The Web They Wove

Rachel McBride Lindsey

One of the epigraphs to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s brilliant history of the tactile memories of nineteenth-century Americans who saved—and archived and curated—the stuff of generations past is an anonymous toast from the Mary Floyd Talmage Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1910:
What did they do, our grandmothers, as they sat spinning all the day? Are we not ourselves the web they wove?

The Age of Homespun, as Ulrich writes, “is a book about the objects nineteenth-century Americans saved, the stories they told, and the stories that got away.” Predictably, Ulrich dazzles readers with her sweeping command of historical data and her consummate interpretive sensibilities. But what lingers with me most is the model that specific artifacts cannot be approached as proxy for material culture writ large, as if any artifact from a given period or people could be substituted for another and yield the same questions. The persistent exchange between objects and stories means, among other things, that artifacts are never full contained within their materiality.

Ulrich’s book, of course, is not only about specific objects and the labors that went into creating them, using them, and remembering them. It is also about the larger cultural systems of gender, economics, politics, and memory that artifacts limn and thus instantiate, if only for a whisper. This nexus of specific artifacts, storytelling, and cultural systems that slip between signified and signifier can stink of academic stagnation; as if added to the chorus of interpretive considerations that chime regularly in seminar discussions and peer-reviewed articles, but that offer little in the way of practical engagement with the artifacts we actually study, be they baskets, hairpins, diaries, or sermons. But these connections do shape encounters with objects and the materiality of an object is never quite the entire story it has to tell.

Here is my object-story.

1938 Tabernacle Baptist quilt. From the collection of Charlotte Northrip.

When my grandmother was a small girl in the late 1930s, not even school aged, the congregation of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Springfield, Missouri, held a fundraiser to support the construction of their new church building. For a nickel apiece, the Women’s Missionary Society “sold the privilege” of having one’s name embroidered onto patches of cloth that were then quilted together and sold to the highest bidder at a Pie Supper auction. My great grandmother, Della Crocker Smith, her husband Daniel, and their two young daughters, Charlotte and Carolyn, as well as many members of their extended family, were members of Tabernacle and their names were among the privileged church members, neighbors, extended family, and friends stitched into the quilt. But it was Beal M. Pumphrey, an upholsterer for the Frisco Railroad, who won the auction with a bid of fifty dollars. Through community events like the quilt auction and Pie Suppers, Tabernacle raised enough money for their new building, which was constructed of “native stone” from the quarries outside of Forsyth, Missouri, and renamed, appropriately enough, Temple Baptist Church. Over time the original stone structure was concealed by new additions to the small church. But seventy years later, my grandmother would say by providence, the quilt found her.

As part of the quilt’s story, we could talk about the shifting demographics of Springfield in the 1930s or about the city’s history of racialized and sectarian violence. We could talk, for instance, about the exodus of African Americans in the aftermath of the public lynching of three men on Easter weekend 1906 that contributed to the racial dynamics of the city in the 1930s and that shaped the kinds of community activities church members participated in. We could talk about the history of anti-Catholicism that kept local and regional Catholic populations proportionally small until well into the twentieth century, and we could talk about how members of Tabernacle contributed to these trends through their own reading habits and civic actions. We could talk at length about the economic and political landscape of the city that necessitated community organizing and fundraising to meet the needs of a growing church body. A comprehensive analysis of the quilt would require attention to all of this and more—the genderization of church labor, for instance, and theologies of church expansion.

But my story is far more modest in scope. In this story, the quilt is a haptic analogue to the DAR toast: Are we not ourselves the web they wove? 

Between the 1938 and 2010 my grandmother lived a full life. Her parents were members of Temple throughout her girlhood and young womanhood. My grandfather, a freckle-faced stargazer newly transplanted to the “big city,” fell in love with the brown-eyed girl in the church choir, a story he loved to tell decades later. They married in 1954. Over the next three decades she raised four children while bouncing around the Western hemisphere following his positions in the United States Navy, graduate school, and early teaching gigs before landing an appointment at his own alma mater, a position he found when his mother sent him a newsclipping in the US mail.

When she made the decision to leave college to marry, my grandmother, Charlotte, made a decision that commonly rendered women’s biographies to shadows of their husbands’ accomplishments. A brilliant woman of deep faith, once she took that train to Berkeley, her life story becomes entangled with those of her children and her spouse. But for her, this is a tale of triumph and not a tragedy. Her story became the common thread in an expanding tapestry.

In 2009, the quilt resurfaced, first as a memory and then as an artifact. My grandmother ran into a childhood friend who happened to be Beal Pumphrey’s daughter, now a resident of Oregon. The quilt had stayed in the family but was now on its way to another auction, this one to support a Baptist Children’s Home. It seemed too good to be true, and in large measure it was. My grandmother was recovering from surgery and would not be able to attend the auction.

1938 Tabernacle Baptist quilt detail. "Mr. and Mrs. Dan Smith."
It is hard to imagine what that kind of rediscovery prompts in one’s personal narrative. The quilt erupted as a tangible connection to her mother and father, to the women and families of Temple Baptist in Roosevelt’s America, to the young girl hugging a teddy bear in photographs who bears her name. In the years since she last touched the fabric, she had lived an entire life. She fell in love and was married. She gave birth and raised children. She suffered the pain of separation from her parents and the families she made in so many places during the sojourn of her husband’s early professional life. She struggled to understand the changing times. She changed with the times and she changed the times. She cooked and cleaned and painted seascapes. She fought and she cried and she prayed and she sang. She traveled and researched and read and went to movies and taught Sunday school. She buried her father. Then her mother. Then her husband. And then, after a lifetime ,this tactile fragment of the past returns. The rediscovery is hard to imagine and yet it is so utterly familiar. The connection is not only tactile, it is emotive and even affective. These fragments have the tendency to jolt into question the linear comprehension of personal narrative by thrusting the orderliness of narrative out the window. How does one make sense of a life in which the past is always present?

The quilt’s fabric is faded and the seams are rotting. It hasn’t been preserved in the sterile environment of an archive or a museum. It was touched by many hands. The quilt means many things to my grandmother. And many of those meanings are elusive, lingering below the surface of cognition.
My grandmother was a small child in 1938 and her memories of the quilt are probably more collective than personal. The quilt is not a proxy of material culture—that capacious category assigned to the stuff we designate as somehow meriting sustained inquiry—and neither is it a proxy of the tiny hands that have grown soft and arthritic, or the many other hands that stitched hundreds of names and sewed its patches into a single tapestry. It is not an unmediated connection to the past, but it is a connection whose twines are composed of threads and stories. Itself a patchwork, it asks us to piece together not only the history of the church and the ownership of the quilt, but also the many other histories of which it is a part.


Unknown said…
Fascinating! What a beautiful quilt and story. Do you have any sense of how common this sort of fundraiser was for the era? Rachel do you know Sandra McPherson's book The God of Indeterminacy? Some of those poems would teach beautifully alongside this quilt. Has anyone taught quilts in a material religion class? If so, I would be curious what people have done with them.

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