Sunday, November 6, 2016

...death & quilts...

“You just will not understand.
The point is these quilts, these quilts.”
~ Alice Walker, “Everyday Use”

A few months ago while preparing for one of my English courses I stumbled upon the Virginia Quilt Museum Seminar, Mourning and Meaning Through Cloth: A Textile Study, a special two-day conference on death and mourning in America. The brochure promised that I would learn about American rituals of death and grieving as shared through the lens of quilts, mourning dress, and historic textiles. With an already packed October schedule, I thought, “I’m in!” I did not have to look too far to find a partner in crime (read that as I asked Connie from Hartwood Roses).

Prior to the seminar, I knew very little about quilting, quilt history or textiles.  Aside from the topic of death, the speakers advertised caught my attention. They were scholars and historians. Since I am taking a Public History course, I thought that this was like a win-win-win. I was not wrong!

Located in Harrisonburg, VA, the VQM opened in 1995 and is “dedicated to the mission of collection and preservation of Virginia quilts for the benefit of the public” (VQM brochure). In 2000, the VQM was gifted the historic Warren-Sipe House by the Harrisonburg City Council, and that same year it was designated “as the official quilt museum of the Commonwealth” by the Virginia General Assembly. The expert curator of the museum is Gloria Comstock who has an M.A. from the History of Textiles and Quilt Studies program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (VQM website). In a moment, I’m going to go on and on about how incredibly cool she is.

The seminar began with a tour of Woodbine Cemetery, an 18 acre cemetery in Harrisonburg, VA that includes approximately 9,000 individuals with the first burial being in 1850. The VQM prepared a pamphlet “Design on Stone: Symbols of Mourning and Remembrance” for the seminar with “the objective to connect symbols used on tombstones of various eras to quilt patterns and quilting”, noting that “the symbols are often found on both [gravestones and quilts] and reflect the design of the period” (VQM). The pamphlet included a map of the cemetery and was marked with the locations of 23 symbols and important historic figures, and it also noted the location of docents throughout the cemetery.

I should point out that this was a mere week after my train fall and was the first time that I was mobile but there was no way I was going to miss the cemetery. And, I’m sure it’s not that surprising that Connie and I don’t always follow the rules. The docents desperately wanted us to start at the top of the hill but there were too many beautiful gravestones on our way up the hill. We finally did make our way to the top but only after meeting some individuals with amazing stones.

My favorite grave marker in Woodbine belongs to Bettie Miller who passed away on January 9, 1884 when she was 32 years, 7 months, and 6 days old. I like the specificity of such details. 

I feel like once you see a “blue stone” you can never unsee them. Between 1874 and 1912 the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, CT made headstones that were meant to “weather”. Made of sand cast zinc, they called them White Bronze for marketing purposes to make it more appealing to customers. The zinc carbonate gave the headstones a bluish gray color. Each stone is individually designed for the person who ordered it. These monuments were ordered from a sales agent with a catalog, and one could select numerous options that when put together became a one-of-a-kind piece of art. Compared to granite and marble, these headstones were inexpensive. The company mass produced them using molds. And, not that I suggest going around taping on grave markers but once you touch one, you’ll realize that it isn’t stone at all. In fact, they’re hollow. Unfortunately, WWI pretty much put an end to the company when zinc was required for the war efforts. The company just couldn’t recover. It’s a shame because unless they are struck by a fallen tree or some other disaster, White Bronze really stands up to the test of time. You can read the inscription and details without much effort. If the company were around today, I would order one for myself.

I’ve seen some amazing blue stones but I’ve never seen one with an open book like Ms. Miller has.

Following the cemetery tour and lunch (and me hobbling around…oh, and a downpour of rain), the opening lecture was “In Memoriam: Mourning in America” by Craig T. Friend, Ph.D. Dr. Friend’s lecture included a focus on early Colonial American death practices and a discussion of a “good death” along with the sanctity of the corpse. He overviewed the history of burial practices; Death Culture, whereas even young children played with coffin and hearse toys; and, gender norms (e.g. the appropriateness of showing signs of grief by men and women). This led to a focus on the Victorians becoming both “producers and consumers of mourning objects”, the Rural Cemetery Movement, and symbolism on the gravestones. His lecture continued to overview such practices to the paradigm shift of privacy over public displays of mourning.

The second lecture was by Hugo Kohl entitled “Jewelry for Mourning”. Kohl is a jewelry historian, a designer, and the founder of the Museum of American Jewelry Design & Manufacturing in Harrisonburg, VA. Kohl discussed how his museum is a “living history” museum that shares the history of master engravers creating jewelry from the 1790s to the mid-1940s. He shared that each engraver would carve a design into a steel block by hand resulting in what is called a hub. The Museum of American Jewelry Design and Manufacturing houses the largest collection of jewelry hubs in America.

Kohl’s lecture focused on the changes of jewelry associated with death in America and Europe with poesy rings as love tokens and memento mori, a Latin expression for "remember that you must die" coming together to create Victorian mourning jewelry. Kohl brought in examples of mourning jewelry including jet, woven hair in brooches, and a Victorian pamphlet offerings step-by-step instructions for learning how to weave hair. He also discussed how hair weaving was a big mail order industry. Customers would purchase jewelry and include the hair in it themselves, or they would away the hair to have it set in the jewelry. Kohl explained that as the former customers aged their off spring became less interested in purchasing such jewelry.  The industry died out (pun intended) as hygiene was emphasized.

After two engaging lectures, the evening exhibit of the first day included a focus on the “ghosts” of the Warren-Sipe House, which included members from the James Madison University Ghost Hunters Club, quilt historians, and other historians to share information about the house. The VQM created a brochure that included the history of the house; it was once owned by Colonel Edward T. Warren, a law graduate from the University of Virginia and Commander of the 10th Virginia Volunteer Infantry. Warren was killed in the war in 1864. The house later sold to George E. Sipe, another lawyer in Harrisonburg. Upon his death, the house was sold to the City of Harrisonburg and used by the Department of Parks and Recreation until 1995 when VQM occupied the building.

As the brochure notes, there is a resident ghost of the house; “The Warren-Sipe House served as a hospital during the Civil War. Many soldiers came through the doors of the house, and it is said that one patient in particular never left.” Believed to be the late VMI Cadet, Joseph White Latimer was “the youngest battalion commander in the Confederate Army.” Wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg, Latimer was brought to the Warren-Sipe House where he ended up dying of gangrene in 1863. As one of the prominent Civil War dead in Woodbine Cemetery, it seems fitting that Latimer’s ghost would be haunting this building as he has his own Wikipedia page, was featured in the article, "Joseph W. Latimer, The Boy Major, at Gettysburg" in Gettysburg Magazine (1994), and appeared in Douglas S. Freeman’s Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command (1946). In Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, Dickey writes:

Ghost stories and haunted tales connect us to the past, to family and to our ancestors. The ghost stories of the South, particularly those that reach back to the antebellum era, establish a through line in a property or a place, give our surroundings a depth and a richness that go beyond the present moment. As supernatural beings, spirits often come to represent some universal truth of the past. They turn space into time and can be a way of making a place stand for some transcendental value or universal ideal. (109)

Reports in the brochure reveal that Latimer “has been sighted standing on the landing in the upstairs hall fully dressed in his Confederate uniform” and that he “has never caused any trouble for staff or visitors, except quite a scare every now and then.” The message on the website Haunted Houses explains, “No reports of mischief have been reported [regarding Latimer’s ghost], as he was a serious, responsible young man when alive” attempting to reiterate the message that this was a local hero who died for the South and who simply wants to return home, an opportunity that many of the soldiers from the Civil War never experienced. Friend and Glover argue in Death and the American South that death found a “place in the South’s cultural tourism industry” (13). Further, they note, “Death’s association with southern memory, history, and identity has thus become an important component of the region’s heritage tourism, blending the past with the present” (13). The VQM’s About page on their website highlights Latimer’s story and shares, “Stonewall Jackson's ‘Boy Major’, Joseph W. Latimer, died at the Warren-Sipe House in 1863 from an infected wound suffered at the Battle of Gettysburg.” Latimer’s story along with the ghost story from the brochure appears to capitalize on Latimer’s connection to the house in order to attract visitors.   

For many of those attending the seminar, “Ghosts of the Warren-Sipe House Quilt Turning” led by curator Gloria Comstock was the more popular event of the evening.

Having never attended a “quilt turning” I honestly believed that it was going to be a demonstration on how to fold quilts. I did not realize how profound such an event could be. The quilt turning included nearly a dozen quilts laid out on top of one another. The turning included the curator, expert audience participation, and docents in white gloves carefully coordinating the folding down of each historic quilt, some of which were over 150 years old. As Comstock explained, understanding quilts meant that we needed to do so within the context of the social values of a particular time and place, as well as through the development of certain technology. Comstock read from documented oral histories that were associated with the quilts. In some cases, she conducted these oral histories herself interviewing family members to document the first-hand accounts.

The audience members, many of whom were experts in quilt histories, identified the years of certain fabrics, patterns, threads, and regional color preferences to date each aspect of the quilt. It would be more correct to give a timeline of several dates for each quilt since the experts could determine when a quilt was started and when the original quilters’ ancestors passed it down to the next generations to continue. They were able to determine how the quilt had been stored based on the fading of fabrics. Being interested in semiotics, Judy Elsley’s explanation in Quilts as Text(iles): The Semiotics of Quilting (Studies in Modern European History)about the similarities between quilt studies and semiotics resonates. She writes, “A quilt is a text. It speaks its maker's desires and beliefs, hopes and fears, sometimes in a language any reader can understand, but often in an obscure language available only to the initiated.” While the lectures, cemetery visit, and jewelry museum visit were fascinating, the quilt turning was easily my favorite event. It was an honor to watch experts demonstrate their working knowledge. They read the quilts; they debated with one another; they acquiesced and even yielded to one another’s expertise. 
If the quilt turning had been the only portion of the seminar that I had attended, I still would have considered the event a success. It directly connected with Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” and offered a wonderful glimpse into public history in practice. It also connected to the affective aspect of learning as I was able to see beauty in many of these old quilts where I had previously not been able to.
The second day of the seminar, which I will discuss in more detail in a later post, included a lecture by Karin J. Bohleke, Director of the Fashion Archives & Museum of Shippensburg University, PA, an avid seamstress, embroiderer, and lace-maker. There was a lecture by Sheryl DeJong a representative from the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of American History Textile Collection. She writes and lectures about school girl needlework. And finally, the seminar keynote speaker was Polly Mello, a quiltmaker-historian, collector, independent scholar and curator. She shared her antique and contemporary quilts from her collection, “Midnight in the Garden of the Quilt.”

Works Cited
Comstock, Gloria. "Ghosts of the Warren-Sipe House Quilt Turning." Mourning and Meaning Through Cloth: A Textile Study. Virginia Quilt Museum, Harrisonburg. 21 Oct. 2016. Lecture.
DeJong, Sheryl. "Memorial Pictures & Samplers." Mourning and Meaning Through Cloth: A Textile Study. Virginia Quilt Museum, Harrisonburg. 22 Oct. 2016. Lecture.
Dickey, Colin. Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. New York: Viking, 2016. Print.
Didawick, Lauren, comp. The Virginia Quilt Museum Presents Conversatons on Midnight in the Garden of the Quilt Exhibition. Harrisonburg: Virginia Quilt Museum, 2016. Print.
Elsley, Judy. Quilts as Text(iles): The Semiotics of Quilting (Studies in Modern European History). Peter Lang Gmbh, Internationaler Verlag Der Wissenschaften, 1996. Print.
Freeman, Douglas S., Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command (3 volumes), Scribners, 1946, Print.
Friend, Craig T. "In Memoriam: Mourning in America." Mourning and Meaning Through Cloth: A Textile Study. Virginia Quilt Museum, Harrisonburg. 21 Oct. 2016. Lecture.
Friend, Craigh Thompson, and Lorri Glover. "Introduction: Death and the American South." Death and the American South. New York: Cambridge UP, 2015. 1-14. Print.
Hugo Kohl brochure. Harrisonburg: Hugo Kohl, 2016. Print.
Jorgensen, Jay, "Joseph W. Latimer, The Boy Major, at Gettysburg" in Gettysburg Magazine, Morningside. January 1994, pp. 28–35. Print.
Kohl, Hugo. "Jewelry for Mourning." Mourning and Meaning Through Cloth: A Textile Study. Virginia Quilt Museum, Harrisonburg. 21 Oct. 2016. Lecture.
Mello, Polly. "Exhibit Gallery Walk." Mourning and Meaning Through Cloth: A Textile Study. Virginia Quilt Museum, Harrisonburg. 22 Oct. 2016. Lecture.
Mello, Polly. "Quilts that Go Bump in the Night." Mourning and Meaning Through Cloth: A Textile Study. Virginia Quilt Museum, Harrisonburg. 21 Oct. 2016. Tour.
"Virginia Quilt Museum: Celebrating and Nurturing Virginia's Quilting Heritage." The Virginia Quilt Museum. The Virginia Quilt Museum, n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2016.
Virginia Quilt Museum. Design on Stone: Symbols of Mourning and Remembrance.... Woodbine Cemetery. Harrisonburg: Virginia Quilt Museum, n.d. Print.
Virginia Quilt Museum. History of the Warren-Sipe House. Harrisonburg: Virginia Quilt Museum, 2016. Print.
Virginia Quilt Museum brochure. Harrisonburg: Virginia Quilt Museum, 2016. Print.
"Warren Sipe House" Haunted Houses. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2016.


  1. I am still completely in awe of how amazing this seminar was!! We met so many wonderful people! Your retelling of Day One brought it all back. It was lots and LOTS of fun, and sharing it with you made it even better! You're a perfectly matched hotel roommate and I look forward to another adventure soon ... very soon.

    1. Right back at ya, friend.

      I do so love telling folks that we met in the way that many folks caution not to-- in the blogosphere and through/at/because of a cemetery!

      I think this was one of our coolest adventures yet; and, I'm glad it showed us that we can share a hotel. That is terribly important when it comes to travel :)

  2. It sounds really interesting, since I love sewing I've developed an interesting in the history of fabrics and fashion its such a diverse topic.I remember when in I was in the States I wanted to purchase a Amish quilt but never knew their how expensive they were.Few years ago, I went to the V&A to see exhibition on quilts their work was breath taking and really interesting topic.

    I love reading this post, history, death, mourning, fabric, jewellery, clothing and quliting all a girl could want.

    1. I cannot even imagine what some of these quilts would cost.

      I know, right! It was one of the coolest seminars ever!!! Just wait until I show some of the photographed quilts in my future post. They were amazing!

  3. I love this blog. I never knew any of the things you talked about.

    1. Aww, thanks Rhonda. I love learning and am glad I can share what I've discovered.