American History as Seen Through Quilts

For historians, the textiles are much more than just decorative covers for a bed

The Paul Family Quilt
The Paul Family Quilt (1830-35), on display in "Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories," was made for a four-poster bed. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In 1812, Catherine Paul moved from Greenwich, Massachusetts, with her husband, William, their four sons and William’s widowed mother to the frontier town of Solon, in what would become the state of Maine. There, Catherine sewed this quilt, embroidering it with images of family members and the tower of the town meeting house. It’s part of a new show opening in October at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston of 58 quilts and bedcovers spanning 400 years of U.S. history, including masterpieces by African American artisans in the rural South, tributes to Civil War soldiers and the transcontinental railroad, and modern works that push boundaries both aesthetic and political. Often patched together from myriad scraps of fabric, quilts have long offered an easy metaphor for the diversity of a sprawling nation. But curator Jennifer Swope argues they can tell plenty of other stories about culture, community and the power of remembrance. “Quilts,” she says, “bear witness.”

Album Quilt
Album quilt (about 1847–50) by Mary Heidenroder Simon. Appliquéd cotton, plain weave, pieced and appliquéd with printed 
plain weave cottons, embroidered with silk thread and quilted, ink and 
watercolor. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Civil War Quilt
Civil War Zouave Quilt (mid 1860s), wool, pieced and appliqued; cotton plain weave. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Crazy City
Crazy City (1885) by C. Winne. Printed cotton plain weave, pieced, appliqued and quilted. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Smithsonian National Quilt Collection: An Overview

Learn more about the Smithsonian's National Quilt Collection here.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.