17-Year-Old Adeline Harris Created a Quilt Collecting 360 Signatures of the Most Famous People of the 19th Century: Lincoln, Dickens, Emerson & More (1863)

These days, any­one can reach out to hun­dreds of celebri­ties, artists, writ­ers, major heads of state, etc., on social media (or to the interns and assis­tants who run their accounts). Instan­ta­neous con­nec­tion also means hun­dreds of near-instan­ta­neous com­ments in near-real time. It can occa­sion­al­ly mean near-instan­ta­neous influ­encer fame. For 17-year-old Ade­line Har­ris, it would take sev­en years or so to get in touch with 360 of the biggest names in lit­er­a­ture, pol­i­tics, phi­los­o­phy, sci­ence, and oth­er fields of her time. Giv­en that she start­ed in 1856, that’s a some­what extra­or­di­nary feat. It’s only one impres­sive fea­ture of her Tum­bling Block with Sig­na­tures Quilt, most­ly com­plet­ed some­time in 1863.

Har­ris’ quilt­mak­ing project uses a “tum­bling blocks pat­tern,” notes The His­to­ry Blog, “char­ac­ter­ized by a trompe l’oeil that gives it 3D cube effect. [She] show­cased excep­tion­al skill and mas­tery in her needle­work and fab­ric choice, empha­siz­ing the 3D effect with her arrange­ment of the var­ied pat­terns of silk pieces.”

The sig­na­tures on the white dia­monds atop each “tum­bling block” were mailed to Har­ris by request from a “who’s who” of mid-19th cen­tu­ry lumi­nar­ies, includ­ing “an aston­ish­ing eight pres­i­dents of the Unit­ed States (Mar­tin Van Buren, John Tyler, Mil­lard Fill­more, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abra­ham Lin­coln, Andrew John­son, Ulysses S. Grant).”

The quilt also con­tains the sig­na­tures of Union gen­er­als, con­gress­men, jour­nal­ists, aca­d­e­mics, cler­gy­men. Famous names include Samuel Morse, Horace Gree­ley, Wash­ing­ton Irv­ing, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Wal­do Emer­son, Jacob Grimm, Alexan­der von Hum­boldt, Hen­ry Wadsworth Longfel­low, Julia Ward Howe, Har­ri­et Beech­er Stowe, William Cullen Bryant, Alexan­dre Dumas, Oliv­er Wen­dell Holmes, William Make­peace Thack­er­ay, and Charles Dick­ens. She placed the names in cat­e­gories divid­ing the sig­na­to­ries by pro­fes­sion.

The full list “is noth­ing short of phe­nom­e­nal,” the Pub­lic Domain Review writes, adding that “accord­ing to her grand-daugh­ter the Lin­coln sig­na­ture was, due to a fam­i­ly con­nec­tion, actu­al­ly acquired in per­son, and Ade­line was meant to have even danced with Lin­coln at his inau­gu­ra­tion ball.” Har­ris — lat­er Ade­line Har­ris Sears — came from a wealthy Rhode Island tex­tile mill fam­i­ly and mar­ried a promi­nent cler­gy­man. She spent most of her life in the state, and mailed most of her sig­na­ture requests rather than deliv­er­ing them first­hand.

Sig­na­ture quilts were not new; they had been sewn for years to mark fam­i­ly occa­sions and oth­er events. But nev­er had they been a means of celebri­ty auto­graph-hunt­ing, nor been cre­at­ed by a sin­gle indi­vid­ual. Col­lect­ing auto­graphs, how­ev­er, was quite pop­u­lar. “Adeline’s taste for auto­graphs… betrays her roman­tic nature,” writes Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art cura­tor Amelia Peck. “Among a cer­tain seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion, it was believed that a person’s sig­na­ture revealed sig­nif­i­cant aspects of his or her per­son­al­i­ty.”

It’s hard not to see the seeds of our con­tem­po­rary cul­ture in the con­sump­tion of celebri­ty auto­graphs Peck describes: “By own­ing a sig­na­ture of an illus­tri­ous per­son, one could learn about the char­ac­ter­is­tics that made him or her great and emu­late those traits.” This mania for auto­graphs “par­al­leled the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry fas­ci­na­tion with oth­er types of pseu­do­sci­en­tif­ic per­son­al­i­ty dis­cov­ery, such as phrenol­o­gy.” There were deep, mys­ti­cal mean­ings in Ade­line’s quilt, wrote edi­tor Sarah Hale, who also donat­ed a sig­na­ture. In her 1868 book Man­ners, Hap­py Homes and Good Soci­ety All the Year Round, Hale explained what made the quilt a mas­ter­piece:

In short, we think this auto­graph bedquilt may be called a very won­der­ful inven­tion in the way of needle­work. The mere mechan­i­cal part, the num­ber of small pieces, stitch­es neat­ly tak­en and accu­rate­ly ordered; the arrang­ing prop­er­ly and join­ing nice­ly 2780 del­i­cate bits of var­i­ous beau­ti­ful and cost­ly fab­rics, is a task that would require no small share of res­o­lu­tion, patience, firm­ness, and per­se­ver­ance. Then comes the intel­lec­tu­al part, the taste to assort col­ors and to make the appear­ance what it ought to be, where so many hun­dreds of shades are to be matched and suit­ed to each oth­er. After that we rise to the moral, when human deeds are to live in names, the con­sid­er­a­tion of the celebri­ties, who are to be placed each, the cen­tre of his or her own cir­cle! To do this well requires a knowl­edge of books and life, and an instinc­tive sense of the fit­ness of things, so as to assign each name its suit­able place in this galaxy of stars or dia­monds.

See more close-ups of the quilt at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, who hold this one-of-a-kind work of sig­na­to­ry fab­ric art in their col­lec­tions.

via the Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Solar Sys­tem Quilt: In 1876, a Teacher Cre­ates a Hand­craft­ed Quilt to Use as a Teach­ing Aid in Her Astron­o­my Class

Too Big for Any Muse­um, AIDS Quilt Goes Dig­i­tal Thanks to Microsoft

Bisa Butler’s Beau­ti­ful Quilt­ed Por­traits of Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, Nina Simone, Jean-Michel Basquiat & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.


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