Apr 15, 2014 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
Sometime during the 1830s or 1840s, a Cazenovia teenager named Helen Sherman handmade a 10-foot-by-10-foot bed quilt using all-natural dyes for the coloring and embroidered the stitching on the back in patterns of heart-shaped flowers. The front pattern includes numerous star shapes called a “mariner’s compass” in a “log cabin” pattern in what would have been an incredibly difficult and demanding pattern, taking months if not years to make.
Two weeks ago, that quilt — the oldest ever recorded and verified as being made in Cazenovia — returned home as a donation to the library by the descendants of the original quilter.
“A quilt like this would have taken a very long time to make; it’s very detailed, a very demanding pattern,” said Jonathan Holstein, a former library board member, independent curator and art dealer. “It is the first early quilt we’ve found with an unimpeachable Cazenovia connection, and that’s why we’re delighted to have it. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen. It was a very generous contribution.”
The quilt was a gift from Elizabeth “Betty” Church, 92, who currently lives in Florida. Her mother was Helen Billings Church, who grew up in Cazenovia and died in Maryland in 1968, which was when Betty Church acquired the family heirloom.
According to Ruth Jackl, Betty Church’s niece, the family believes the quilt was made by her great-grandmother, Edna Emmaratte Benedict Billings, who was born in 1854 in Delphi, N.Y., to George W. Benedict and Helen Sherman Benedict. George and Helen Benedict are buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Cazenovia.
“We (my family and I) are thrilled to find a home for the quilt and near where it was originally made is even better,” Jackl wrote in a letter to Holstein enclosed with the donation.
One reason the family believed Edna Benedict Billings made the quilt is because it has a stencil on one underside corner which reads, “E.E. Benedict,” which was a typical owner’s mark at the time.
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 email@example.com.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.