An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Aunt Narcissa's Quilt [ca 1880]

"Aunt Narcissus Benson's quilt. She gave Mrs. H. R. Black."

Mary Snoddy received a quilt from Narcissa Benson, an unmarried aunt who was fifty years old in 1880 and living in nearby Wellford. This gift was not named in Narcissa's will, so it may have been presented before the maker's death in 1881.

Laurel Horton, Aunt Narcissa's Quilt, circa 1880.

History: The Parlor

Mid-nineteenth-century homes included a formal parlor, sometimes described by social historians as a "sacred" space, where weddings, funerals, and other public events were held. In addition, larger houses, such as the one built by Samuel Snoddy before his marriage, would also include some sort of sitting room intended for the family's private use. Material culture researchers frequently refer to county probate records, which not only inventoried and appraised household furnishings, but occasionally indicated the location of items within the house. The late-nineteenth-century inventory of the estate of Harriet Evins of Spartanburg County is particularly detailed, and the parlor and sitting room furnishings demonstrate the difference in the traditional functions of these rooms. The furniture in the parlor included a square rosewood piano, a "mahogany stand for bric-a-brac," a marble-topped mahogany table, two large upholstered rosewood sofas, two large chairs and five smaller chairs covered in the same material, and unspecified bric-a-brac. In contrast, the furniture in the sitting room included, among other items, a walnut writing table, two bookcases with glass doors, one lot of about a hundred books "including cyclopedias and books of influence," one mahogany upholstered sofa, three wooden rocking chairs, and a sewing machine. The furnishings and their placement in this house was typical for the nineteenth century. The parlor furniture was made of richer materials and included the piano for entertaining guests. The cozier sitting room was used by the family for reading and sewing.

Compared with the Evins estate, the household inventory of Mary's maternal grandparents is much less detailed, but nonetheless revealing. When Silas Benson died in 1875, the officials conducting the inventory chose to provide a single appraisal figure for the content/s of each of the nine rooms rather than itemizing the individual objects. They evaluated the "sewing machine and other furniture in sitting room" at $125, the highest total for any room. The "furniture in parlor" was the next highest, at $70; the "content/s in kitchen," $60; and three bedrooms at $50.00 each. The parlor may have been the most elegantly furnished and formal room in the house, but the presence of the sewing machine ballooned the value of the sitting room's content/s.

A family would gather in the sitting room in the evening, drawing close together to share the light of an oil or kerosene lamp. Reading was a popular activity, but instead of reading individually and silently, the family was likely to listen to someone reading aloud. Typically, the man of the house would read aloud, while women engaged in some form of sewing or handwork. If no men were present, the women would take turns reading. Hand sewing was a quiet, communal activity. The use of a sewing machine during these evening gatherings would probably have been seen as disruptive in more traditional households. Women may have been more likely to use sewing machines during the day and to save hand sewing for evenings.

Women made frequent visits with relatives, sometimes for several days at a time, and they carried handwork in order to keep their hands occupied during these visits. In southern rural communities, women's friendships were largely influenced by kinship networks. One's closest neighbors were likely to include relatives and in-laws of various degrees. Mary and Nannie would have had frequent contact with their Benson and Snoddy relatives living in the area, and they probably pieced quilts, embroidered, crocheted, or knitted while visiting family and friends.

Construction:

Unlike the other family quilts from this era which are made of repeated blocks, Narcissa's quilt was constructed in long strips of triangles, forming a zig-zag design. She used only two different fabrics —a solid dark red (similar to the red in Mary's Tulip) and a delicate print of five-pointed stars in red and brown superimposed over a pale-yellow grid printed on white. The stark contrast of the two fabrics and the large scale of the triangles results in a very bold quilt, perhaps not a style typically associated with a middle-aged, unmarried woman of the Victorian era. Like the quilts made by Rosa and her daughters, Narcissa's quilt was pieced by hand. She quilted it in parallel rows of stitches, following the angles of the zig-zag to form a "wave" design. She matched the color of the quilting thread to the fabric color, red thread on the red, and white thread on the light print.

Narcissa clearly had sufficient fabric to complete her quilt top without substitutions, but she exercised economy on the back where it was less visible. The backing fabric, a brown-and-yellow stripe, appears to have been reused from an earlier use. She sewed together three lengths of the twenty-five-inch-wide fabric, but that apparently proved insufficient. Along one long edge, a number of short pieces are joined to augment the width, and one of these has a small irregular patch, suggesting mending of some previous damage. The backing was still too short, as there are additional long narrow strips pieced in on both shorter ends. Narcissa chose new materials for the visible front of the quilt and recycled fabric for the generally unseen back. The juxtaposition of public and private faces in the quilt invokes the distinction between the formal parlor and the more humble sitting room of the Victorian home.

Published: 19 May 2006

© 2006 Laurel Horton and Southern Spaces