Tuesday, March 29, 2016

My Grandmother’s Quilt

The Dresden-plate-pattern quilt that my maternal grandmother, Anna Truan Dobson, made for my mother, Martha, as a gift for her wedding in 1932 was the family treasure that I coveted most of all, especially after my husband and I and our three children moved from New York City to an antique colonial house in Massachusetts in the 1970’s.  But my mother wasn’t about to part with it, even though she kept it hidden away in a closet.

I poured my longing into buying other antique quilts and learning about quilt patterns. I hung a tumbling-blocks quilt and a barn-raising quilt on the walls above the staircase and put framed squares from a very old tree-of-life quilt in the upstairs hall.

Part of the magic of my mother’s quilt was its story (or “provenance”, as they say in the antique world.).  My beautiful grandmother Anna, born in Tennessee to a French-speaking Swiss-immigrant family in 1872, finished collage with two degrees before the turn of the century—a rarity for a Southern girl. The first time my grandfather, Reverend Frederick Fee Dobson, proposed to her, she turned him down, probably because she knew that accepting would mean she’d have to travel with him to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma and help him convert the natives to Christianity and establish churches and schools there.

 But some time later, Frederick came back to Tennessee and proposed again, and this time Anna accepted.  She was 24 when they were married on January 16, 1896 at Tahlequah Institute, Indian Territory, Oklahoma. In the photograph above she stands on the right in the back row on the “porch of the dormitory” with the other faculty members. The women were her bridesmaids and the man with the mustache was Reverend Hamilton, the minister who married them.

 Between the age of 24 and 49, Anna gave birth to nine children—two boys and then seven girls.  My mother Martha was number six.  She remembers hearing her mother weeping when she realized that she was pregnant with the last one.  In the photo above, Anna is holding that daughter, Betty, and you can see that her hair has turned white.  My mother is at right in the second row.

 In Oklahoma, Anna taught Native American children at the Tahlequah Presbyterian school and instructed their mothers in tatting, crocheting and quilting. Later she taught Sunday School and augmented the budget by giving piano and French lessons. Every Saturday night she would supervise bathing the children in a tin tub in the kitchen and would prepare the Sunday meal so that the whole family could attend all three Sunday services. (My mother told me that they were not allowed to play cards or even read the newspaper on Sunday.)  The photo above shows the family after church, at a time when there were only seven children.  My mother is the moppet in front next to her father.

For the weddings of each of her nine children Anna made a quilt in the pattern and colors they chose.  My mother told me that her father, the minister, also made one square of her quilt so he could participate in the gift.

I always admired my grandmother for her beauty and her intellectual curiosity. After her children were grown and her husband died in 1948, she traveled and lectured about birds, wild flowers and biblical subjects. She also found time to keep on researching and learning until she suffered a stroke in her eighties.  She died in 1964, aged 92.

My own mother died of heart failure in 1985 and the wedding quilt became mine at last.  From my research into vintage quilts I’ve learned that at least some of the fabrics in it came from patterned cotton flour sacks, and that the Dresden plate pattern was very popular in the 1930’s.
Along with the wedding quilt, I also inherited a brooch from my grandmother--shown above in front of another photograph of Anna.  The lady with the scarf was an immensely popular beauty in Victorian times, and her likeness could be found on plates, dolls, brooches and even cigarette tins.  Long before the day of the internet search, I learned from a hobby magazine that she was Queen Louise of Prussia, born in 1776 in Hanover. She married King Frederich Willhelm III and was much beloved for her goodness to the poor.

I’ve even started collecting Queen Louise embellished objects, using on-line auction marketplaces like Invaluable.com. They have a great collectibles section. 

 Neither my grandmother’s quilt nor her brooch are as valuable as other pieces I own, but so often, when a collector is asked which of his pieces he treasures the most, the collector will name the one that has the most personal meaning because of the story that comes with it. Naturally my Dresden plate quilt is my favorite, because my grandmother (and grandfather) made every stitch with their own hands.


Gayle C said...

My grandmother was a student at the Tahlequah Institute in 1896. Her family lived in Westville, OK, so she boarded at the Institute. I have her "monthly report" in which she received 98% in Deportment, 99% in Punctuality and 99% in Neatness. In searching for more information about this school, I found your blog. I'm 69, and constantly re-inventing myself, so looks like we have a lot in common. Keep up the good work!
Gayle Campbell

by Joan Gage said...

Gayle! Thanks for your comment! Tell me the name of your grandmother. (my email is joanpgage@yahoo.com) She might be one of the women in that photograph, and I have all their names. And thank you for your kind words!