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Adeline Harris and His Signature Quilt

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by Sara Palestra

Adeline Harris: biographical outline

As with so many other American quilters active in the 18th and 19th centuries, information does not abound on Adeline Harris (1839-1931), but in her case it gives a sufficiently clear picture of her life and art. Much of it comes from Harris’s own diaries and the accounts of family members and descendants 〈1〉.

Born April 7, 1839, in Arcadia, Washington County, Rhode Island, Adeline Harris was the third and last born to James Toleration Harris (1806-1895) and Sophia Amelia Knight (1812-1887). George Harris (1833-1875) and Eleanor Celynda Harris (1835-1897) were the elder brother and sister. Thanks to the father, a textile industrialist, the family enjoyed an affluent economic status, and Adeline’s education took place mainly at home, with private teachers. But her studies also included a few months of private schooling and three years of boarding school, including two at East Greenwich Academy, a prestigious Methodist institution in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, and one at a school for girls in New London, Connecticut. Compared to most of her peers, Adeline was able to pursue a thorough education, and in her memoir her great-granddaughter Amey Howarth Mackinney remembers her as a brilliant student 〈2〉.

In 1866, Adeline married Lorenzo Sears (1838-1916), an Episcopalian priest. Her decision to marry not an entrepreneur and businessman (like her father) but a member of the most educated segment of society, the clergy, confirmed Adeline’s belief that cultural and spiritual values now took precedence. Her husband had a prestigious career. A graduate of Yale, he was a professor of rhetoric and literature at the University of Vermont (1885-88) and at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island (1890-1903), before devoting himself exclusively to literature studies.

Adeline Harris in a photo from the time she began work on her Signature Quilt (courtesy Amey Howart Mackinney, from Peck 1988, p. 263). The grave of Adeline Harris and Lorenzo Sears at Swan Lake Cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island (photo credits Gail/StorybehindtheStones).

Gratified by the fame achieved thanks to the most important of the quilts she made, the Autograph Quilt which we will discuss in a moment, Harris spent a long and quiet life. She had four children of whom only one, Sophie Harris Sears (1872-1949) reached adulthood. He lived until his death on May 10, 1931, in Providence, in the residential neighborhood near the Brown University campus.

Signature Quilts

In the Anglo-American tradition, Signature Quilts are those bearing the autograph signatures (in which case one can also speak of Autograph Quilts) or embroidered or stamped signatures, of several people 〈3〉. Although older examples exist, they were particularly in vogue in the 19th century, as a means of organising fundraisers or as a memorials dedicated to families who decided to leave their places of origin to emigrate to the west of the country, building a new life for themselves in the frontier territories. Commemorating historical and community events, or listing affiliations to organisations and groups of various kinds, were other possible incentives for their creation. A valuable resource for genealogical research, Signature Quilts rarely include signatures of famous people, and Adeline Harris’s falls into this narrow category.

Harris began designing a large quilt, with characteristics that were anomalous to the predominantly utilitarian tradition of quilting, as early as the second half of the 1950s, when she was still engaged in her studies. The resulting image of Harris is that of an educated yet creative woman, consciously rooted in the romantic culture of the time, with the mystical and transcendentalist overtones typical of American culture.

At the time, the practice of collecting autographs was very much in vogue, especially for its spiritual and cognitive implications. It was widely believed that an individual’s signature revealed the salient aspects of his or her personality, and that those who possessed the autograph could better discover and emulate its most outstanding features. By 1835, the women’s magazine “Godey’s Lady’s Book” had begun publishing pages reproducing the signatures of distinguished American citizens and offering them for public admiration. By the 1850s, collecting signatures had become so popular that newspapers published articles illustrating the magical significance of the exchange of autographs and the act of autographing itself as implying feelings of respect and esteem. Autograph collectors gathered regularly to comment on and exchange the pieces in their possession. They carved out a precise community space, which equated them with an intellectual elite.

Adeline Harris, Autograph Quilt, third quarter 19th century, silk, cm. 203.2 x 195.6, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo credits MMA).

For the collection of autographs intended for her quilt, Adeline addressed the interested parties directly by letter outlining the project. The envelope contained a piece of cloth which, once signed and returned to Mrs Harris, would be sewn into the quilt. Although mailing was the prevalent method, it is presumable that Adeline knew some of the illustrious individuals selected for her project personally. Before the start of the Civil War (1861-65), the entire Harris family had stayed in Washington D.C., where James Toleration Harris had a close network of civil servant relationships. It was through these relationships that Adeline was able to personally approach President Lincoln and, as we read in the family memoirs handed down by her great-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» 〈4〉.

Admiration for Lincoln explains Adeline’s propensity to collect autographs of people belonging to the same political camp as the President. Many senators, congressmen and governors included in the quilt were militant in the newly formed Republican Party, while others, albeit from moderate positions, were opposed to the secession of the southern states, which sparked the Civil War.

Description and history

Adeline began her most important work in 1856, when, at the age of seventeen, she began sending letters to personalities for whom she had particular admiration, with a request to autograph the piece of silk contained in the envelope. Once returned, the signed pieces of fabric were sewn by hand, one by one, according to the compositional criterion known as tumbling blocks. This pattern, also known as cubework, consists of diamond (i.e. rhombus) and triangle-shaped cutouts. The use of colored silks, the black background, and the way the various parts are strategically assembled result in a trompe l’oeil with the three-dimensional effect, known since Greco-Roman antiquity as a floor mosaic, of a succession of cubes of which three faces are visible 〈5〉.

Each block composed of three rhomboid-shaped pieces of fabric includes one of white, self-printed silk, forming the upper face of the cube, and two of coloured or decorated fabric corresponding to the side faces. The empty spaces between one block and the other are made up of triangular-shaped cutouts of black silk. The quilt consists of three hundred and sixty staggered blocks, equivalent to thirty-six horizontal rows and twenty vertical columns.

Adeline Harris, Autograph Quilt, detail with, in the center, the signatures of Abraham Lincoln and his successor Andrew Johnson (photo credits MMA).

Examination of the seams in the upper part of the work has made it possible to reconstruct their exact sequence, as Harris executed it. First, mending the diamond-shaped pieces to create a cube, then joining the cubes into columns, and finally stitching the columns to each other across the width of the quilt. In total, Adeline cut and sewed about one thousand eight hundred and forty pieces of silk. It is believed that the silk used was mostly European imports, but American-made silk, especially monochrome silk, may also have been used. The quilt incorporates the different pieces of fabric in an apparently random manner. Often the artist incorporated the same fabrics in several blocks, but never repeated exactly the same combination of fabrics: a methodical distribution therefore, designed for a harmonious effect. Traditionally, quilts were produced using scraps and remnants of previous sewing projects, or by obtaining fabrics from garments no longer in use. Some of the fabrics in Harris’s work are probably taken from parts of dresses or hats, as can be seen by the presence of stains and signs of wear.

The brilliant quilt shades are still in excellent condition today, given the natural origin of the dyes used in the fabrics. Vivid pinks, reds and indigo blues are among the most recurring hues, to which should be added other combinations of dyes tuned to purple, yellow, green, brown and black. Pinks, being very sensitive to light, have suffered fading over time, but this has not resulted in significant alterations.

Fine-tuning her composition program, Adeline decided to group the names of the characters according to their professions. It was then possible to draw up a diagram visualizing the distribution of signatures in the different parts of the quilt. These, in brief, are the different types of personalities: politicians and writers constitute the most numerous groups, but there is no shortage of soldiers, scientists, clergymen, educators, historians and biographers, judges and lawyers, as well as some unidentified personalities.

Adeline worked on his project for a long time, collecting autographs until 1863, although the most recent signature dates to 1867. However, as inferred from the placement of the signatures of Vice Presidents Schuyler Colfax and Henry Wilson, it is most likely that the work was not completed until 1870. Although dated to the late 1850s, the autographs of the two politicians were in fact sewn under that of the 18th President, Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877), so that they could be remembered for the most important office they held. It is inferred that Adeline continued to work on the quilt, several years after coming into possession of all the signatures.

Adeline Harris, Autograph Quilt, detail of the reverse side with Abraham Lincoln’s signature (photo credits MMA).

An important public recognition came in 1864, when writer and journalist Sarah Hale, whom Adeline had asked for her autograph to include in her quilt, dedicated words of praise to her in “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” the magazine she edited from 1837 to 1877. Hale returned to the subject four years later, in her book Manners; or, Happy Homes and Good Society, not hesitating to compare Harris’s quilt to the most important tapestry of medieval France:

«Who knows but that, in future ages, hes 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 also giving a notion of the persons as estimated in history?» 〈6〉.

Autograph signatures

As mentioned above, the quilt has three hundred and sixty signatures of the personalities most esteemed by Adeline Harris: a wide selection of the most distinguished figures of the 19th century, and not only in the United States, divided by cultural and professional profile 7. The space between the first and ninth columns houses mainly autographs of politicians, which are in turn divided into subcategories: the second and third columns include career military men, such as John Charles Frémont and Ambrose Burnside; the seventh houses eight presidents and two U.S. vice presidents. The most prominent name is surely that of Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th president.

The literary figures add up to the largest number, and for this reason they are divided into more specific sections. First there is the distinction by gender, which places female personalities in the middle section of each line, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth. These include Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), a seminal anti-slavery novel, and Julia Ward Howe, author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic (1861), a patriotic song still popular today. But there are also authors such as Ann Sophia Stephens, Caroline Gilman and Lydia Sigourney, who, famous at the time Harris was making her quilt, have only been reevaluated in relatively recent years.

Diagram of the distribution of autographs by profession (from Peck 1988, p. 268).

Male authors rank between the ninth and twentieth columns, while the eleventh belongs to the most prominent American writers of the time: among others Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. European authors such as Jacob Grimm, Alexandre Dumas, William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens stand out in the twelfth and thirteenth lines. Not infrequently, authors united by the same literary genre – poets, novelists, humorists, publishers, historians, travel writers – are found near each other.

The tenth column includes the names of the most important people in science; among them, the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel Morse.

In the arts, American artists such as painters Rembrandt Peale and Lilly Martin Spencer, and sculptor Hiram Powers stand out in the thirteenth column.

A further, substantial grouping of autographs consists of Protestant clergymen: Episcopal bishops from numerous states of the federation, as well as Unitarian, Presbyterian, Universalist, Congregationalist, and Baptist clergymen. Prominent among them are names like Henry Ward Beecher, minister of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, who was strongly hostile to the institution of slavery. The inclusion of such figures makes even more explicit the not only faith but also social-political orientations of Adeline and her family.

The last column of the quilt is dedicated to a number of teachers, including several professors at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as at Yale, the university attended by Lorenzo Sears, Adeline’s future spouse. From the date 1859 paired with one of the signatures, we infer that Adeline knew Sears (graduated in 1861) several years before her marriage in 1866. Evidently Adeline asked Lorenzo to list for her the names of some of the professors dearest to him, such as Latin teacher Thomas Thatcher, Sanskrit teacher William Dwight Whitney and Greek teacher James Hadley.

Adeline Harris, Autograph Quilt, detail with, among others, the autographs of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Samuel Morse (photo credits MMA).

Numerous autographs were accompanied by dedications and mottos intended for Adeline. The most curious of these compositions is the quatrain which, jokingly alluding to the quilt’s function as a bed quilt and the quantity of names that dotted it, reads:

«Miss Addie pray excuse
My disobliging Muse,
She Contemplates with dread
So many in a Bed» 〈8〉.

The text, located in the quilt’s lower right-hand corner, had most likely long remained hidden, given its playfully bold nature, a likely cause for embarrassment in the austere Protestant context of New England. It was Metropolitan Museum specialists, examining the quilt that had recently entered the collection, who discovered a series of tiny holes due to the stitching, later removed, of an additional patch of cloth intended to cover those very verses.

Posthumous events

Once finished, the quilt did not leave the family context and, given its excellent condition to this day, it is to be ruled out that it was ever used as a blanket or with any other merely practical purpose. Embodying Adeline’s intelligence and perseverance, it became an heirloom passed down from generation to generation. Adeline left the quilt to her daughter Sophie, a philanthropist and manager of the Providence Animal Rescue League animal shelter. Sophie had no children from her marriage to George Howarth, but adopted the two daughters he had from a previous marriage. The quilt passed to the two girls, Amey Howarth Mackinney and Constance Howarth Kuhl, who in turn left it to their children. It was physically in the possession of Amey Howarth Mackinney, but co-owned with Harris’s other great-grandchildren, when in 1995 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired it 〈9〉. The work had a series of small rings sewn into the top, suggesting that it had once been hung upright, like a tapestry.

Adeline’s Autograph Quilt is not only a vivid historical and artistic record of the second half of the 19th century, it has continued to offer valuable insights in later ages. Recently, for example, it was chosen as the opening piece for In America, a Lexicon of Fashion, the exhibition that served as the backdrop for the 2021 edition of the Met Gala, an annual fundraising ceremony held to benefit the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 〈10〉. In fact, it is now an emblem of women’s contribution to the civilization and culture of the United States, and of the need to reaffirm women’s role and prerogatives, against all attempts at misrecognition.

Finally, like all Signature Quilts, but with a grandeur and intentionality that transcends mere technical-execution mode, Adeline Harris’s anticipates one of the most recurring aspects of contemporary art. And that is the relational, interpersonal dimension that presides over the creation of the work. A work that is realized through the involvement of an audience of people thought of not as spectators but as co-authors, a party to a process that can be modulated in space and time.

1〉 For a profile of Adeline Harris, as gleaned from coeval documents and the memoir drafted in the 1960s by her great-granddaughter Amey Howarth Mackinney, see A. Peck, "A Marvel of Woman's Ingenious and Intellectual Industry: The Adeline Harris Sears Autograph Quilt, "Metropolitan Museum Journal," v. 33, 1988, pp. 263-290.

〈2〉 See A. Peck, op. cit., p. 265.

〈3〉 An interesting case of Signature Quilt from England: R. Walsh, The Signature Quilt, "Goldsmiths Research Online," 2005.

〈4〉 From the memoir of Amey Howarth Mackinney, quoted in A. Peck, op. cit., p. 267.

〈5〉 On the technical aspects of the Harris' quilt, in addition to A. Peck, op. cit., see E. Phipps, Technical Report on the Adeline Harris Sears Autograph Quilt, "Metropolitan Museum Journal," v. 33, 1988, pp. 291-295.

〈6〉 S. Hale, Manners; or, Happy Homes and Good Society All the Year Round, J.E. Tilton & Company, Boston 1868, p. 194.

〈7〉 For the complete inventory and index of signatures and inscriptions: A. Peck, op. cit.

〈8〉 Quoted in A. Peck, op. cit., p. 290. Peck dubiously attributes the quatrain to the journalist and poet Nathaniel Parker Willis, whose signature appears in the eighteenth of the twenty columns making up the quilt.

〈9〉 See Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 1995–1996, "The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin", v. 54, no. 2, 1996, p. 50.

〈10〉 See A. Bolton, A. Garfinkel (eds.), In America: a Lexicon of Fashion, exhibition catalogue, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2022.

Homepage; Adeline Harris, Autograph Quilt (detail), third quarter 19th century, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo © MMA). 
Below; Adeline Harris' quilt displayed in the exhibition "In America, a Lexicon of Fashion," New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sept. 18, 2021-Sept. 15, 2022 (photo credits MMA).

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