Brought to the Americas by European colonists, quilts ranged from high quality textiles to fairly simple utilitarian items. Due to scarcity of supplies, including imported textiles, Europeans created quilts for function rather than beauty. Patchwork quilts—one of the earliest styles—rose out of necessity. As fabrics such as clothing, tablecloths and blankets wore out, quilters, primarily women, could recycle the textiles into quilts.
As quilting became more popular and resources became more readily available, quilts began to hold a new significance. Quilting, a time-consuming task, blossomed as a form of art – quilts were made to tell stories and provide a window into the life of their creators. Quilts were often passed down from generation to generation, as their personal meanings held significance to their family.
Some quilts’ significance went beyond the nuclear family and held meaning to large groups of people. “Signature quilts,” also known as friendship quilts, were sewn in collaboration by several members of a community, who would often sign their name on the quilt. These quilts could signify broader concepts such as love and solidarity or reference more specific events important to the community. Signature quilts were popular in New England during the westward expansion movement of the 1840s and 1850s. The Westport Museum’s “Scribner Friendship Quilt” was made in October 1850 and signed by 49 people from various prominent Westport families. The quilt was then presented to the Scribner family as a keepsake when they moved out to Wisconsin in 1851.
Quilts also held significance among enslaved communities where women would craft quilts using whatever materials were on hand. In recent history, a theory has been posed that some quilts were sewn with certain designs and symbols that held secret meanings to aid enslaved people fleeing North via the Underground Railroad. Claims have been made that the symbols on these quilts served as maps as well as to a series of safe houses where enslaved people could rest, gain sustenance and receive medical care during the journey. While there is indication that at least some secret messages were embedded into quilt patterns, the debate amongst historians surrounding the extent and impact of secret designs in Underground Railroad quilts continues today.