Discover Vintage America - FEBRUARY 2019

The write stuff – signing for hire

Antique quilts are such an enjoyable way to learn about history. Signature quilts are the very best vehicles for learning history since they not only have names, but often dates, locations and interesting sentiments or quotations. All of this information leads to intriguing "rabbit holes" of studying and researching. You can learn about many unique cultural and regional differences in the United States over time including economics, migration patterns, politics, religions, and much more. One engaging research area is the Pennsylvania German practice of hiring paid signers or "scriveners" to write names on signature quilts.

Detail of Caesars Crown quilt –Pennsylvania "Samuel Fackler from West Concin" Mary A. Banks' Quilt 1851


Names here please

A bit of background: logic dictates that a signature quilt means that the person named on the block is the person who signed it. However logical that appears, it is often not the case, and we should really call them "name inscribed" or "name quilts" instead. Quite often "signature" quilts are not actually signed by the person named. This occurs for several reasons: the named person has died and is being listed as a remembrance, the quilt is not signed at all but it is stamped or stenciled, the quilt is honoring famous people, the group had a person with good handwriting sign the blocks, and finally a person skilled in signing was hired to write the names.

Fraktur ownership block written by paid scrivener. "Elizabeth Bickel, His property 1851"; Caesars Crown Quilt (All examples from the Starley Collection)

 

Sign for me

The use of paid scriveners or signers to affix names to quilt blocks appears to have only occurred in Southeastern Pennsylvania (just outside of Philadelphia) and only in German communities, primarily in Lehigh, Montgomery, and Berks counties. German immigrants settled this area in the 1700s and 1800s. Many of these rural communities were very insular and the people functioned primarily in German except when they had to conduct business with English speakers. The majority of newspapers in the area were produced in German rather than English and both languages were used in area schools.

The Pennsylvania German Lutheran communities had a tradition of using scriveners to create elaborately illustrated baptismal certificates and other family documents called frakturs. And that practice was joined with quilt making to create predominantly Rolling Stone blocks done in fancy Germanic script also called fraktur. The Rolling Stone block was the most popular quilt pattern used in the area for signature quilts whether signed in fraktur or regular script.

So far only a few scriveners have been identified. The most famous is William Gross who signed for people on several fraktur Rolling Stones and at least one other quilt pattern. His work is easily identifiable as he included an inked basket with a tulip flower and his name on the quilts. Interestingly, he signed his own name in German as Grofs if the customer/group was German but in English if writing for a more anglicized audience.

Ownership Block signed by William Gross for Henrietta Huebener, Bethlehem, PA 1865; Goose Chase Quilt

 

Lost in translation

Because many of these scriveners were native German speakers there were often misunderstandings in signatures or inscriptions. A few interesting examples I have found on my quilts and/or blocks follow. A set of Rolling Stone blocks from 1865 has a block that says they were made in 'Merica (aka America). A Caesars Crown signature top has references to a family member from York State (New York) and another from West Concin (Wisconsin); apparently, this was a common misunderstanding. Another Caesars Crown quilt has a dedication block that states it was made for "Elizabeth Bickel" but that it was "his property". There is much more to learn about these quilted pieces of history.


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 utahquiltappraiser.blogspot.com. Send your comments and quilt questions to SandraStarley@outlook.com

Covering Quilts Archive past columns