Baltimore Album Quilts

A Baltimore Album quilt in the classic Style 1 and made in Baltimore between 1846 and 1852.
Photograph courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum.

In the 1840s, when fabrics made in the United States were still relatively basic, the world's finest fabrics started arriving in the country's eastern ports.

Wax-glazed cottons called chintzes, with deeply saturated colors and precisely printed image of flowers, birds, vines, and so forth, were like catnip to East Coast quilters who could afford them.

These expert American needle-women cut the images from the cloth and appliquéd them to background fabric, a technique known as Broderie Perse, or, in Baltimore Album quilts, to create elaborate works of appliqué that are still prized today.

The quilts are called albums because they're collections of blocks made by individuals. Each honors a pastor, ship captain, or other man who was respected in the community.

Many BA quilts were made by Methodist women for pastors who were leaving their church posts. Methodists were known for their itinerant pastors, who stayed in a single parish only up to two years.

What today's fans treasure about BA quilts are the block designs, which owe a debt to pietra dura works from Europe (photo, below left).

The block subjects are not necessarily realistic, but they are based on real life. There may be peacocks and eagles with flags, but there are no phoenixes or flying dragons. If human beings appear, they are usually supporting players, such as inked-in sailors on a ship: Also newly available was brownish-black indelible ink. The ladies used it for sayings, names, dates, Bible verses, and drawings, which included a boffo portrait of John Wesley on a quilt discovered in 2006.

Virtually all the original Baltimore Albums included two rich, durable colors that quilters call turkey red and poison green. "Turkey" meant the country, not the bird, and "poison" was literal, since the dye was made with arsenic.

To give dimension to sails, ocean waves, fruit, birds, and so forth, quilters could use new fabrics dyed into gradations of dark and light colors.
Such fabrics were called fondues then and are called ombrés now.

Most Baltimore Album quilts were made within a mere six years, from 1846 to 1852. After that, an ad hoc boycott ended the BA era. Union states foreswore fabrics from England, which got most of its cotton from the American South. The BA style ended definitively after the Civil War began.

That doesn't count the Baltimore Quilt revival, which began in the 1980s and has lasted much longer than the original 19th-century fad. Credit for the style's resurrection goes to Elly Sienkiewicz, an enthusiast who "almost single-handedly revived the interest in the Baltimore Album Quilt," as another enthusiast put it*. Sienkiewicz has written more than twenty books, most of them with block patterns. She has given innumerable lectures and run innumerable seminars.

Quilters have to manage without fondues today, however. Ombré fabrics are usually 45" wide, with the color changing once or twice over that width. A typical BA-style block is 12" to 20" square. To put shading into sails, you need a fabric that goes from very light to dark over roughly six inches. Today's quilters sometimes mimic fondues with fabric paint to get the small scale of a single block.

On the other hand, we have light boxes and waxed paper for tracing patterns and ironing them down, glue-basting, precision-cutting machines, and plenty of other gadgets. You might think that BA blocks would be easy to make with all that, but no.

Since Elly Sienkiewicz re-lit the BA fire, enthusiasts have broken the surviving BA quilts into three styles:
Style 3

(Not covered
on this site)

Click for more
about Style 1
Click for more
about Style 2

Style 1 is the classic style full of ships and eagles and vases of flowers. The fanciest vases are called epergnes (ep-PURNz). There are also cornucopias, government buildings with the American flag flying, and more.

Style 2 grew from the German folk tradition of fancy paper cutting. The blocks are usually symmetrical, often nonpictorial, and sometimes quite difficult to make.

Style 3 is said to be the work of Jewish immigrants from central Europe. They are in some respects different from other BA quilts: Entire quilts were made by individuals. They included fabrics — tweed and velvet, and colors — orchid and salmon — that appear relatively rarely, if ever, in other Baltimore Album styles. There are more animals. At this point, we lack the scholarship to describe the style adequately.

Our sources include Ronda McAllen's article "Jewish Baltimore Album Quilts," published in 2006 in Uncoverings, the journal of the American Quilt Study Group; the catalog for a 1980-1981 traveling museum exhibit;
the web site of BA quilt researcher Mary Lou MacDonald, http://baltimorequiltlady.com/history.html, inclluding remarks about Hanna Trimble's diary: http://baltimorequiltlady.com/history/2007_05_history.html ;

Washington Post article "The Ladies &" by Harriet L. Blake, December 13, 1981, posted here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1981/12/13/the-ladies-38/011fee77-8ecc-43f3-9c99-caad692fc4ce/
A short history of Pietra dura on a website describing the Taj Majal: https://www.wonders-of-the-world.net/Taj-Mahal/Pietra-dura.php

*Ruth Ann Zaroff at http://ruthannzaroff.com/baltimore/what.htm;

The photo of pietra dura, above left, is from Sotheby's by way of Pinterest.