In an interview with Martha’s great-grandson James Grauerholz of Lawrence, Kansas, he mentioned that sewing was a family affair and a shared love, passed on through generations. In fact, Martha’s granddaughter and James’ mother, Selda Paulk Grauerholz, treasured Martha’s quilt and was key to the quilt’s arrival at the Kansas State Historic Textile Museum. An avid collector of vintage clothing and sewing materials, Selda was the unofficial historical object “go-to” person in her hometown of Coffeyville, Kansas. She collected so much, in fact, that her three-story house was packed full of these timeless treasures. After a long battle with cancer, Selda passed away in 2008 at age 88. All of Selda’s items were precious for her, and she wanted her “collection,” as she called it, to find a new home after her death. Thus, Marla Day, curator for the Historic Textile Museum, and James Grauerholz, son of Selda and famous writer William S. Burroughs and executor of Burroughs’ estate, traveled to Selda’s house and sorted through her antiques. The “Whig’s Defeat” quilt came with a note attached from Selda referencing the impact of the county fair: “My grandmother made this quilt about 1880. It was brought to Kansas in 1895. Grandmother took the quilt to a county fair and won first prize.” Presenting handiwork at a county fair originated in the 1851 First World’s Fair. The fair, held in London, was called “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations.” County fairs had been present since the early nineteenth century, but the World’s Fair helped them to gain popularity and prevalence. County fairs provided “educational and social purposes” and “women’s competitions consisted almost entirely of needlework” (Locher 5). Fairs acted as an “annual social ritual,” drawing families away from the farm to discover advances in livestock and agriculture (Everett). Women could also win premiums on their domestic art exhibits, such as sewing items or baked goods.
Martha’s life seemed to revolve around the rigorous task of being a mother and wife, and we know little about her as an actual person. Martha and her husband Selden retired to Caney, Kansas, where Martha passed away on July 2, 1941, at age 80. She is buried beside Selden in the Sunnyside Cemetery in Caney. Martha Paulk’s life could easily be overlooked and forgotten without the preservation of her handiwork. The quilt allows her memory to live on and tell us about her life, opinions, and dreams. In a way, Martha’s quilt acted as a “family livery” to express her loyalty to a political leader and event, much like what was done in the sixteenth century (Jones and Stallybrass 162). That is, the quilt holds Martha’s very own stitch in time. That Martha won with her quilt at a county fair also shows what an extraordinary seamstress she was. It was a bold move to enter a quilt at a competition that had such political implications at a time when women could not vote. The fact that Selda cherished and kept the quilt allows Martha’s political opinion to speak to us today and to give Martha that long overdue vote.
Quilts often connected women of different social classes during the 1800s. Quilting served as a shared task among women of the same town and community. It bonded mothers, daughters, neighbors, and friends. The meaning of the word “quilt” comes from the Latin word culcita meaning “a stuffed sack, mattress, or cushion.” Today, we know quilts as “warm bed coverings made of padding enclosed between layers of fabric and kept in place by lines of stitching, typically applied in a decorative design” (“Quilt, n.”). Beyond providing warmth, quilts allow a seamstress to showcase her talent. And quite frankly, they also speak: “The needle could be a pen,” write Peter Stallybrass and Rosalind Jones, for women who wished for more freedom than the little they were allotted (144). Harriet Powers, an African-American quilter in the mid-1800s, for example, became famous for the rich religious narratives embedded in her quilts. More than simply providing warmth, Powers’ quilts are artful commentaries on theological concepts and showcase her skill and knowledge. Also, the Civil War provided a new agenda for women’s quilts, which often spoke out against slavery or in support of abolitionism. This is the case for Martha’s “Whig’s Defeat” quilt. According to Jones and Stallybrass, “thread and cloth were materials through which they [women] could record and commemorate their participation not in reclusive domestic activity but in the larger public world” (134). Female quilters of the late 1800s have a history of political activities, often leaving clues in their work and journals that are secretly begging for someone to discover them.
James Grauerholz, Martha’s great-grandson, donated the quilt as a gift to the Historic Costume and Textile Museum on May 15, 2010. It arrived in exquisite condition. Quilts of such elaborate pattern as Martha’s display the work of their skilled makers. While Martha might have used the quilt for practical purposes as well, she made it in such a way that her work had much more to say than her place as a woman in the 1800s would allow her.