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Oldest handmade quilt ever verified as made in Cazenovia donated to library

Cazenovia Public Library Director Betsy Kennedy, left, and Jonathan Holstein, a former library board member, independent curator and art dealer, pose with a newly acquired library museum piece: a hand-stitched quilt made in Cazenovia sometime in the 1830s or 1840s.

Cazenovia Public Library Director Betsy Kennedy, left, and Jonathan Holstein, a former library board member, independent curator and art dealer, pose with a newly acquired library museum piece: a hand-stitched quilt made in Cazenovia sometime in the 1830s or 1840s. Photo by Jason Emerson.

— Holstein, however, thinks the quilt goes father back in the Benedict family.

“I don’t think Mrs. Benedict made this because she was born in 1854. When I look at this I don’t see any materials later than the 1830s or 1840s. So if she did not make it we must assume it was made by her mother [Helen Sherman Benedict] and given to her,” said Holstein.

Helen Sherman Benedict was born in 1830, so if she made the quilt in the 1840s, when she was in her teens, that would fit the timeline “perfectly,” since that was an era in which cultured women were expected to do fine needlework, Holstein said.

The signs pointing to its date of creation include its size, designs and construction materials, Holstein said. The large design was intended for a large bed, most likely the parents’ bed — “the most important bed in the house” — and would have extended down to the floor to cover the trundle bed underneath. By 1860, beds became smaller in size, called “three-quarter” beds, Holstein said.

The construction materials were from all natural animal, vegetable and mineral sources, with the color blue made from the indigo plant, and the browns and blacks made from natural dyes that were made with iron salts, he said. In fact, because of the iron salts, the quilts parts that are colored brown and black have deteriorated significantly because they oxidize over time, Holstein said.

“There’s nothing you can do about that; you just have to treat it gently,” he said.

The quilt itself is not in pristine shape because it was clearly a quilt that was consistently used by the family and because of the oxidizing effects of the dyes — but it is not fragile either, Holstein said.

The Benedict quilt is now one of four Cazenovia-made quilts in the Cazenovia Public Library historic collection — two from the 19th century and two from the 20th century — all of which will be put on display in the library in March 2015, if not sooner, said library Director Betsy Kennedy.

“We’re always interested in objects related to Cazenovia being donated,” Kennedy said. “When things like this come in it helps us learn more about Cazenovia history. We’re very excited to display it next year.”

Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican. He can be reached at editor@cazenoviarepublican.com.

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