1858 - ink inscribed by maker in center block "Ester B. Matthews at age 82"
96.5" x 96.5"
The quilt, made by Esther B. Matthews in 1858, is set in the popular mid-19th century “album” style using 25 blocks in grid layout without a border. Two outer rows of blocks on either side face toward the center indicating how the quilt would be draped on a bed.
The floral motifs chosen by Esther Matthews were her interpretations of common flowers which could have been found in any Shenandoah Valley garden during the time period. Ink script identifies each flower’s name. Old fashioned names such as “Blue Flags” were used, but the flowers are still familiar today. Esther’s vases with bouquets may have been influenced by local pottery designs.
Made with cotton batting and fabrics, the quiltmaker used mostly American-made cotton prints. Some of the fabrics she used date from circa 1830s and ‘40s. Other quilts known to have been made in Esther’s neighborhood have a few of the same fabrics, indicating that she may have purchased some of her fabrics locally.
The unique center block features two rainbows, one with a sun, and the other with a crescent moon and stars. Esther Matthews, a devout Methodist, may have intended the rainbows as a religious reference of “promise” or hope in the dark days she suspected would come.
In a block adjoining the rainbows was Esther’s political statement. Labeled “Tree of Liberty & United States,” the block’s motif is similar to the Liberty Tree symbol popular during the Revolutionary War. Esther placed 35 fabric circles on the tree limbs. (In 1859 there were only 33 states in the US.) Although women could not vote in 1858, Esther’s sentiments about the forthcoming conflict were clear.
A mystery about the quilt is why her grandson’s name is quilted next to the rainbow block. In block letters the name “A.B. Martz” and the date “1859” are still visible in the echo stitching. Addison Blair Martz was Esther’s favorite grandson. It is probably Addison’s writing on the quilt. As a Confederate soldier he died in 1863 from wounds suffered at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
The quilt apparently was never used, and was inherited by Martz descendants. In 2006 Esther Matthews’ great great granddaughter Frances Eakins donated the family heirloom to the Virginia Quilt Museum. Mrs. Eakins lived in North Carolina and wanted the quilt returned to the Valley. Frances Eakins passed away in 2014.
From 2012-2015 the quilt was part of the exhibit HOMEFRONT & BATTLEFIELD: Quilts & Context in the Civil War. The exhibit was sponsored by the American Textile History Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate. As part of this enormously popular exhibit commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the quilt toured four Northern states in the U.S. telling its story of Southern sentiment to more than 95,000 people.
From A SHENANDOAH VALLEY PATRIOT’S BOTANICAL QUILT,
by Neva Hart 2015, courtesy of the author.
Copyright, the Virginia Quilt Museum, used with permission.