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Boston museum exhibit illustrates US history using quilts

Jan. 30, 2022
9 min read
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I come from a long line of quilters on both sides of my family. Naturally, quilting holds a special place in my heart. The art form isn't just a hobby I have personal ties to, though. It's an incredibly important piece of American history.

In addition to providing warmth in winter, it's believed that quilts were used as mnemonic devices to guide slaves escaping to the North to safety. They were also used as storytelling devices by Native American, Asian and Hispanic quilters. Having existed since the early days of the United States, these intricate pieces of cloth made from recycled fabrics illustrate the history of our country.

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(Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

To catch a glimpse of that history, I visited Boston to see the Museum of Fine Arts “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories” exhibit, which ran from Oct. 10, 2021 to Jan. 17, 2022. This amazing exhibit showcased 300 years of U.S. history through 58 objects mostly pulled from the museum's collection. While all of the exhibit's pieces were beautiful, moving reminders of our diverse nation's history, a few quilts stood out from the rest.

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'To God and Truth'

"To God and Truth" by Bisa Butler. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

Bisa Butler is a world-renowned quilter and fiber artist known for using fabric to document and celebrate African American lives and events. This piece, entitled "To God and Truth," shows the 1899 baseball team at Atlanta-based Morris Brown College, Georgia's first historically Black college and university (HBCU). It is the centerpiece of the museum's exhibit and was part of Butler's solo exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago that ended in September 2021.

'Krakow Kabuki Waltz'

"Krakow Kabuki Waltz" by Virginia Jacobs. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)
"Krakow Kabuki Waltz" by Virginia Jacobs. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

This unique seven-foot-high spherical quilt is the work of Virginia Jacobs. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Jacobs studied architecture while in college, a background reflected in this quilt's unusual and stunning design.

'Courthouse steps quilt'

"Courthouse steps quilt" by Gee's Bend quilters Creola Bennett Pettway and Georgianna Bennett Pettway. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

No quilt exhibit would be complete without a piece from the world-famous quilters of Gee's Bend, Alabama. The women in this small town less than two hours away from the state capital of Montgomery, including members of the Pettway family, started quilting in the 19th century. They used fabric scraps to create abstract, nontraditional designs not seen anywhere else. Their art was passed down from slavery to the civil rights movement and beyond, though it wasn't until a profile in The New Yorker magazine about the Freedom Quilting Bee — a quilting cooperative created in the late 1960s to help the women sell their quilts across the U.S. — that the quilters gained recognition.

Since the magazine feature, quilts created by those with the Pettway name have become some of the best known pieces from Gee's Bend. The quilt above was made in the 1950s using only shades of red and white fabric. The traditional courthouse steps pattern is all about precision, but Gee's Bend quilters are known for putting their own spin on quilt patterns.

'#howmanymore'

"#howmanymore" by Sylvia Hernandez. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

Sylvia Hernandez is a Brooklyn-based, self-taught master quilter who has had her work on display all over the globe. Her quilts, including the one pictured above, focus on community and human rights issues. Composed of a ring of AK-47 assault rifles with Armistice-style red poppies that also echo bullet holes, this piece focuses on the ongoing rise in gun violence in the U.S.

'Hoosier suffrage quilt'

The artist of this "Hoosier suffrage quilt" made in 1920 is unknown. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

Several of the exhibit's pieces were made by unknown artists, including the one above. This traditional quilt, which features a flag design with a border of 48 stars, includes the names of 300 individuals. The names noted are believed to belong to supporters of the women's suffrage movement since Susan B. Anthony is written near the top of the quilt.

'Paul family quilt'

"Paul Family Quilt" by Catherine Paul. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

The "Paul Family Quilt" was made between 1835 and 1840 in South Solon, Maine. Unlike most quilts, this one is made from wool. It features scalloped edges with cutouts at its bottom corners to fit a four-poster bed.

'Album quilt'

The artist of this Baltimore album quilt is unknown. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

Baltimore album quilts are complex works of art made with detailed fabrics. This one, which was sewn between 1847 and 1850, is composed of 25 cotton squares embellished with silk embroidery, watercolors and names written in ink.

'Double wedding ring quilt'

The artist of this double wedding ring quilt is unknown. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

Made by an unknown African American artist, this double wedding ring quilt deviates from the traditional design. Standard double wedding ring quilts are usually made with more muted colors. However, this quilt's artist chose to use more brightly colored fabrics when crafting it in 1940.

'Bible quilt'

"Bible quilt" by Harriet Powers. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

Unlike other quilts made in the 1800s, this one is in excellent condition and can be linked to a particular artist. Made by Harriet Powers, who was born into slavery near Athens, Georgia, on Oct. 29, 1837, this quilt was crafted in 1885 when Powers and her husband, Armstead Powers, were landowners.

'Scenes of American Life'

"Scenes of American Life" by Mrs. Cecil White. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

Sewn in 1920, this intricate quilt depicts snapshots of daily life at the time. You see couples and families interacting with one another and people playing sports and games, among other scenes. It also depicts the ethnic and racial stereotypes of the time.

'Crazy quilt'

"Crazy quilt" by Celestine Bacheller. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

Artist Celestine Bacheller's pictorial crazy quilt (a type of quilt without a set pattern or design) was inspired by her childhood in Wyoma, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. She used colorful pieces of silk, plush fabrics and silk yarn to form 12 rectangles that represent houses in her town. The photo above is one of those 12 rectangles.

Bonus: 'It takes a village'

"It takes a village" by Benét J. Wilson. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

I learned about this exhibit from TPG's executive editor, Scott Mayerowitz, who is familiar with my love of quilting. As part of the deal to take the trip to Boston, he challenged me to make my own quilt inspired by what I saw at the Museum of Fine Arts' exhibit.

I love this quilt because I was able to use scraps from all my past quilting projects and pair them with these South African panels of women. Quilting is a vital part of my family history, just like my African American identity. It truly takes a village to learn this art and pass it down to future generations.

"It takes a village" by Benét J. Wilson. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)
"It takes a village" by Benét J. Wilson. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

The history of quilting goes all the way back to 3400 B.C., when the oldest known quilt — which is a quilted mantle worn by a carved ivory figure of an ancient Egyptian king that's currently on display in the British Museum — was made. The most common uses for quilts were for warmth and decoration. After more than 100 years, though, quilts also gained recognition as works of art.

The exhibit "Abstract Design in American Quilts" organized by New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971 tipped the scales for acknowledging quilting as an art form, leading to more and more shows and exhibits popping up throughout the country, including the Museum of Fine Arts' “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories” exhibit. Although the Boston museum's exhibit is no longer on display, there are a number of others you can currently check out:

Featured image by (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • Annual Fee

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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

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  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases