Much in the history of American quilts is unknown and possibly mythological. Some things are quoted from letters when the writer may have had very partial knowledge of the subject. In Roderick Kirokofe's The American Quilt he quotes a researcher, Dena Katzenberg, who wrote about the origin of the Baltimore Album quilt design. According to this story a wealthy Baltimore woman was partially disabled because of a violent allergic reaction an exotic nut she ate. She was unable to use her hands for fine sewin. But she was a very artistic and creative woman and designed the quilt of 20 squares of appliqued floral and wreath patterns to be surrounded by a wide border of appliqued leaves and flowers. Then she enlisted the service of 20 young black women, taught then to do very fine sewing and they constructed the first such quilt -- this was 1846 and it was not stated whether the women were free or slaves. She designed a few more of these quilts which caused a great stir in the community so that she began designing individual blocks for others to use with their own (usually simpler) block designs.
According to the book the craze for Baltimore Album quilts was only about 6 years. Not true. They are still being made in considerable numbers -- I saw at least thirty at the World Quilt Show in August. Of course the designs have evolved and changed and I suspect it is rare to find two exactly alike. This kind of applique is extremely time consuming. The book says someone calculated that for the original quilt it would have take an individual seamstress a year of 40 hour days of sewing to complete it.
The quilts I have seen are usually beautiful, always interesting in terms of the various block designs and awesome in terms of the labor that is obviously involved. It's a form of needle work that I can admire and know that I will never attempt. It is said that the best way to learn about a subject is to teach it -- that's certainly true in my attempt to put together a coherent history of quilting in America. The interconnections of social life, the surges in American life as the industrial revolution happened, effects of the Civil War and the settling of the rest of the country have so far given me a picture of the dynamics of this country I never grasped when I was a student.
The mid-70s are a surprise! Part of me remains in the 50s -- age, I mean, not decade of 20th century. It's a joy ride, new experiences land in my lap and I've become a better quilter, poet, writer than I expected. It's a rich life for a person never rich financially. Hey, this is what the mid-70s are like!