A Woman’s Voice in her “Whig’s Defeat” Quilt

Whig’s Defeat Quilt; ca. 1850-1860 Gift of James Grauerholz
Kansas State University Historic Costume and Textile Museum, 2010.11.1
Cotton, calico

This Whig’s Defeat quilt pattern was a stitched response to the United States presidential election in 1844, in which Democrat James Polk was elected over Whig Henry Clay. The Whig Party formed in 1834 as an opposition to the Democrats, and favored modernization and supported the supremacy of Congress over the President. As a woman, the Kansas quilter Martha Paulk lacked the right to vote in the election. Yet, her stitched quilt pattern “speaks” her vote in favor of the Democrat Polk. In America, women did not gain the right to vote for another 76 years. Finally, on August 18, 1920, the Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, which prohibits any United States citizen from being denied the right to vote on the basis of sex.

Martha Paulk’s symbolic, hand-sewn quilt pattern features ten complete red and green diamond shapes, nine half diamonds, two quarter diamonds, and a winding, floral border along three sides of the quilt cover. Notice how the color patterns, kept in place by around 69,000 stitches, are complicated by almost invisible, elaborate patterns in white on the white cotton background. The colored calico fabrics used here are either plain, dotted, or floral prints. These calicos may have been leftovers from the humble homemade dresses Martha sewed for her daughters. They offer a textile testimony of her family’s dire life conditions as Midwest farmers. What is more, Martha took her opinionated quilt to a county fair in the late nineteenth century and won first prize. This public display of her craftsmanship articulates a strong desire to have both her artistic skills and her political opinions valued and made public.

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Laura Sommers