In the midst of the Great Depression a grand fair was held in Chicago. The theme, Century of Progress, was perfect for the biggest and most widespread quilt contest ever held. The Sears National Quilt Contest attracted 25,000 entries. To manage such a large-scale contest a quilt had to make it through several levels. First quilts were judged at a local store, then at the regional level and finally in the competition at the fair.
Sears originally encouraged quiltmakers to create commemorative quilts reflecting the Century of Progress theme. The goal was to encourage creativity including breaking away from dependence on commercial patterns. A number of wonderfully modern quilts as well as more traditional commemorative quilts were entered . Disappointing many entrants, the judges deciding on the winners had different ideas. At the national level the top quilts in the contest did not reflect this theme.
A great example of a stunningly modernistic version entered in this contest was a silk two color quilt that received an honorable mention. The maker, Ida Mae Stow, protested the decision based on the fact that no commemorative quilt received a major prize. She was not alone in this and Sears tried to make up for this inconsistency between the original goals and the decisions of the judges by holding an exhibit for the top commemorative quilts the next year. But many entrants were still dissatisfied with how the contest was run.
The most scandalous story in this saga is that of the quilt that won first place at the national level. Although most women who entered a quilt in the contest had more optimism and enthusiasm than money, Margaret Caden, the winner of the contest, fits a far different profile. A relatively wealthy woman for the times, she was a business women dealing in gifts including handmade quilts. Margaret Caden was not the maker of the quilt but hired it out. Yet she did not hesitate to sign the form with Sears saying that she had personally made the quilt herself. The women who worked for her were afraid to say anything as they desperately needed the money they were earning in a time when a new job would have been practically impossible to find. Because of their fears it was decades later before descendents of these women contacted Sears with proof that the quilt was not made by Caden. Of course locals knew all along and liked to point out, "Margaret Caden did not know which end of a needle to thread." *
* p59 "Patchwork Souvenirs of the 1933 World's Fair ", by Merikay Waldvogel & Barbara Brackman