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Desperately Seeking Bertha (Becoming a Quilt Detective)

I’ve spent the past six years or so educating myself on the story of quilts in America. It turns out that by studying quilts, I get to study art, philosophy, history, and culture — which is everything I’ve ever wanted in the first place.

Until recently, my interest in quilt history and culture has been broad. My aim has been to get a handle on the full picture, not just one time period, one style, or any one quiltmaker. 

Then I discovered Bertha Meckstroth.

Bertha Meckstroth (c. 1930-40). This photo was featured on the cover of the Fall 1981 issue of Quilter’s Journal, Vol. 4, No. 3. The photo attended an article about the artist written by Joyce Gross.

I first learned about this remarkable woman in Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories, the book published in conjunction with the 2022 exhibit of the same name at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. When I saw Bertha’s Easter Quilt on page 153, I got chills. 

Made in 1933, her Easter Quilt seemed to have been created for the wall, not a bed, considering its unusual dimensions (81 x 52 in.). Its central point of focus is a large yellow cross showcasing delicate, lace-like reverse appliqué. Quilted around the cross are 11 exquisitely executed feather wreaths, each nestled in a tight diagonal grid. 

Then things get interesting: Flying directly into each curve of the quilt’s scalloped edges are 22 appliquéd bats. 

Yeah. Bats.

Metal gray in color, they have an Art Nouveau look to them. They’re both beautiful and bizarre. Bringing the book up so close to my face that my nose was practically touching the paper, I saw something else that was wild: Bertha had quilted a complex motif of spiderwebs into the wide border

Who does that? There are spiderwebs and flying bats, but she called it an Easter Quilt? I set the book back down on my lap. I’d never seen a quilt like this. I loved it.

After reading and rereading what the authors wrote about the quilt and its maker, I learned that Bertha’s story is equal parts triumph and tragedy, and I wanted to know more. So, for the past three months, I’ve been researching this woman’s life and work with the aim of writing a biographical piece of some kind. It might be an article, a chapter in a book — or maybe even a whole book, if what I uncover can support one. What I do know for sure is that Bertha Meckstroth’s story is one worth telling.

The quilt that started it all for me: Easter Quilt (1933), in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. (Museum purchase with funds donated by the Textile & Costume Society, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

Bertha’s Background

Born in 1872 in Le Sueur, Minnesota, Bertha was one of four children. Her mother and father both died when she was a young girl. After the death of her father, Bertha and her younger sister lived with the family housekeeper for some years.

When she was a child, Bertha happened to meet Bessie Potter, a famous sculptor at the time. It was an influential meeting. After graduating high school, Bertha enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago to study sculpture herself. But the young lady’s dreams of being a famous bronze or marble sculptress were not to be realized. An undiagnosed case of polio as a child — and the fact that she was naturally petite— meant Bertha wasn’t able to lift the heavy stones required in her sculpture courses. She transferred to Radcliffe and eventually changed her focus to nursing.

Some of what makes Bertha’s story so interesting are the connections she had with famous figures in history. While she was at Radcliffe, Bertha was classmates and friends with none other than Helen Keller. The Meckstroth family also had a connection to the famous Mayo brothers who established the Mayo Clinic. 

There’s another big one: Bertha never married, but her older sister Anna married a young Richard Sears, co-founder of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Cazy, right? That union had major implications for Bertha: Anna and Richard would essentially underwrite her life, setting her up in a house in the posh Chicago suburb of Glencoe. The house was named “Casa Tranquilla,” and Bertha lived there until her death in 1960.

A 1935 article in the Minneapolis Star shows Bertha with her quilt, Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

This photograph of Helen Keller—with a personal message to her classmate—appears in Bertha Bertha’s unpublished autobiography.

Portrait of the Artist as a Quiltmaker

In 1922, when Bertha was 50 years old, Anna encouraged her to start making quilts. Bertha had learned quiltmaking from the family housekeeper, but she hadn’t picked up a needle and thread in years. When she did, possibly to placate her benefactress sister, everything changed. 

It seems that Bertha would become a sculptress after all. She was immediately prolific, making dozens and dozens of exquisitely designed and executed appliqué quilts, which she called her “sculptures in cloth.”

No one made quilts like Bertha. Not in the first half of the 20th century, that’s for sure. Utterly original, some of her quilts are cotton, but many are made from luxurious Chinese silk. How she or any aids she may have employed managed to create the delicate reverse appliqué and puffy trapunto sections out of silk is beyond me. But there it is, in quilt after quilt: perfection. 

The subject matter of most of Bertha’s “sculptures in cloth” are religious in nature. There are Madonna and Child pieces, banner-like depictions of Abraham, and several of the Three Wise Men. Text appears in her work quite often; words in English usually communicate verses from the Bible, while Latin phrases express dictums such as Pulchra et Industra, which translates to “beautiful and industrious.”  

While other quilters in her peer group were making the popular and pretty quilts of the day, like Grandmother’s Flower Garden or Trip Around the World, Bertha was sewing bats and spiderwebs, Art Nouveau-style oak trees, peacocks, and elongated figures stretching their hands to God.

From left, Three Kings: Melchior Caspar Baltazar (1932) and Bertha’s 1934 personal coat of arms with her initials “B.A.M.” above the phrase “Beautiful and Industrious” in Latin. These and 14 other Meckstroth quilts are in the permanent collection of the International Quilt Museum. Click here to explore the IQM’s collection of more than 6,000 quilts and quilt objects using their online “Search the Collection” feature.

Say It Ain’t So: Bertha’s Tragic End

The fact that Bertha stayed true to her artistic instincts and created a singular body of artwork is good news, but the bad news is about to break your heart. 

Bertha wrote her will a few years prior to her death. In it, she stated explicitly that she wanted all her remaining quilts—some 120 of them — kept together. Kept together. Remember that. 

“[My quilts] should be husbanded in such a group as could be preserved intact,” she wrote. She knew money would be needed to ensure the proper storage of her art, so she also wrote that keeping her quilts together and safe “necessitates both hail and living quarters for which the money I and the quilts have saved during the many years …” How much money had the artist saved to help fund the stewardship of her life’s work? The sum totaled $70,000.

Her will, her planning, her wishes—none of it mattered, in the end.

The bank in charge of Bertha’s estate didn’t fight for what was in her will. Since Bertha had spent the last few years in a sanitarium, there was enough wiggle room, it seems, to be able to challenge the legitimacy of her wishes. Family members felt they were the rightful heirs to the money, and it was eventually divvied up. 

And the quilts? Scattered to the wind, I’m afraid. Half went to Radcliffe and were eventually auctioned off at a tea party. The other half went to Barat College in Lake Forest, Illinois, a Jesuit institution with which Bertha had no connection whatsoever. Barat closed in 2005, so one of the tasks before me is to track down those quilts. Fortunately, I have leads: I recently spoke to a woman who knew a nun who found stacks of the quilts stuffed into a closet (!) on campus one afternoon. 

The story of Bertha’s will and the fight over the money and the fate of the quilts went viral, 1960s-style. The Associated Press distributed the story from coast to coast. People were entertained by this wild tale of an eccentric quilt lady who wanted a memorial erected to keep her artwork safe. Maybe Bertha knew that if she didn’t make a way for her quilts to stay together, it would never happen. I guess she was right.

There is a huge binder on my desk full of leads and correspondence, photocopied articles and newspaper clippings. I have made major strides in my research so far: In addition to the educational institutions, I’m in contact with Bertha’s great-great niece as well as a woman who exhibited 32 of Bertha’s quilts in Chicago in 1978. 

I’ve never done anything like this. I’ve never researched anything so deeply. I spend hours clicking through and old suburban Chicago phone books, looking for clues, leads, insights. I love it. Every little breadcrumb leads me to another, then another. By the time I’m ready to write, I hope to have a whole loaf of bread, so to speak.

Hang on, Bertha. We’ll get there.


About the Author

Mary Fons joined Quiltfolk in 2017 and is the Creative Director of the Quiltfolk Foundry Project. Click here to learn about Quilt Nerd, Mary’s weekly livestream show about quilt history and culture.

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