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

Whole Cloth Chintz Wedding Quilt [ca 1850]

 

"Quilt given to Rosa Benson Snoddy by her mother & father when she married Col. Sam Snoddy. For Mary Kate Black."

Whole-cloth chintz quilt, probably made by Nancy Miller Benson, ca. 1850, 96 X 85 inches. Cotton fabrics, moderately thick cotton batting, backed with plain white sheeting. Quilted by hand in diagonal crosshatch. Bound by turning backing to front.

Laurel Horton, Whole Cloth Chintz Wedding Quilt, circa 1850

History:

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Carolina backcountry had been transformed from a sparsely populated region to an upcountry filled with established farms. The earliest quilts in the collection of Mary Snoddy Black date from this period; she inherited these from her mother's family, the Bensons.

On October 5, 1853, Samuel Miller Snoddy, age thirty-seven, a farmer and major in the local militia married Rosa Miller Benson, age twenty-seven. Rosa came from a locally prominent family in the same community. Her grandfather, Robert Benson, migrated to Greenville County, South Carolina, from Fauquier County, Virginia, sometime before 1800. A Baptist minister, he married a Miss Stringfellow, and they had eight children. Their son Silas was born in 1800. In 1825 Silas married Nancy Miller and they moved to Spartanburg District where Silas was a machinist and millwright. He set up a flour mill, sawmill, and a wool-carding mill in the North Tyger River area. Rosa was the oldest of the eleven children of Silas and Nancy.

The quilt that Silas and Nancy Benson gave their daughter was a whole-cloth quilt of printed chintz — that is, the quilt was made from lengths of fabric featuring a factory-printed design of large floral wreaths. As a wedding gift, this quilt was symbolic rather than practical. Rosa's new husband could certainly afford to provide the household goods the couple needed. In many communities, however, it was traditional for the bride's family to supply the couple with household textiles, including both fine and utilitarian bed coverings, sheets, tablecloths, and towels.

The type of quilt selected by the Bensons to give to Rosa and Samuel represents their values and aspirations as upcountry gentry. The fabric is a roller-printed chintz, which in this period referred to cotton fabrics printed in floral designs with several colors and finished with a glazed surface. The particular fabric in this quilt has been identified as typical of the chintzes produced in England in the 1840s, which "show an impressionistic shading of flowers achieved with a limited number of colors and characteristic dotted backgrounds in black or blue." More expensive than everyday fabrics, the choice of an imported chintz for a wedding quilt made a statement about the family's social status.

The Bensons could have purchased the chintz locally but it is quite possible that they demonstrated the importance of their eldest daughter's marriage by making a shopping excursion to Charleston to buy special items such as fabric for a wedding quilt. According to family oral tradition, Samuel Snoddy also made such a trip around the time of the marriage. He reportedly purchased a magnolia tree seedling as a gift for his bride and planted it next to their house. A century and a half later, the house is gone, but the tree remains.

The choice of fabric for their daughter's quilt reveals the Bensons' awareness of the popularity of printed chintz fabrics for quiltmaking in Charleston during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By the 1850s, however, chintzes had been gradually supplanted by smaller-figured printed fabrics for both clothing and quilts. The use of chintz in a quilt in 1853 may indicate a lag between the changing fashions of the city and those of upcountry settlements. Still, the type of fabric selected, the cost, and the substantial lengths of uncut yardage needed for a whole-cloth quilt express a desire for a quilt that would stand out from the ordinary.

Construction:

Although the chintz fabric in the Bensons' quilt connects it with Charleston fashions, the style of the quilt is quite different. Rather than cutting out the individual floral wreath motifs and appliquéing them onto a plain background, the maker simply sewed the lengths of cloth together to make a whole-cloth top. The construction technique links this quilt to the whole-cloth quilts and comforts characteristic of the backcountry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The resulting quilt combines the elegance of imported chintz fabric with the traditional construction style of the local area. It contains elements of both traditions but is typical of neither. Other whole-cloth chintz quilts survive from this era, but they are rare.

The quilt is filled with a moderately thick cotton batting, in contrast with the thinly padded chintz appliqué quilts of the lowcountry during the same era. For the backing, the maker chose a fine, plain cotton sheeting, the product of a factory rather than of home manufacture. She quilted the three layers in a simple, overall diagonal crosshatch. The chalk-like material she used to mark the quilting lines remains visible, an indication that the quilt has never been washed.

The information handed down by Mary Black is not specific about who made this chintz quilt; it is probable that Rosa's mother made it, alone or with help from family members or household slaves. The simple crosshatch quilting design could have been accomplished in a relatively short time, suggesting that Nancy Miller Benson chose not to take this as an opportunity to display fine handwork. She may have only had a short time to complete the quilting, or perhaps she was busy with the care of her own small children in addition to the wedding preparations. The printed chintz fabric represents a departure from the more familiar plain white whole-cloth quilts with carefully crafted designs. The maker may have had no models to suggest how it should be quilted and consequently chose to finish it more in the manner of a comfort, with thick batting and simple stitching.

The quilt presented to Rosa by her parents shows a high degree of concern for fine materials and a lack of interest in exhibiting needlework skills. In keeping with its status as a material record of their daughter's rite of passage, the quilt has been handed down with little evidence that it was ever used as a bedcover.

Published: 19 May 2006

© 2006 Laurel Horton and Southern Spaces