Quilts have been in America since the beginning only most disappeared with use. Many of them were made of fabric that had already been used as clothing. Once that quilt wore out, it was sometimes then used as the batting for a new quilt. Starting with the fact that fabric is very fragile to begin with there are only a tiny fraction of the early quilts made which have survived. Those quilts were generally those of the rich or were somehow lucky enough to have been put away and not used.
Hundreds of years ago, if the quilter was lucky and had enough fabric and light, she could stitch some art into her much needed bed covering. Quilts also were symbolic and showed support for the Women's Temperance League, Political Candidates and religious organizations like the Masons. I am sure there are many other codes in quilts, some which may be too personal for us ever to figure out.
There are many books which talk about this kind of code in quilts for the Underground Railroad. Given the highly symbolic nature of quilts, the fact that some of these quilts were made by slaves and the ephemeral nature of fabric I am not surprised that there is a lack of written corroboration of these quilts. One book about these quilts is Hidden In Plain View and if you click here you can see a variety of other books written about the subject.
I think it's entirely possible that quilts played a role. Others are not and are welcome to their opinion. Since it's Black History Month I would like to narrate my own unexpected experience with the codes in quilts for the Underground Railroad.
My husband and I were driving east on I-80 after a visit to Iowa City and the barn quilts in the nearby area. Being the middle aged woman that I am, we stopped around Marker 270 near Clinton, Iowa to use one of their lovely rest stops.
There are tiles in the floors, the walls and by each picnic spot about the quilts. Here by the Ladies' restroom are all of the blocks.
When you are there, if you look around you can see that the sidewalk has markings to make it look more like railroad tracks and the main building itself a train station. They have themes at other rest areas as well. There is a PDF about all of them which you can read by clicking here.
When I was there, I had not read all about them yet, I just enjoyed the work of David B. Dahlquist, designer extraordinaire.
I felt that this was the very best in urban architecture, combining art and history in a beautiful and useful building.
I was so pleased to see quilts depicted in such a magnificent way. I was also glad to see a piece of Black History up all year long, not just in February.
If you are ever riding in your car going East on I-80, I suggest you do the same.
If you would like to read more about Quilts and the Underground railroad, you can begin with this article. There are publications which vehemently deny it and others that offer it as fiction. I think it's within the realm of possibility and the rest stop is very fun to see.
Quilts in a rest stop? That makes me sew happy!
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Is this my only post about historical quilts? No, I wrote a short post about quilts and Abraham Lincoln.
Update since posting - more than a year after publication this post has been getting attention. Not sure why but many of the comments left have been quite mean spirited with negative adjectives about me. These comments are now only visible to those who made them now and their friends as they violate my clearly stated comment conduct which you can read by clicking on the button above. I had edited the post slightly to calm down the quilt blog police.