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Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Quilt, Tumbling Blocks with Signatures pattern

Adeline Harris Sears (1839–1931)
begun 1856
Made in Rhode Island, United States
77 x 80 in. (195.6 x 203.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, William Cullen Bryant Fellows Gifts, 1996
Accession Number:
Not on view
In 1856, seventeen-year-old Adeline Harris, the daughter of a well-to-do Rhode Island mill owner, conceived of a unique quiltmaking project. She sent small diamond-shaped pieces of white silk worldwide to people she esteemed as the most important figures of her day, asking each to sign the silk and return it to her. By the time the signatures were all returned and ready to be stitched into a "tumbling-blocks" patterned quilt, Adeline had amassed an astonishing collection of autographs. Her quilt features the signatures of eight American presidents; luminaries from the worlds of science, religion, and education; heroes of the Civil War; such authors as Charles Dickens and Ralph Waldo Emerson; and an array of prominent artists. Today, the autographs displayed in this beautiful and immaculately constructed quilt provide an intriguing glimpse into the way an educated young woman of the mid-nineteenth century viewed her world.
In 1856, a seventeen-year-old named Adeline Harris (1839-1931) conceived of a unique project: to collect the autographs of the well-known people she most esteemed. This, in itself, was not unusual; the practice of collecting autographs of famous people was very popular in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Adeline's collection, however, was different. She asked the signers to write their names in ink on the small diamond-shaped pieces of white silk that she sent to them. After these diamonds were autographed, they were sent back to her; she then cut out more diamonds of brightly colored dress silks and ribbons, hand-stitched them together with the signed white ones, and created an extraordinary Tumbling Blocks quilt.
Although quilts that incorporated signed blocks were not uncommon in the 1850s, most served a different function from Adeline's quilt. The usual signature quilt was made of cotton fabric and composed of blocks sewn and signed by ordinary women and men in communities or church congregations for presentation to other members to commemorate a particular event, such as a birth, marriage, or leave-taking (see 1988.134 and 52.103). Adeline's quilt commemorates no single event; instead it memorializes an entire period in American history. Created from signatures collected primarily between 1857 and 1863, her quilt is a fascinating document that today serves as a portrait of its maker and reveals the political, religious, and intellectual tastes of a particular segment of well-to-do New England society in the American Civil War era.
Adeline Harris was born on April 7, 1839, in Arcadia, Rhode Island (a town about twenty-five miles southwest of Providence), the youngest child of James Toleration Harris (1806-1885) and Sophia Amelia Knight Harris (1812-?). She had two older siblings, George Harris (1833-1875) and Eleanor Celynda Harris (1835-1897). Her father owned several textile mills in Arcadia; he retired when Adeline was ten years old, and the family moved a few miles south to Wyoming, Rhode Island. Whereas James Harris's ancestors seem to have been affluent from the time they arrived, in 1630, with Roger Williams as some of the original settlers of Providence Plantation, Adeline's mother came from working-class stock; indeed a number of Knight family members worked for the Harrises. Adeline's maternal grandfather, Stephen Knight, worked as a farmer for mill owner Elisha Harris, a cousin of Adeline's father, who also served as governor of Rhode Island in 1847 and 1848.
Adeline's mother, Sophia, was the eldest of nine children. It is known that her brothers were sent out to work at the textile mills at very young ages, and she probably received little formal schooling. The Knight family's fortunes seem to have turned around after Sophia married James Toleration Harris in 1831. According to family history, Harris provided his wife's brothers Benjamin Brayton Knight and Robert Knight with a loan that enabled them to found "B. B. & R. Knight," a company that eventually owned and operated twenty-one cotton mills located in fifteen company-run villages throughout Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Adeline grew up in comfortable surroundings. What little is known about her childhood can be ascertained from two sources: a handwritten memoir written by her granddaughter, Amey Howarth Mackinney in the 1960s, and a page that Adeline wrote about herself in 1912. When Adeline was asked by the Rhode Island Historical Society for "biographical details," her only reply was: "With the exception of a very few months in a public school and three years of boarding school (two years at East Greenwich Academy and one at Mrs. Magennisi's School for Young Ladies, in New London Conn.) I was educated by private tutors, in my father's house." Her granddaughter recounted that Adeline "attributed her long life, and excellent health to her early life in the out-of-doors in Arcadia, & Wyoming R.I., riding horseback, early hours, and sensible living."
Adeline's few years of formal schooling and private tutors seems to have provided her with a very good education, certainly by the standards of what most women were taught at the time. Her granddaughter remembered her as "a great scholar and student with a brilliant mind." Family legend recounts that Adeline wanted to attend college, but was forbidden by her parents; this, however, may be apocryphal, since there were few opportunities for women to gain colleges degrees before the Civil War. Her ambitious quilt project, begun in 1856, when her schooling must have been nearly complete, suggests that this intelligent and scholarly young lady's interests were not completely fulfilled either by suitors, or the usual round of social visits and parties in which she was expected to participate.
Collecting signatures was considered an educational activity by Adeline's contemporaries. In the article about this popular hobby entitled "Autographomania" in the "Overland Monthly" of October, 1869, it was written: "the paramount benefit arising from the prosecution of this hobby, is the familiarity the collector acquires with contemporaneous history. His souvenirs are valueless to him, unless he is thoroughly informed of the individuals they represent." While Adeline's taste for autographs seems to portray her as a scholarly young woman, it also betrays her romantic nature. Many autograph collectors believed that a person's signature revealed significant aspects of his or her personality. By owning a signature of an illustrious person, one could learn about the characteristics that made him or her great, and emulate those traits. This belief often led to the superstition that by merely owning a certain person's autograph, and being sensitive enough to perceive how to read the signer's greatness therein, some of the signers distinction would rub off on to the collector.
During the 1850s, Adeline appears to have been a driven collector. She probably wrote to most of the signers without an introduction, but it seems likely that she had a personal connection with at least some of the political figures. According to the family account and her obituary, her father brought the family to Washington, D.C., before the Civil War. While not in public service himself as far as we know, he was friendly with many men who were. Adeline's obituary recounts that "At the outbreak of the Civil War [she] was visiting in Washington D.C. and was acquainted with many prominent men in the nation's capital at that time, including President Lincoln. She was present when the first troops of Northern soldiers passed through the streets of Washington at the beginning of the war. She often related to her friends stories of life in Washington during the early years of the war and until her death she preserved letters she had received from Lincoln, Henry Clay, Charles Sumner, and other leaders of that time." Some of these cherished letters may have originally accompanied the autographed silk diamonds.
Adeline actually met Abraham Lincoln, whose signature she acquired. According to her granddaughter, "She danced with Abraham Lincoln at his Inaugural ball, and we still have the silk damask from which her ball gown was made. [She was] an ardent admirer of Abraham Lincoln. She bought, and read, every book practically, that was written about him." The diamond he signed for her says: "Yr. Friend & Servant Abraham Lincoln 1860". This admiration for Lincoln and his beliefs are attested to in the autographs Adeline requested and received from figures in the political arena. Many of the senators, congressmen, and governors whom she included in the quilt were members of the newly formed Republican party and as such, Lincoln supporters. Those southern politicians from whom she received autographs were moderates who did not believe in the secession of the southern states in the years immediately preceding the Civil War's outbreak. However, after Adeline had gathered their signatures in the late 1850s, some of these southerners changed their minds and became active members of the Confederate Congress.
Following Lincoln's principles, Adeline did not align herself with the radical Abolitionists, although she collected a few signatures from people closely associated with that movement, namely Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner and Edward Everett. While many of the politicians she asked for signatures were firmly antislavery, implying Adeline shared their beliefs, the majority were moderates, who did not believe in the immediate abolishment of the institution of slavery if it threatened to break apart the Union.
Political leaders signed more diamonds than any other single profession represented on the quilt. Apparently a very logical young woman, Adeline grouped similar professionals together. Reading the quilt from left to right, the first nine vertical generally hold the autographs of politicians, but Adeline broke down categories within categories. Column 7 features presidents of the United States: Martin Van Buren (1837-41), John Tyler (1841-45), Millard Fillmore (1850-53), Franklin Pierce (1853-57), James Buchanan (1857-61), Abraham Lincoln (1861-65), Andrew Johnson (1865-69), and Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77). Columns 2 and 3 display the signatures of Northern military leaders such as John C. Fremont, Sam Houston and Winfield Scott.
The autographs of literary figures form the next largest group by profession. Within the broad category of literary figures, Adeline divided the authors into sections. First, they are arranged by gender, with the female authors appearing in the center sections of rows 16 through 19. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the enormously popular antislavery novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1852) as well as many other books, can be found in this grouping, as is abolitionist Julia Ward Howe of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (1861) fame. Here one also finds female novelists less familiar today such as Ann S. Stephens, Caroline Gilman, and Lydia Sigourney.
The male authors are found in columns 9 through 20. Column 11 lists the period's greatest men of letters, such as Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, and John Greenleaf Whittier. The European authors Jacob Grimm, Alexandre Dumas, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Charles Dickens appear in rows 12 and 13. Adeline often placed authors working in similar genres together, grouping poets, novelists, humorists, newspaper editors, historians, and writers of travelogues.
In column 10, Adeline arranged the names of some of the most important men of science, such as naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, biologist Louis Agassiz and chemist Benjamin Silliman. A who's who of mid-nineteenth-century American artists appears in the upper reaches of rows 11 through 13, including the painters Rembrandt Peale and Asher B. Durand, and sculptor Hiram Powers. Lilly Martin Spencer, one of the few popular American women painters of the period also contributed her signature.
The last large group of autographs collected by Adeline were from a variety of Protestant clergymen: Episcopalian bishops from almost every state or territory, as well as Unitarian, Presbyterian, Universalist, Congregationalist, and Baptist clergymen. Their signatures appear in the upper-right-hand quarter of the quilt; perhaps the best remembered of these men today is Henry Ward Beecher, the fiery antislavery minister of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York.
The final column of Adeline's quilt features a mixed group of educators, some with ties to Brown University, in Adeline's home state of Rhode Island, others hailing from Yale University, where Adeline's husband-to-be, Lorenzo Sears, was enrolled at the time. The date of 1859 on one of these Yale signatures may indicate that Adeline was acquainted with Sears (class of 1861) for a number of years before they were wed in 1866. Perhaps she asked him to gather the names of some of his favorite professors, such as the Classics Department's Thomas A. Thacher (Latin), William Dwight Whitney (Sanskrit), and James Hadley (Greek).
Adeline worked on her project for a long time. While she collected the majority of her autographs between 1857 and 1863, she did not complete the quilt until quite a few years later. The earliest signature is dated 1856, and the latest 1867. Yet she may have continued to work on the quilt well into the 1870s. Column 7, which holds the autographs of the presidents and vice presidents, reads down in order from Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States (1837-41) to Ulysses S. Grant, the eighteenth President of the United States (1869-77). Under Grant's signature, Adeline placed the autographs of his vice presidents, Schuyler Colefax (1869-1873) and Henry Wilson (1873-1875). Although both of vice presidents probably signed their squares in the late 1850s (Colfax dated his autograph 1859) when they held lower elective offices, Adeline placed them on the quilt to show where they had attained their highest post. This proves that she was still piecing the quilt together until at least the mid-1870s, almost twenty years after she had started gathering the signatures.
It can be assumed, from the consistency of the tiny whipstitches that hold the diamonds together, that Adeline sewed the entire quilt herself, by hand. Because the signatures of various professions are composed in areas, rather than straight columns, it seems likely that Adeline worked the quilt in sections. She did not wait until she had received all the signed diamonds to lay out the entire quilt. After the areas of the quilt for each profession was finally completed, these larger sections were probably then sewn together. When the front was finished, she acquired a piece of machine-quilted dark red silk lining fabric for the backing. She attached the two layers together with a dark-red grosgrain ribbon binding.
While it is tempting to think that her family's mills could have provided the fancy silks that Adeline cut into the multicolored diamonds, there is only in indirect link. The family mills all manufactured cotton; during the 1850s, there were no American mills capable of producing the fancy silks found in the quilt. Certainly the family mills provided her with the money to purchase the colorful imported ribbons and dress goods found in the quilt, and the family interest in textiles may have sharpened her eye to harmonies of color and texture, but they did not provide the fabric.
Although creating autograph collections and signature quilts were both popular pastimes in Adeline's day, her project can still be termed unique on the basis of two pieces of evidence. First, as far as modern-day quilt scholars know, no other quilts quite like this one have survived. One or two are known that include a few signatures of famous people, but none display the same number of important autographs. Moreover, Adeline's project was special enough to receive public notice in its day, a rare accomplishment. Adeline wrote to Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of "Godey's Lady's Book," requesting her autograph. Not only did Mrs. Hale comply, but she was so impressed with the project that she wrote a two-part article about it in "Godey's" April 1864 issue, and included a diagram of how to set up the quilt blocks in the July issue. In the first part of the April article, Mrs. Hale described how Adeline prepared the diamond-shaped pieces of white silk for autographs. She explained that after the diamonds were cut out, "they should be strained tightly over a card, to make a smooth even surface for writing, which should be done in indelible ink. Muslin, linen, or silk can be used, the silk being the handsomest, while the linen makes the best surface for the signature. The cards may be sent by mail to friends at a distance." Mrs. Hale included an illustration of a sample diamond with a facsimile of her own autograph.
The second, most intriguing, part of the article about the autograph quilt was published in a section of the magazine called the "Editors' Table." This editorial area functioned as Mrs. Hale's personal soapbox, where she voiced her opinion on a wide variety of topics of interest to her predominantly female readership. She occasionally offered practical advice for household chores, but just as frequently discussed subjects such as the necessity of advanced education for women, as well as her opinions of proper modes of womanly behavior. Her piece on Adeline's quilt fell somewhere in between these common topics, or perhaps includes all of them. She began by telling her readers that, "We have lately received a pleasant letter from a young lady of Rhode Island, who is forming a curious and valuable collection of autographs in an original and very womanly way; the design is to insert the names in a counterpane or bedquilt."
Mrs. Hale discussed the process of putting this "very wonderful invention in the way of needlework" together. After mentioning the "resolution, patience, firmness, and perseverance" that it would take to arrange and join the delicate bits of silk properly, she came to what she described as:
"The intellectual part, the taste to assort colors and to make the appearance what it ought to be, where so many hundreds of shades are to be matched and suited to each other. After that we rise to the moral, when human deeds are to live in names, the consideration of the celebrities, who are to be placed each, the centre of his or her own circle! To do this well requires a knowledge of books and life, and an instinctive sense of the fitness of things, so as to assign each name its suitable place in this galaxy of stars or diamonds."
Obviously, Mrs. Hale held Adeline and her project in high esteem, crediting her with "intellectual" and "moral" gifts regarding her conception for the quilt. Adeline's letter, which has not been located, must have been so engaging and convincing in its statement of her seriousness of purpose that Mrs. Hale attributed some perhaps overly ambitious goals to the quilt. She wrote:
"Notwithstanding the comprehensive design we are attempting to describe, we have no doubt of its successful termination. The letter of the young lady bears such internal evidence of her capability, that we feel certain she has the power to complete her work if her life is spared. And when we say that she has been nearly eight years engaged on this quilt, and seems to feel now all the enthusiasm of a poetical temperament working out a grand invention that is to be a new pleasure and blessing to the world, we are sure all our readers will wish her success. Who knows but in future ages, her work may be looked at like the Bayeux Tapestry, not only as a marvel of woman's ingenious and intellectual industry; but as affording an idea of the civilization of our times, and giving a notion of the persons as estimated in history."
When Adeline wrote to Mrs. Hale in 1864, she had already obtained 350 signatures, and was planning to make a quilt that would contain 556. The quilt as completed contains 360 signatures; so by the time Adeline contacted Mrs. Hale, the search for signatures may have been was winding down. It is not known why she did not collect the roughly 200 more she proposed; perhaps her interest was beginning to wane, or many of her requests failed to elicit responses.
While perhaps not as important as the Bayeux tapesty, Adeline's quilt does serve some of the lofty purpose with which Mrs. Hale endowed it, as it indeed affords "an idea of the civilization" of Adeline's time. The autographs comprise a nearly complete gathering of the most famous Americans (and some Europeans) in most fields of endeavor at mid-century. It reveals the breadth of the education that a well-to-do young woman from New England received in the 1850s, and the quilt speaks of the amount of leisure time someone like Adeline had on her hands.
In 1866, her project yet unfinished, Adeline was married to Lorenzo Sears (1838-1916), an Episcopalian priest. Her choice to marry a member of the clergy, rather than a man of business like her father or uncles, also seems to support the notion that Adeline valued learning. Members of the clergy were usually the best-educated men in mid-nineteenth-century society. Sears was born in Searsville, Massachusetts, a town undoubtedly named for his forebears. His family members were descendants of one Richard Sares, who is listed in the records of the Plymouth colony in 1633. Following his graduation from Yale, Sears completed his studies at the General Theological Seminary in New York City and was ordained in 1864. After his marriage to Adeline, he served as the rector of various parishes in New England; his longest appointment was at Grace Church in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he remained for sixteen years. In 1885, when Sears was in his late forties, he changed careers, and became a professor of rhetoric and English literature at the University of Vermont. A few years later, when he was appointed professor at Brown University, he and Adeline returned to the state of her birth. In the years between 1896 and 1914, in addition to teaching, Sears wrote extensively about oratory and American literature; he also authored a series of biographies. One of these was about the orator and abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who had contributed an autograph to Adeline's quilt more than fifty years earlier.
After her quilt's brush with fame on the pages of "Godey’s" in 1864, Adeline lived the remainder of her life out of the limelight. She gave birth to four children, only one of whom, Sophie Harris Sears (1872-1949), survived infancy. In Providence, the Searses lived at 163 Butler Avenue, in the affluent neighborhood bordering the Brown University campus. Even in her old age, Adeline apparently retained her intellectual bent, and was remembered by her granddaughter as "extremely witty, and a brilliant conversationalist, and retained her inquiring mind to the time of her death".
It is doubtful that Adeline ever slept under this quilt. It seems to have always remained a family showpiece, an embodiment of Adeline's perseverance and intellectual gifts, a treasure carefully guarded by succeeding generations. It has small rings sewn to the upper edge, implying it had been hung for display by the family at some point in its history. Adeline left her quilt to her daughter Sophie, an active philanthropist and the head of the Providence Animal Rescue League who married George Howarth late in life. Sophie had no children of her own, but adopted Howarth's two daughters by a previous marriage. She bequeathed her mother's quilt to her adopted daughters, Amey Howarth Mackinney and Constance Howarth Kuhl. They, in turn, passed it to their children: Amey Mackinney Harrison, Harold A. Mackinney, Constance Kuhl Francis, and Herbert Kuhl Jr. It was in Amey Mackinney Harrison's possession, but co-owned by all four of Adeline's great-grandchildren, when the Museum purchased it in 1995. One of most treasured pieces in the Museum’s collection, it is an eloquent artwork that speaks volumes about the work and world of one representative young woman living in mid-nineteenth-century America.
[Peck 2015; adapted from Amelia Peck, "American Quilts & Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," 2007]
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