Crib quilt, Crazy pattern

Attributed to Nellie Bowman Block American

Not on view

This quilt is unique in both its history and its appearance. It is thought to have been made and signed by Nellie Bowman Block (1875-1933) while she was an inmate at the Illinois Southern Hospital for the Insane (later Anna State Hospital) in Anna, Illinois. Nellie was admitted to the hospital on November 19, 1901, and remained hospitalized there until 1917, when she was transferred to the Alton State Hospital in East Alton, Illinois. She remained institutionalized at Alton until her death in 1933.

Nellie gave birth to a daughter, Esther M. Block in December, 1899. After Nellie was admitted to the hospital in 1901, Nellie’s husband Izra, a Canadian, returned to Canada, and left Esther with Nellie’s parents in Illinois. Although Esther would have been six years old at the time the quilt was made, it has been surmised that Nellie made the crib quilt for her, and the reason it survived is that it was given to Esther, who didn’t die until 1996.

Although there is documentation that Nellie Block was in the insane hospital at the time the quilt was made, since it is only signed "Nellie 1905" with no last name, it can’t be absolutely proven or disproven that she made it. But apart from the relayed history, the attribution can also be based on the eccentric way the quilt itself is put together. It shows little of the underlying structured block order that is typical of most crazy quilts. Instead, it is put together of mostly random small pieced bits of unrelated sizes and shapes, in blues, reds, whites, and pinks. These small pieced areas were probably individually made before the entire quilt was planned out, and then attached together with larger pieces of primarily black and white printed cotton, known at the time as "mourning prints", to make the quilt top. It is also quilt-stitched only is small unrelated areas, not quilted overall as would be common. Its lack of order may indicate a less than orderly mind.

Quilt-making was a common form of occupational therapy in use in mental institutions in the early part of the twentieth century and a 1919 article exists that describes the actual sewing classes at the Anna State Hospital in the years 1916-1919. While the State Hospitals of Illinois only officially introduced occupational therapy in 1908, it is quite possible that sewing was used to help occupy and calm female patients even as early as 1905 when Nellie Block likely made this quilt.

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