Detail of the Kansas School District 71 Quilt - Late 1930s

One Recklessly Optimistic Quilt – by Bill Volckening

In college, I studied a lot of art history. We were introduced the “isms” in the first semester – classicism, impressionism, expressionism, cubism, modernism, futurism – all the various movements and their distinct styles. The general emphasis of art history was to help students discern styles and associate them with periods. Impressionist painting for example, was an easily recognized and popular period, with its visible brush strokes, ordinary subject matter and emphasis on the depiction of light.

Although American quilt history was not part of college art history curriculum, I think it would work the same way as traditional art history. It’s just as easy to recognize a Depression Era quilt as an Impressionist painting. In the 1930s, Easter egg colors were all the rage, and certain patterns emerged and became hugely popular. The boom in quilt-making during the Great Depression led to a deluge of quilts made all over the U.S. that looked very much the same. But these happy, carefree quilts were made in one of the darkest periods of American History.

On October 29, 1929, US stock market prices experienced a sudden, devastating collapse. That day is now remembered as Black Tuesday, and it led to a decade of hard times in America. Quilting was wildly popular, possibly because the idea of scrap quilts embodied frugality, and quilt patterns were being published in newspapers and magazines. Given the mood at the time, you’d think the quilts would be dark and dreary, but they’re just the opposite. The cheerful colors must have lightened the mood when times were tough.

It’s a fascinating period in American history, and quilts played a major role, but I have to admit I haven’t collected a lot of Depression Era quilts. When I first started collecting, I was mostly interested in antique quilts, ones that were 100 years old or older. Quilts served as wall art in my home, and the soft, pastel colors were a little too feminine for the decor. The quilts seemed common, unoriginal, and frankly, soulless.

Kansas School District 71 Quilt  Late 1930sAs I learned more about American quilt history, I realized my first idea about Depression Era quilts wasn’t exactly true. Certainly there was a massive, widespread homogenization of quilts made in America, but out of that critical mass came works that elevated the form. There were quilts that broke the mold. From a collector’s point of view, there was a “top shelf” Depression Era quilt to be found in a sea of run-of-the-mill quilts.

The quilt that sparked this realization came from Kansas. According to the seller, a school group in Wichita made it in the late 1930s. I found the quilt on eBay while scrolling through thousands of quilts for sale. It really jumped out, and I thought, “That’s different!” in a good way. There was originality. It had soul. I’d never bought anything that young before, but I found myself strangely drawn to it.

The quilt is an inscribed crazy block quilt with sunbursts. Each block includes a center circular medallion with sharp points emanating from a lavender center disc. The circular medallions are surrounded by crazy patchwork in a variety of print fabrics, and the blocks are neatly contained in a grid of narrow lavender sashing with tangerine cornerstones. The border is lavender and the binding is tangerine.

All but one block has an embroidered signature in the center. Inscriptions include, from top row to bottom, left to right: Madge Tharp, Paula and Eddie, Pauline S., Mary Walker, School Dist. 71, Betty Tharp, Goldie Dunn, Billy Grossner, Willia and Betty Lee, Flora Howard, Dixie Lee Dunn, Lottie Kohvalzky. Genealogy research has produced links to Kansas, and possibly a connection to Wichita, but I’ve yet to turn up information about the whereabouts of School District 71.

Collectors tend to have preferred eras, styles, or patterns, and I’m no different. Although I’ve never really gone after a lot of Depression Era quilts, this quilt from Kansas has always been one of my favorites. It is recklessly optimistic, and stands united with the Americans of the 1930s, who refused to give up hope after losing everything.


Bill Volckening
Portland, Oregon

Image Credits:
Photos courtesy of Bill Volckening.

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