Discover Vintage America - DECEMBER 2019

Quilt history mystery, hidden treasures – X marks the spot?

The story of this quilt started as the mystery of a thin but unusually heavy signature quilt that was constructed over several widely spaced times. The style and types of fabrics used for the blocks indicated they were made in the 1840s, dating the top to circa 1850. However, the burgundy/claret red borders were a telltale 1890s fabric as was the black, red, and purple preprinted patchwork or cheater cloth backing. I opened a corner seam and found a complete circa 1830s chintz. I then unquilted the whole quilt.

Vansant Family Quilt, Bucks Co. PA, Circa 1850 (All images from the Starley Antique Collection)

How fun to find quilt components that spanned almost a century. I now have a lightweight signature quilt top, yardage of a great cheater print, and an early chintz quilt! Moreover, I solved the mystery of why the quilt was so heavy – it had five layers or two full quilts in one. See Covering Quilts, Hidden Treasures, March 2017 for more information on the discovery and other odd things inside quilts.

Next, I moved on to the mystery of why the quilt top was made and why it was not finished when the blocks were signed. The top has 49 Old Italian Blocks or X blocks straight set in seven by seven rows. Running several of the names through and Google searches, I quickly tracked the quilt's origin to Southeastern Pennsylvania. I was able to narrow it down to Bucks County, which borders Philadelphia and Western New Jersey.

D.W.B. Goodno's signature block, Vansant Quilt


Quilting by the numbers

Observing the quilt from a numerical analysis, there are some significant oddities of this quilt when compared to other signature quilts. First, there are a large number of blank or unsigned/unnamed blocks, 13 out of 49 blocks or a surprising 27 percent of the total blocks. Second, unlike most signature quilts that have a high proportion of female names, male names predominate on this quilt. Nineteen of the 36 names are male while slightly fewer than half are female (17 blocks). Both these statistics set apart this quilt from the standard signature quilt of the era.

Another unusual aspect is that 13 blocks or 27 percent of the signed blocks represent members of the same Vansant or Vanzant family of Bucks County. While it is common to see a number of family names on signature quilts especially those made for a beloved family member, neighbor, or church leader, this is high percentage. It appears the quilt was intended to document existing Vansant relations and relatives or upcoming or new additions to the family. At this time, it is unclear exactly which relationships or event(s) it was meant to record. Research is continuing into the people named and connections between them.

The mystery continues

The fact that the quilt was not finished at the time the blocks were signed may make this mystery hard to unravel. Perhaps the quilt top was made for a recipient who passed before it was finished. The lack of an illuminating presentation or dedication block is disappointing. Maybe it was for a wedding that did not occur, and the prospective spouse's family did not complete their blocks. With only the Vansant family signing, that could explain the blank blocks. Check back next month for more on the ongoing research as well information on the Vansant family signers. They are a very old Dutch American family dating back to the 1650s in New Amsterdam, now New York.

Sandra Starley is nationally certified quilt appraiser, quilt historian, and avid antique quilt collector. She travels throughout the U.S. presenting talks on antique quilt history, fabric dating classes and trunk shows as well as quilting classes. Learn more at Send your comments and quilt questions to

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