A Stitch in Time: A Brief History of American Quilts

Rose of Sharon quilt from the late 1800s; value $5,000. Photo courtesy of staff of www.DrLoriV.com
Rose of Sharon quilt from the late 1800s; value $5,000. Photo courtesy of staff of www.DrLoriV.com

One of the world’s most collected antiques is also one of the coziest. As winter comes on full steam ahead, all of us are seeking to cuddle up with a hot cup of tea under a warm quilt. Happily, Americans are preserving our quilting heritage.

In Colonial times, quilts were objects of the wealthy as threads, needles, and cotton were very expensive. It was only after Hamden, (near New Haven) Connecticut inventor, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793 that Americans had the opportunity to produce quilts economically. By the 19th Century, the American shipping industry gave quilters greater access to fabrics resulting in quilts made of wool, cotton and imported silk.

Civil War Quilts

The Civil War marked a season of change in American quilting. In the early 1860s, men took quilts into military service as bedding. The wartime quilt was used to communicate a soldier’s religious beliefs, to smuggle secret messages, and to provide supplies through enemy lines. Due to wartime shortages, many quilts were made of discarded clothing. At that time, the patchwork or “scrap” quilt became popular. Fallen soldiers would be rolled in family quilts and buried on Civil War battlefields. Today, Civil War era quilts from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan have spiked in value from $10,000 to $20,000 depending on various factors.

The 1876 Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia, PA had a pronounced influence on American quilts and quilting history. Traditional Colonial style quilting designs were reintroduced after 1876 and in memory of fallen Civil War soldiers, many quilts were produced in black and white, gray on gray, burgundy and deep purple from madder brown, copper brown, cocoa, and chrome dyes.


By the Victorian period, the Crazy Quilt was fashionable. These were quilts made of silk, satin, embroidery, ribbons, and hand painted blocks. Many collectors will invest between $2,000 and $5,000 for a period Crazy Quilts in good condition.

Twentieth Century Quilts

America received Germany’s aniline dye formulas as part of their World War I tribute. There was an explosion of reasonably priced, colorfast cottons. In the early 1900s, lifestyles improved and women had more time to spend on needle arts and the beautiful yet time-consuming red work quilts gained interest.

Quilts of the 1930s had greater depth of color with greens, yellows, and pastels all coming into favor. Charming, cheerful, prints and delicate solids appeared in the 1940s and the majority of designs related to the context of the times and the homefront.

Post-War Pieces

By World War II, quilts derived from old clothes and feed sacks. Called chicken linen, bags of flour, salt, sugar or seed were made into quilts. During the post war baby boom, Americans made miniature crib quilts, Wedding Ring, and Grandma’s Flower Gardens quilts reflecting the post war interest in the family.

After 1955, the interest in handmade items waned. Women joined the work force and had no time to make hand crafts. The interest in quilting revived after the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. Today, contemporary quilters are revered artisans with their work on display in museums nationwide.

Celebrity Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author, and award-winning TV personality, Dr. Lori presents antique appraisal events nationwide. Dr. Lori is the star appraiser on Discovery channel’s Auction Kings. Visit www.DrLoriV.com, www.Facebook.com/DoctorLori, or call (888) 431-1010.