Quilt Patterns Through Time

The History of Children's Quilts: Toward a More Child Centered Culture

scrappy postage stamp doll quilt
In the nineteenth-century America, the quilts that covered the nation's sleeping children were an exquisite condensation of the quiltmaker's craft. 1  Sandi Fox

We would like to imagine that each child was always as precious to parents as they are to us today. But the struggle for survival over much of history made it difficult for for parents to focus much attention on their children.

The 19th Century Focus on Children

The nineteenth century with it's industrial revolution and better medical care brought about a somewhat improved standard of living. Women were able to let themselves feel more tenderness and love for the small beings they brought into the world. A mother's responsibility came to include not only the religious mandate to bear children but also a patriotic duty to produce new citizens to help build our nation.

"In binding her family together with love as well as authority, she found herself guided every step of the way by the written word. By 1830, a vast number of treatises instructed her not only in the philosophical aspects of her duties but in specific and practical guidelines for every aspect of nursery life, from the child's health and dress to his education."2

Irish Chain doll quilt
Quilts Reflect This New Attitude Toward Children

It was only natural that this new attitude toward children would result in the making of quilts for them. These quilts were far different from the quilts we make for babies and children today. They were basically miniature versions of the quilts made for adults. The wealthy made small versions of the fine quilts they created for full sized beds while less affluent women made more humble quilts for their small ones, often with scraps left over from other sewing and quilting projects.

The evolution of children's quilts paralleled the changes in literature for children. Early in the 19th century most homes had only the Bible and perhaps "Pilgrims Progress". Essentially these were books on morality for people of all ages. Other books written for adults but enjoyed by children as well were "Robinson Crusoe" and "Gulliver's Travels." In the second half of the nineteenth century books were first published specifically for children. Motifs from books like "Uncle Remus" and "Heidi" began to appear as appliqué on quilts. Toward the end of the century various storybook quilts were made, these included crazy quilts with images from stories on them. Sandi Fox describes this change in emphasis, "The earlier literary concentration on the development of the child's character now yielded to the development of the child's imagination".3

The 20th Century Becomes Even More Child Centered
30s apple core doll quilt

It was not until around the turn of the century that fabrics were produced using children's themes. The delightful prints we see in 30s reproduction fabrics are a great example of this development. During this period pioneers in quilting introduced patterns specifically for children. "The view of children began to change during Victorian times. In 1912 the famed quilt designer Marie Webster created one of the first patterns for a small quilt with a juvenile theme." 4 These patterns usually included appliqué or embroidery with Children's themes. In 1940 Marion Cheever Whiteside Newton founded her company, "Story Book Quilts". Over time she designed over 50 patterns picturing stories and other themes.5 Stories like, "Alice in Wonderland" could be told in appliqué on a quilt. These quilts often alternated appliquéd blocks with plain ones. Women could buy patterns, kits and even finished quilts.

Today we find bolt after bolt of fabrics designed specifically for children and babies. Pattern books abound for the making of quilts for them.

In this section of "America's Quilting History" you will find patterns based on historic children's quilts. Enjoy making these baby and doll quilts. It will give you a sense of what it was like to be a mother or grandmother of the past.

1 p1, 2 p4, 3 p54 "Small Endearments: 19th Century Quilts for Children", by Sandi Fox

4 p73, 5 p87 "Treasure or Not? How to Compare and Value American Quilts", by Stella Rubin