Days Past: Quiltmaking in Yavapai County 1930s-1940s
During the tumultuous times of the 1930s and 1940s, as the economy failed and soldiers fought in a world war, women stitched colorful and cheerful quilts for their homes. Why did they choose these cheery patterns? Perhaps the economic chaos of the Great Depression and anxiety associated with World War II made women turn to happy colors and designs when making quilts for their homes.
Quiltmaking was popular during this time in Arizona. Most women had sewing skills and access to cotton fabric. Many sewed clothing and other household items for their families. Quilts could be sewn from leftover fabrics and were a thrifty pastime during the depression and a patriotic one during the war.
Award-winning Prescott quilt maker Emma Andres is said to have taken up quiltmaking after buying a pattern from a magazine she was reading while working in her father’s cigar store. Her early quilts were the colorful “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” and State Bird embroidered designs many associate with this time. Quilting passed the time while she waited for customers, and the end results were useful.
Quiltmaking was an inexpensive way to provide bedding for families and it could also provide an outlet for artistic expression. Maggie Wickson Bigelow, who moved to Arizona in 1907, is one quilter whose quilts have been preserved by her family and now by the Sharlot Hall Museum. One of Maggie’s quilts “Sun Bonnet Sue” was a popular pattern during the thirties and forties and still is today. This quilt is composed of several blocks each depicting a little girl wearing a sun bonnet and cotton dress. This particular design is frequently made for girls, using the fabric from their dresses. Another Bigelow quilt, called “Trip Around the World,” features thousands of little squares in different hues of pink, green, yellow, purple and blue arranged by color into larger and larger rectangles.
Most quiltmakers from this time used a limitless number of patterns they obtained from newspapers and magazines or exchanged with friends and family. However, one quilter in Prescott is known for her original designs. Emma Andres made quilts for display, not for bedding. Two of her most popular quilts are “Out Where the West Begins” and “Arizona Commemorative.” Both quilts reflect her love of Arizona and her quilting skills. Cactus, desert landscapes, rattle snakes, Arizona’s State Seal and the Arizona flag are depicted in Emma’s quilts.
Due to her interest in quilting, Emma began corresponding with quiltmakers featured in newspapers and magazines who were entering contests and making names for themselves as quilters. This correspondence encouraged Emma, and she began entering her quilts in shows and experimenting with new and more difficult projects. She began holding quilt exhibits, displaying and lecturing about her own quilts and those she had borrowed from all over the country. She held several shows in Prescott, charging admission and donating it to local charities.
Although many women entered the workforce during World War II, quiltmaking remained a popular pastime. It was considered patriotic to turn scraps into quilts and to save blankets for the troops. Popular quilt patterns in war time were: stars and stripes,”V” for victory, air planes, President Roosevelt and Eleanor and even their dog Fala. Many quilts were made with a combination of red, white, and blue cotton fabrics. A quilt pattern called “President Roosevelt” was published in the Kansas City Star and a variety of Scottie dog patterns in pieced, appliquéd and embroidery patterns were available. Women who wanted a quilt pattern could send ten cents in coin or stamp with their address and pattern number to the needlework editor of the newspaper publishing the pattern and receive a pattern in the mail. Quilt designs spread quickly across the country as newspapers and journals all seemed to publish patterns.
Many quilts from the 1930s and 1940s survive today. Some quilts that were used by the quiltmaker’s family are a little scruffy and not as bright as when first made. But they still contain the warm and familiar feelings they held 75 to 85 years ago.
Sharlot Hall Museum will have a quilt exhibit entitled “The Quilts of Emma Andres and her Contemporaries (1930s-1940s)” throughout the month of September. Gail Van Horsen will also give a free talk about Arizona quiltmakers during the 1930s and 1940s on September 10 at 2 pm.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at email@example.com for information.