Three Connecticut quilts, Johnny Mulberryseed and America’s most famous embroider


On exhibit at the Darien Historical Society




Editor’s Note: Crazy for Quilts — Scrapbooks in Silk and Satin: Elegant, silk and crazy quilts from the collection of the Darien Historical Society, closes Sunday, July 29, with a party that day from 3:30-5:30 ($5 suggested donation for non-members). Crazy for Quilts is open from noon to 5, Tuesday to Thursday and on Sunday (Bates-Scofield Homestead, 45 Old Kings Highway North in Darien, 203.655.9233). The following i from material written by Darien Historical Society Board Members Alison Hughes and Marian Castell and Jack Gault, the executive director.
The Historical Society’s 1860 Norwalk Hat Factory quilt is too geometric to be a crazy quilt. However, it is a most stunning, pieced quilt in a “rail fence” pattern made of colorful silk that was used in hat linings from a Norwalk hat factory. Consisting of 1,680 silk bars of about 3 3/4 by 5/8 inches each, the quilt’s columns alternate between multi-colored boxes with seven bars and more uniform boxes with four richly-colored bars of a single color against three neutral or ivory bars.
Crazy quilts were a wildly popular craze from 1880 into the early 1900s and were inspired, along with all of Western art, by the Japanese Exhibit at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia. This exhibition celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and 10 million visitors attended, or about 20% of the U.S. population. At the Fair, America fell in love with Japan and their ages-old venerable attention to detail, high quality craftsmanship and a style that emphasized asymmetrical design and elegant, clean lines; all in contrast to the gaudy Victorian style embraced by the supposedly more culturally sophisticated West.
Of the Japanese exhibit, the July 1876 Atlantic Weekly marveled “workmanship which rivals and excels the marvels of Italian art at its zenith … after the Japanese collection everything looks in a measure commonplace, almost vulgar.” As a sidebar, one Darien resident, Vincent Colyer, liked the fair so much that he brought a big piece of it to Darien: Coyler purchased the New York State Building and brought it from Philadelphia to Contentment Island by barge!
Our Farrell Family quilt (1881) is a most excellent example of an elegant crazy quilt made of velvet and silk, beautifully embroidered, lithographed and painted with initials “H.A.K.” A family heirloom, the quilt belonged to James A. Farrell (1863-1943) who built the Rock Ledge estate on Highland Avenue in Rowayton. Farrell was a self-made man who rose from humble beginnings as a salesman to become the president of U.S. Steel (1911 to 1932). As President, he expanded the business by five-fold and grew it into America’s first billion-dollar company.
Our 1860 Norwalk Hat Factory quilt is too geometric to be a crazy quilt. However, it is a most stunning, pieced quilt in a “rail fence” pattern made of colorful silk that was used in hat linings from a Norwalk hat factory. Consisting of 1,680 silk bars of about 3 3/4 by 5/8 inches each, the quilt’s columns alternate between multi-colored boxes with seven bars and more uniform boxes with four richly-colored bars of a single color against three neutral or ivory bars.
The E. A. Scofield quilt, rests on a 1700 folding press bed (i.e., a Murphy bed) in the Darien Historical Society’s Bates-Scofield house, the same house where Esther Scofield made it in 1850. This cotton quilt has a pattern of eight-point stars and appliquéd oak leaves. The oak leaves proclaim pride in Connecticut’s Charter Oak as an early symbol of American move towards independence.
Both hat making and silk making were prominent industries in Connecticut for over 200 years. At one time, Norwalk had 45 different hat manufacturers and, along with Danbury, was known as a hat making capital of America. Norwalk’s Crofut & Knapp made the first Derby hat in America in 1860, and John Stetson learned his skills there.
For silk-making, Johnny Mulberryseed is our nom de plume for Ezra Stiles, a Congregational minister who collected mulberry seeds and distributed half an ounce of seeds to every parish in Connecticut. He had determined that this was enough seed to grow 5,000 trees, and he asked that every family in the parish receive seeds to plant. Then six years later, the mulberry tree owners received silkworm eggs and a packet of instructions.
Ezra continued his interest in silkworms after he became the president of Yale in 1778. In the summer of the next year, he witnessed the British invasion of New Haven by a force of 48 British ships with 2,600 troops and 2,000 sailors and marines. Fairfield, Green’s Farms and Norwalk were also invaded the same week.
These invasions were ones of shock and awe with multitudes of ships and landing parties in vastly superior numbers to the Patriot’s coastal guards and their local militia of mostly old and young men. Norwalk and Fairfield were burnt severely: in Norwalk’s case, only six homes remained standing: a town of 5,000 residents suddenly found themselves homeless.
New Haven’s defense consisted of 150 Patriot and Yale student militia. Being so far outnumbered, their fight was essentially a delay tactic to allow as many women and children to flee to the north as possible. After a day of “plunder, rape, murder, bayoneting, indelicacies towards the sex (Ezra Stiles),” the British officers dinned with Loyalist gentlemen of the town, while their “soldiers were mostly all dead drunk and lying in open air on the Green, surrounded by a few sober ones who stood guard to keep them from getting more rum.” New Haven’s port and its buildings, harbor vessels and storage facilities were burnt. However, the attack was not as bad as it might have been; the town was spared. As some good luck for Yale, the British raiding party included Colonel Edmund Fanning, a secretary to British General Tryon who led the attack. Fanning was a 1757 Yale graduate who plead with Tryon not to burn his college to the ground.
A blight in 1844 killed most of Connecticut’s mulberry trees and effectively ended silk production in the State, but not its manufacturing. Mansfield, Connecticut (twenty-five miles east of Hartford) had embraced silk making as early as 1760 and by 1916, the Mansfield mills of the Cheney Brothers had over 36 acres of floor space devoted to silk manufacturing.
Our third quilt pictured, the E. A. Scofield quilt, rests on a 1700 folding press bed (i.e., a Murphy bed) in the Bates-Scofield house, the same house where Esther Scofield made it in 1850. This cotton quilt has a pattern of eight-point stars and appliquéd oak leaves. The oak leaves proclaim pride in Connecticut’s Charter Oak as an early symbol of American move towards independence. Esther Scofield was born in Darien the same year that we finally became a town (1820), and in 1853, she married Dr. Samuel Sands.
America’s most beloved embroider from 1876 onwards
America’s most famous needleworker in 1876 had already died 40 years earlier after having lived a relatively unknown life. Her name was Betsy Ross, who, through the marketing genius of her grandsons, was credited with sew