October 29, 1837
A great American storyteller is born.
But rather than writing words on a page, Harriet Powers told stories through each stitch – as one of the nation's most prolific quilt makers.
- Harriet Powers was born into slavery near Athens, Georgia.
- After the Civil War, she married & had at least nine children.
- Though likely a seamstress by trade, she used her quilting skills to record local legends and Bible stories.
- Powers later became nationally known for her quilts, which are the best-preserved examples of the tradition of Southern American quilting.
“I have spent my whole life in the South, and am perfectly familiar with thirty patterns of quilts, but I had never seen an original design, and never a living creature portrayed in patchwork …”
Jennie Smith, an artist in Georgia, wrote about Harriet Powers' "Bible Quilt" after seeing it on display at an 1886 fair. Years later, Smith bought the quilt from Powers for $5 (roughly $150 in today's value). The "Bible Quilt" displays unique quilting craftsmanship by featuring depictions of actual people, not just patterns; for example, the first panel features Adam and Eve.
Quilting In America
- Quilting has deep roots in America, dating back to the 1700s.
- Now well-known for their beauty, quilts were once an essential part of everyday life for pioneer families; their versatile uses included bedding, windows, cloaks, and special gifts.
- One quilt could take years to make because of the time and resources required to craft it.
For the first time ever, Harriet Powers' two remaining quilts were displayed side-by-side at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston last October through early January 2022. The "Fabric of a Nation" exhibition featured Powers' "Bible Quilt" (1886), on loan from the Smithsonian Institute, and her "Pictorial Quilt" (1895-1898).
The art of quilting is a deeply embedded part of American history. Quilts can help provide a unique look into our nation's past through their displayed craftsmanship, stories, and beauty.
Today In History: Quilting
National Quilt Collection (Smithsonian)
by Jenna Lee,