilies, and poppies, just to name a few. Painters have made flowers the subject of their artwork for centuries. Take, for instance, Impressionist Claude Monet, post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh, American Modernist Georgia O’Keeffe, and any of the Dutch Old Masters. Flowers even inspired the Art Nouveau movement, Elizabethan tapestries, and Victorian designs. I could go on, but I think you get my point.
Quilters were and still are motivated by the same influences as poets, painters, and other artists. They pull from popular fashions, art movements, popular culture, and literally, from the world outside their doors. So it is not surprising that quilters, like poets and painters, have adorned their creations with flowers for centuries. But like all artistic designs, the use of flowers and their appearance and execution changes over time as new styles come and go and tastes transition from one style to the next. While we see flowers in the fabric and quilting on wholecloth quilts and in the fabric and pieced designs of pieced quilts brought to Ohio by its first white settlers, floral patterns are most popular as a design motif for Red and Green Appliqué Quilts.
Dutch Tulips Appliqué Quilt
Mrs. Wesley Wright
Ohio History Connection Collection, H 6523
In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, pieced and appliqué quilts almost entirely displace wholecloth quilts in popularity. While the pieced quilts incorporate floral fabrics, the appliqué quilts have, for the first time, original floral designs on their quilt tops.
This Dutch Tulips appliqué quilt exemplifies the Red and Green quilt tradition and offers a clue to their sudden appearance in Ohio. Mrs. Wesley Wright of Trough Creek Valley, Pennsylvania, made this quilt around 1840. The cotton quilt features alternating blocks of red, yellow, and green tulips and red roses on a vine appliquéd to white blocks and pieced together diagonally, or on point. The quilt has an inner border of red and green diamonds and an outer border of appliquéd red roses on a green vine. Tulips, a popular flower in Germany, were often featured on German decorative arts, including blanket chests, coverlets, and of course quilts. The appearance of red and green floral appliqué quilts follows the immigration path of some Germans, who settled first in Pennsylvania and then, like this quilt’s maker, moved west to Ohio.
While some quilters incorporated Dutch tulips in the German tradition, others drew inspiration from the myriad of flowers and plants native to the United States to create unique designs. Eliza Jane Secrest of Mt. Zion, Ohio, incorporated blooming star flowers in her Red and Green appliqué quilt, which she completed around 1858. Each of the four central blocks has three large appliquéd star flowers and multiple buds and leaves on a central stem. A border of vines and oak leaves frames the quilt on all sides. Star flowers are common wildflowers in the northeastern United States that bloom in the spring, and oak trees are native to much of the country, including Ohio, where Eliza lived her entire life.
Taste and style also impacted the use of floral designs for red and green appliqué quilts. Red and green were popular colors for home decoration. These bold colors were found in curtains, upholstery, and carpets as well as quilts. Flowers—with their red petals and green leaves and stems—lent themselves to this color combination. In addition, floral prints, engravings, and paintings were second only to portraits in popularity in the 1700 and 1800s. Floral motifs dominated decorative arts; they adorned china, wallpaper, fabric, carpets, and painted furniture.
One obvious example in the Ohio History Connection collection is a Pineapple appliqué quilt made by Julia Hayden Marshall and her daughter, Frances Marshall McClurg, around 1860. The border features overflowing footed urns and curved branches that mimic a similar design in a coverlet made in 1840 by Julia’s husband and Frances’s father, Edward W. Marshall.
Star Flower Appliqué Quilt
Eliza Jane Secrest
Ohio History Connection Collection, H 88127
Pineapple Appliqué Quilt
Julia Hayden Marshall and Frances Marshall McClurg
Ohio History Connection Collection, H 6522
Edward W. Marshall
Ohio History Connection Collection, H 7009
In Ohio, a distinct red and green floral appliqué design emerged called Ohio Rose. This pattern, seen in this quilt made between 1840 and 1860, features identical blocks with a large rose encircled by eight rose buds appliquéd to a white ground. In this particular quilt, the maker filled the space between the rose appliqués with two concentric circles of stuffed feathered wreath quilting.
Quilters likely stitched red and green appliqué quilts for special occasions rather than for everyday use. Many of the red and green appliqué quilts in the Ohio History Connection collection are in excellent condition and appear unused. This suggests that appliqué quilts were not intended for use as household textiles, like their wholecloth predecessors. The matching red and green fabrics used on each one were likely purchased, an added expense often reserved for special occasion quilts. The written histories that accompany some quilts reveal that approximately one-third of pre-Civil War appliqué quilts were made for dowries, weddings, or other occasions.
Ohio Rose Appliqué Quilt
Ohio History Connection Collection, H 79184
Rose of Sharon Appliqué Quilt
Ohio History Connection Collection, H 83525
This Rose of Sharon quilt helps to enumerate the reasons why red and green appliqué quilts were mainly decorative gifts rather than utilitarian items. This all-cotton quilt has nine red and green appliqué blocks in a straight set with sashing. The appliqué pattern, called either the Rose of Sharon or the Whig Rose, has four branches with leaves and rosebuds radiating out from a central red rose. Maker Elizabeth Price likely purchased the fabric she used in this quilt. Though the price of cotton cloth had fallen significantly since the turn of the nineteenth century, it was still an expense that many households couldn’t spare on a regular basis. Pieced designs were a more economical method for using fabric scraps and textile remnants to create quilt top fabrics.
Further, each rosebud of red and green fabric is reverse-appliquéd and detailed with green chain embroidery. Reverse appliqué is a method for creating a design by placing the colored fabric under the white quilt top and cutting away the white fabric to reveal the colored fabric and create the design. This method was more difficult than regular appliqué and would have taken significantly longer to do. Elizabeth spent extra time creating her Rose of Sharon design in this manner, suggesting that she was either showcasing her needlework skills or creating the quilt as a special gift. Elizabeth made the quilt around 1851, the same year she married John Acton Robey, so it was likely part of her dowry.
The use of flowers in quilt design declined in popularity starting about the time of the Civil War, as did red and green appliqué quilts. New patterns inspired by President Abraham Lincoln and later Japanese design gained prominence in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The color palette shifted, and dark, vibrant colors replaced the bright red, greens, yellows, and oranges so typical of quilts made in the preceding decades. To learn more about these quilts and see others in the Ohio History Connection collection, visit our online catalog at https://museumcollections.ohiohistory.org/collection/museum/search.
Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff, A Garden of Quilts, 1984, Oxmoor House.
Ricky Clark, George W. Knepper, and Ellice Ronsheim, Quilts in Community: Ohio's Traditions, 1991, Rutledge Hill Press.
United States Forest Service, https://www.fs.usda.gov/.