Quilts in Everyday Life by Janet E. Finley: An Outstanding Chronicle of HOW Quilts Mattered Day-to-Day from 1855 – 1955

Among the dozens–if not hundreds–of wonderful quilt-related books hitting the shelves in 2012, one in particular stands out for its unique insight into to the significance of quilts in the lives of “ordinary people” from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. Written by Colorado quilter and scholar Janet E. Finley, Quilts in Everyday Life, 1855 – 1955: A 100-Year Photographic History employs vintage photographs to chronicle the quilts being made, the quilters who were making them, and the role of these quilts in daily life and contemporary culture during a pivotal 100-year span.


Published by Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., Quilts in Everyday Life is a beautiful, 192-page hardcover volume, lavishly illustrated with over 300 historic photographs of quilts, not as we are used to seeing them–in their entirity in flat shots, or carefully arranged in beautifully styled “romance” photos–but as they actually appeared in the photographs of the day; for example, as backdrops for family or individual portraits, swaddling babies, on the picnic grounds, airing on the porch, as the centerpiece in the frame at a local quilting bee, or on display when completed by the proud quiltmaker. The result is a book with appeal and value not just for quilters, quilt lovers, and collectors, but also for those interested in women’s history; the history of fashion; social history and customs, and the history of photography itself during the 100 years covered.

The seed for the book was planted when Janet, then director of the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in Golden, CO, was shown photographs of 1930s quilters by an intern working at the museum. Curiosity sparked, Janet–whose interest in quilts is matched by a lifelong interest in photography–immediately began her quest for similiar images. The internet proved a rich source, and since that first exposure, she has amassed a collection of close to 1,000 images, a collection that continues to grow. Her only criteria is that the photograph dates prior to the 1950s and shows a quilt somewhere in the image. Over 300 photos made the final cut for publication in the book.

The Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in Golden, CO, where author Janet E. Finley was Executive Director from 2000 – 2004.

Each photograph is accompanied by an identification of the image style (e.g., cabinet card, mounted photograph, etc.), the approximate date it was taken, the photographer if known, the size of the image, and an “extended caption” that not only describes the quilt, but also–when able to be determined–the people who appear in the photo. The “caption” might also include information about the style of dress and hairstyles, the setting, and other clues that helped Janet narrow down the provenance of the photo. The writing style is chatty and accessible without diminishing the scholarship (and detective work!) evident in her well-researched text.

Following a wonderful introduction–subtitled “A Century of Cultural History”–the book is divided into four main sections: the Early Years (1855 – 1889), the Early Middle Years (1890 – 1899), the Late Middle Years (1900 – 1919), and the Final Years (1920 – 1955). A rich appendix includes an informative essay by Susan Salser (a principal of The Salser Family Foundation, a generous funder for Why Quilts Matter) on “The Detroit News Quilt Club Corner and Edith B. Crumb,” a glossary of terms used throughout the book, and an extensive bibliography and listing of sources consulted by the author in the book’s preparation.

We here at Why Quilts Matter owe a special debt to Janet, who generously allowed us to include images from her collection in various episodes of our nine-part documentary. You can identify just which ones by downloading the FREE Image Resource Guide that identifies each image in every episode.

As a special, New Year’s gift, we’re offering one of our readers the opportunity to win a copy of Quilts in Everyday Life donated by the publisher (retails for $34.99). Leave a comment by midnight (EDT), Wednesday, January 16, telling us why you’d like to add this special book to your library, and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win a copy of Quilts in Everyday Life, 1855 – 1955. We’ll announce the winner in our post on Monday, January 21.

Finally, if this is your first visit to the Why Quilts Matter blog, we hope you’ll take time to explore our website, which includes lots of interesting features, including trailers from all nine episodes of the landmark documentary, and a link to purchase your very own copy of the two-DVD set, the Discussion Guide, or the DVD/guide package.


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