Previously attributed to Abigail Adams (1744-1818)
108” x 108”
Photo by KEVA, all rights reserved Michigan State
The Appliqué Medallion Quilt, also known as the Abigail Adams
Quilt, is a representation of a Medallion quilt, a style popularized in
early American quiltmaking. Medallion quilts are characterized by a central
motif surrounded by a number of borders. In this case, the center of the
quilt was cut from a piece of printed cotton chintz, which was then appliquéd
to a white cotton background. This technique is often called broderie
perse, a French term for “Persian embroidery.” Motifs were
cut from large printed panels, often imported from England, frequently
originating from India or with an Indian influence.
Clusters of floral sprays arranged in a wreath-like formation of concentric
circles create the center medallion of the quilt. Bordering is a series
of three chintz borders, which alternate with bands of white until ending
with a fourth, and final chintz border. The quilt is bound with a commercial
white tape. Quilting designs consist of tightly spaced cross-hatching
throughout the quilt, with parallel diagonal lines quilted into the last
border. The Chamberlain Memorial Museum, the quilts previous owner, for
years displayed this piece folded and exposed to strong light. As a result,
regrettably, a quarter of the quilt was badly damaged by sunlight.
The Michigan State University Museum acquired this quilt from the Chamberlain
Memorial Museum of Three Oaks, Michigan in 1952. The story that accompanied
the quilt attributed its making to Abigail Smith Adams, the wife of the
second President of the United States, John Adams. Abigail Adams was alleged
to have made the quilt for her sister, Blanch Smith of Weymouth, Massachusetts.
Blanch was reported to be the wife of Reverend Jedediah Chapman.
Preliminary research disputes the story of the quilt’s provenance,
pointing to some confusion in the accuracy of its reported history. Examining
known historical facts and looking at primary sources such as letters
and census records becomes an essential part of an investigation such
as this. Abigail was a prolific letter writer, so many primary sources
exist to search for clues regarding the people she encountered and the
activities she engaged in. Although Abigail’s maiden name was Smith,
she did not have a sister named Blanche. Her sister’s names were
Mary and Elizabeth. Both sisters were married to ministers, a fact that
corresponds with the quilt’s story. The Weymouth Vital Records contain
no listing for Blanch Smith Chapman or Reverend Jedediah Chapman in births,
marriages, or deaths. A search of Massachusetts’s census records
from 1800 by Lynne Bassett, textile curator at Old Sturbridge Village,
found six Jedediah Chapmans in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Ipswich is located
to the north of Weymouth. None of them are listed as being a minister.
One of the Jedediahs was married to a Mehitable Smith on December 3, 1767.
This Smith is the closest surname match to Abigail that has so far been
located. No connection has been established between Jedediah and Mehitable
Smith Chapman and Abigail Adams.
Further distancing the quilt from Abigail Adams are observations on the
date of the quilt made by quilt historian Merikay Waldvogel. Looking at
the fabrics used in creating a quilt and the timeline of their availability
is another important factor when investigating a quilt’s history.
Waldvogel estimates that the chintz found in this quilt was printed no
earlier that 1825, most probably dating between 1830-1840. Even the earliest
of these dates falls after Abigail’s 1818 death.
Research is continuing on this mysterious quilt. Its connection to Abigail
Adams remains fascinating and is still being examined. The quilt serves
as a marvelous example of how to dissect a piece of material culture through
a multiple methods of investigation.
-- Mary Worrall, Collections Assistant, MSU Museum [references: email
communication with Merikay Waldvogel, 2001 and original catalogue cards]