Quilts at Arlington House in Birmingham, by Beverly Hicks Burch
Last week I had the pleasure of going on an outing with my mom and one of our dearest friends, Betty Wittmeier. Mom has been really sick lately, so the chance for her to get out for a pleasure excursion was really great. Betty and I like to sneak off whenever we can and get into what ever trouble we can
A few weeks ago Betty alerted me to the fact there was a special quilt exhibit at the Arlington House here in the Birmingham area. The quilt exhibit is running at Arlington until the end of August and if you go on Thursday like we did you can make a reservation for the luncheon served at 12 noon and at 1:00 PM.
The yummy menu for our luncheon was a marinated vegetable salad, seared beef tenderloin over hoe cakes, braised cabbage and choice of Oreo cheesecake or vanilla ice cream with praline sauce. Can you guess which one I picked? A hint? Well, I’m Southern and it was hot as Hades outside! Yes, nice cold yummy vanilla ice cream and that heavenly praline sauce. Chef Jason was gracious and came out and visited each table as the luncheon was winding down.
Arlington House is the only Antebellum house in the Birmingham area and is now part of the Birmingham Museum system. The house was built before the Civil War (1845 – 1850) by Judge William S. Mudd one of the founding fathers of the Birmingham area. At the time of its building the area was called Elyton. Arlington House is all that is left of that area now because Birmingham grew up around Elyton and absorbed it as part of Birmingham.
Arlington itself has a colorful history including a period of occupation by Union troops who used it as a headquarters as they made plans to burn the University of Alabama (oh, no they didn’t, but oh, yes they did!). Union General James Wilson entered the Elyton area and met Judge Mudd at his home in the Mudd Sitting Room. Since they were both Masons, Gen. Wilson spared Arlington, but using it for quarters, his troops did destroy Confederate barracks at the University in Tuscaloosa and in nearby Irondale, Tannehill and the Selma furnaces.
After the war Judge Mudd sold the house in 1884 to Henry F. DeBardeleben for $10,000, but the new owner never lived in the house choosing instead to live near the iron furnace he owned in West Birmingham. He sold the house two years later to Franklin H Whitney for $36,000. Whitney, a former Union soldier who never lived in the house used it as a boarding house. Whitney then sold the house in 1902 for about $12,ooo to Continental Gin president Robert S Munger who took the run down home and repaired and updated it.
The home is furnished with wonderful, beautiful period furniture and antiques. It’s two stories with four large bedrooms upstairs. The day we visited it was stifling hot with a heat index close to 100 degrees. It was a reminder that back in the “good old days” there was no such thing as air conditioning! There were lovely Birmingham Belles serving as hostesses and I couldn’t help but feel for them in their beautiful hoop skirted dresses. I was dressed in jeans, lightweight summer top and fashionable sandals…and I was drenched to the bone. I can only imagine had I lived in the era of Scarlett, I might have been a rebel of a different kind…
Even with the heat, the house was packed with visitors and our luncheon was sold out. Everyone really seemed to be enjoying themselves…that is except for some visitors from up North who went from room to room and very loudly and pointedly in Northern accent made sure everyone else knew…”this is all just fiction…it never happened…” I’m sure Judge Mudd would be quite relieved to know those Yankee soldiers never commandeered his home and wrecked havoc on the area. It was kind of like that dream Pam Ewing had, don’t you know? Oh, yeah and the house those “informed” visitors from up North was standing in…it was just a figment of your imagination…
Well, one thing is for certain…the quilts are very real, so lets take a look at some of them…I made a really big boo boo and forgot to load up my SD card in my camera so I wasn’t able to get as many pictures as I would have liked…
This is a traditional log cabin quilt set in the Barn Raising design. It is seen in the Mudd Sitting Room where Union General Wilson
didn’t took over the Arlington House.
Here we see another type of log cabin quilt. This setting is call the Pineapple Log Cabin. This piece is made with silk, velvet and embellished with embroidery feather stitching. The quilt doesn’t have batting. It would almost qualify as a “crazy quilt”. It’s also on display in the Mudd Sitting Room.
You may be unable to see the date on these quilts, but they date from the 1930s…about 1936. The pattern is called “Spokes” and it’s a type of album block/quilt. Album quilts are usually made up of blocks that are signed and dated by the makers. These types of quilts were used for fundraisers and people would pay a nickel or dime for their block and their spot in the quilt. Album quilts were also used for commemorative occasions. The quilts see here are displayed in the dining room.
This was probably my favorite quilt. A large Lone Star with exquisite workmanship. With a closer look you can see the narrow stripe border, something you don’t normally associated from this time period. The stripe border fabric was imported from India and was a rarity for it’s time. The colors, the piecing, the hand quilting, the unexpected corner checked blocks…everything about this quilt is pure delight. It is truly a work of art.
And, we’ll end our tour with a delightful discovery! Can you guess what this is? Yes, it is an early sewing machine! Look closely at the very bottom and you can see the pedals. There are two shaped like the bottom of shoes. There has long been a misconception our ancestors hand pieced and sewed everything. Wrong!!
Several years ago I did research on that very topic and was surprised myself to learn that just like us, our ancestors were glad to find tools of efficiency and economy. Just because they lived generations ago, doesn’t mean our ancestors were stupid! They weren’t that different from us in many ways.Our grandmothers had a lot on their list of “household chores” to do and if they could find anything that gave them a few more minutes of time, or a better way of doing something, they were open to it. It was the evolution of life from the pre-industrial era to the modern era where people began to have what is known as leisure time. Without that evolution many of us today would be minus many of our hobbies and would be chained to tedious tasks.
The other surprise was the discovery of machine piecing on antique Amish quilts that were on exhibit in a museum. Of course the machines used by Amish were human peddle powered since the Amish avoid use of electricity.
Another factor that played into our ancestors use of sewing machines to makes their quilts was the “status” factor. You see if you could afford to own a sewing machine there was a certain cache in that and you wanted to be able to show that off. Hence the growing use of sewing machines in quilting. (Look at sewing machines as the iPhones, iPads or tablets of their day and then asked yourself: “Would I deny myself the use of these tools and just use a rotary dial phone because that’s what my grandmother used?”)
Somewhere down the line the fable that all good worthy quilts are totally hand made came into being. Many times I found it was held more by uneducated non-quilters than by quilters. But, when I started quilting in 1986 I will admit there were still many quilters who hand pieced and they tended to look down on quilters who machine pieced. That gradually began to change and I personally saw the change accelerate after a machine pieced and machine quilted quilt won Best of Show at the AQS show in Paducah, KY. Now, that conversion seems upside down and the majority seems to be everything is done mostly by machine. Myself? Well, I am almost a dinosaur because I machine piece, hand applique and hand quilt although I will say there is a growing interest in my house towards machine quilting…especially since Tall & Handsome has taken up quilting.
So, if you use a machine for any part of your quilting, you really do have great-granny and her new fangled contraption like the one above to thank!
© 2012 Beverly Hicks Burch All Rights Reserved