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The Case of the Colorless Quilts

The auction house estimated that the old leatherette album full of photographs of quilts taken c. 1930-40 would sell between $1,000 and $1,500. By the time I came across the listing, the album was already gone. Price realized: $2,500. 

It was a good thing the auction was over. It made it easier to accept that I could never have afforded the album myself—and I would love to have it. That’s because even though I’ve seen a lot of pictures of quilts in my lifetime, what I didn’t see in those images made that old album irresistible and haunting.

Have you ever considered what photographed quilts looked like prior to color film? Before color film was invented, when someone shared a picture of a quilt she made, she would have to explain to them which colors she used. 

Maybe some of you have thought about this before, but I never had. Though I’d seen a zillion black and white pictures of quilts before I came across this auctioned album, the captions under the photos presented me with a new perspective.

Photos Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

Swann Auction Galleries, the auction house, uploaded scans of four leaves from the album. Onto each black construction-paper page, eight silver print photographs were neatly arranged, each one fixed in place with tiny plastic photo mount triangles at the corners. There were 190 quilt pictures in the book, and under many of the stark, faded photographs, the album’s creator had written descriptions with white pencil. Examples included: 

Made by Shirley McLerd. Blue and white.
“Fox and Geese.” Peach, L. Green, and Cream.
Hawaiian paper pattern. Green on white.

The quilts themselves were marvelous. Most were quite traditional, but several were quirky, original pictorial quilts (my favorite). But it was the color thing for me. The revelation that before companies like Kodak made color film more or less affordable and available to the masses, quilts in photographs were colorless. 

There are those folks out there—quiltmakers and non-quiltmakers alike—who believe that quilts made 100 years ago are somehow more legitimate or “authentic” than quilts being made today. They seem to think that making a quilt using scissors and a good old-fashioned needle and thread is more genuine, somehow, than one made with the aid of a rotary cutter and a sewing machine. Putting aside the fact that countless quilters were using sewing machines 100 years ago, the idea that quilts made “back in the day” were superior to quilts made with today’s technology has always struck me as silly. We are all entitled to our own opinions, but I personally think that needles, wooden hoops, and scissors are all considered “technology.” And a quilt made with a sewing machine is still “handmade”: You use your hands to run your sewing machine, don’t you?

Photos Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

I’m reminded of the phrase: “The good old days weren’t all that great.” I love the tools we have these days that help us enjoy the quiltmaking process. And seeing the photos in that album really drove home how grateful I am for today’s tools. While it might be sort of romantic to consider someone describing the colors of her quilt from a black and white photograph, I’d much rather whip out my phone and share, in full color—and with the ability to zoom in—my latest quilt.

So, coming across the album was a gift in many ways. I love nothing more than to discover something exciting or beautiful or fascinating that has been under my nose all the while. Nothing changed about photography. Nothing changed physically in me. But the album in the auction changed the lens through which I see quilt history — and that’s worth at least a few thousand bucks.


About the Author

Mary Fons joined Quiltfolk in 2016 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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