Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Star of Bethlehem Quilt

ca. 1835
Possibly made in Maryland, United States
122 x 122 in. (309.9 x 309.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Sansbury-Mills Fund, 1973
Accession Number:
Not on view
Although its provenance is unknown, this exquisite Star of Bethlehem quilt was likely made in the southeastern United States. Quilts with a central Star of Bethlehem motif combined with chintz-appliquéd blocks and a chintz border, as seen here, have been found in Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina. The presence of paired Baltimore orioles printed on the English chintz in the four corner blocks makes Maryland a likely candidate for the place of origin.
Although the provenance of this exquisite Star of Bethlehem quilt is not known, it was most likely made in one of the southern states. Quilts in which a central Star of Bethlehem motif is combined with chintz-appliquéd blocks and a chintz border, as it is here, have been found in Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina. It is tempting to conclude that this quilt originated in Maryland. For one thing, it exemplifies the very fine workmanship characteristic of the tradition of high-style quiltmaking that arose in Baltimore in the 1820s and reached its zenith with the famous Album quilts of the 1840s (see 1974.24 and 1988.134). A more fanciful reason for a Maryland attribution is the presence of Baltimore orioles on the four corner blocks, which are appliquéd with an English chintz printed with pairs of these birds. According to Florence Montgomery's “Printed Textiles,” between 1830 and 1834 an English manufacturer printed six chintz patterns incorporating plates from Audubon's “Birds of America.” These proved so popular that the fashion for bird prints was picked up by other designers. Montgomery believed that in the period between 1835 and 1840, one fabric designer specialized in prints of brightly colored birds common to North America (but not copied from Audubon): A blue-jay print that seems to be from the same hand survives in addition to the Baltimore oriole chintz. [1] When this quilt was made, the American market was still dependent on England for well-printed chintzes, and naturally, American birds pleased the American buyer. The fabrics of this quilt's appliqués and border are English, while the printed cottons pieced into the central star are most likely of American manufacture. There is no quilting at all in the pieced star. The rest of the surface is worked with particularly fine and even diamond-and-square quilting, and the white areas are enlivened with ten-pointed stuffed-work stars.
More than ten feet (three meters) square, this quilt is the largest in the Museum’s collection. During the 1830s and 1840s, it was not unusual for quilts to be made this size and even larger. What was the purpose of such enormous quilts? This one was most likely a show quilt, meant to be displayed on special occasions to prove the skills of its maker; it looks almost unused and was never washed. However, very large quilts that clearly show wear exist from this period. In all likelihood, they were made to cover beds heaped high with piles of feather mattresses or straw ticks. Changes in the construction of mattresses, such as the introduction of the innerspring mattress, which provided a comfortable sleeping surface in a compact form, may explain why quilts grew smaller as the nineteenth century progressed, and after about 1850, quilts nine and ten feet square were a rarity.

1. Florence M. Montgomery, “Printed Textiles: English and American Cottons and Linens, 1700-1850” (New York: Viking Press, 1970), 328, 330.

[Peck 2015; adapted from Amelia Peck, "American Quilts & Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," 2007]
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