<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Jacob's Ladder-style blocks
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Jacob's Ladder

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Click on a block below to see whole-quilt mockups.

Jacob's Ladder
(Finley)


Jacob's Ladder
(Webster)
Jacob's Ladder

This block is the granddaddy of the Jacob's Ladder family, but it was first published in 1929 in Old Patchwork Quilts, by quilt researcher Ruth Finley. She described it as having a "shadowy pre-Revolutionary origin.

"All Jacob's Ladder quilts are made in very light and very dark colors only," Finley wrote. "The fundamental idea of a 'Jacob's Ladder' is extreme contrast resulting in a series of dark 'ladders' running up and down the quilt or diagonally across."

Jacob's Ladder also appeared, with a few differences in the seam placement, in Marie Webster's 1915 book Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them. While Finley's version has no pieces larger than a small square, Webster's uses four half-square triangles. So we understand from Jinny Beyer; in fact, Webster's illustrations were so small that it's hard to see any seams at all.

For the Grandma Dexter variation on our site (click here):
For more on the block's history: and an unusual use as a border:

The Railroad

The Railroad

This Ladies Art Company block from 1897 (#207) varies from Jacob's Ladder only in the color placement in the lower left corner. The block has well over a dozen names, and we'll cite them when we can verify the seam placements.


54-40 or Fight
54-40 or Fight

Political apathy was not for the quilters of the 19th century, who sometimes named their blocks for political parties and events. "Fifty-four Forty or Fight!" was James Polk's slogan in the 1844 presidential election. He vowed to keep all of Oregon Territory in U.S. hands, rather than Britain's, right up to the northern border at 54 degrees 40 minutes latitude. Polk won the election, but his diplomacy settled the border bloodlessly, and permanently, at 49 degrees.

A three-color variation has the name Tennessee Waltz. Click here to see it:

Trail of the Covered
Wagon


Jacob's Ladder

(Hall)

Trail of the Covered Wagon
Tail of Benjamin's Kite/Underground Railroad/Railroad

This block is one of many Jacob's Ladder variations that incorporate a double hourglass in their design (medium pink in the graphic at left). The block layout is from Yvonne Khin's Collector's Dictionary of Quilt Names & Patterns.


Jacob's Ladder

The Jacob's Ladder block below left, from Havig's Carrie Hall Blocks, is identical to Trail of the Covered Wagon but for the choice of colors.


Road to California

Road to California

The version of Road to California at left is from The Perfect Patchwork Primer (1973), according to Yvonne Khin's Collector's Dictionary of Quilt Names and Patterns.


Road to Arkansas
Road to Arkansas
Road to California

The Road to Arkansas is from a 1956 supplement to the Kansas City Star called the Weekly Star Farmer. Prior to that, it was published as Road to California in The Household Magazine (1929), according to Khin's Collector's Dictionary.


Sunny Lanes
Sunny Lanes

Nancy Page's 1935 block is quite complex for a Jacob's Ladder-style block, since its 8 x 8 grid allows for a full 16-square checkerboard in its center. The colors at left are suggested by Brackman's Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns.

Click on the block to see a whole-quilt mockup.

Underground
Railroad
The Underground Railroad
Stepping Stones/The Tail of Benjamin's Kite/The Underground Railroad/The Trail of the Covered Wagon/Wagon Tracks

The names for this block , a three-color variation of Jacob's Ladder, are all Ruth Finley's, from her 1929 classic Old Patchwork Quilts. Of those names, the Underground Railroad is the most memorable, particularly because of a controversy that flared up 70 years later with the book Hidden in Plain View.

The book laid out the oral history of the late Ozella McDaniel Williams of Charleston, South Carolina. In her family lore, quilt blocks provided route information and advice to escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. The escapees were supposed to take cues along the way to freedom by looking out for quilts folded to show a particular block and displayed outdoors.

Ms. Williams was cautious, even coy, as she told the story to author Jacqueline Tobin over the course of 3 years, and the hesitation itself lent credibility to the book at first.

Since then, not one historian, to our knowledge, has found any other evidence of a quilt code in the antebellum South.

Still, the idea of a secret code for the Underground Railroad was so appealing that it gained traction immediately, and some die-hard educators still teach it because it gets children interested in history. Meanwhile, furious historians attack the story whenever someone retells it as if it were true.

We would point out that oral history bears a different standard of proof from original historical documents. It seems clear that the quilt-block code played a role in Ozella's family that it did not play elsewhere, but her story is valid nonetheless. The question is what it tells us.