Children’s Quilts From The 19th Century

Baby Quilt….when one hears those two words, thoughts of sweet little pastel pink or blue quilts probably come to mind. We envision characters from popular children’s literature, scattered over the quilt top, like Jack and Jill tumbling down a little hill with their pail of water. Or perhaps we imagine characters like Mickey Mouse, Pinocchio, or Winnie the Pooh (and Tigger too.)

While this may be true of children’s quilts from the 20th & 21st Centuries we find that earlier children’s quilts don’t have these same childlike design characteristics. When studying children’s quilts of the 19th Century, one soon discovers that the vast majority of these quilts are not what one would expect to see in baby quilts. In truth, these antique quilts are typically smaller versions of adult quilts; they are similar in style and color, and they are made with the same types of fabrics we find in full sized quilts. In fact, if it were not for their size, it would be difficult to distinguish most children’s quilts from adult quilts made during this period.

In these antique quilts made for children we find the typical quilt patterns of the period, including the four and nine patch patterned quilts, the postage stamp quilts, star quilts, and even feathered star quilts. Appliqué quilts are also seen, usually in floral designs, and sometimes we see whole cloth or white work quilts. But the patchwork quilt is the type of quilt we see most often.

The small size of a quilt can not only identify it as a quilt that was made for a child, it can also play an important part in helping to determine the original purpose of the quilt.

Research shows that small children’s quilts were used in several ways in the past. Children’s quilts vary greatly in size, from small doll quilts, to the larger quilts made for the older child’s bed. We find tiny doll quilts no larger than a pot holder. We come across cradle quilts that can be confused with larger doll quilts. The quilts we see most often are crib quilts, made in a variety of sizes, depending on the size of the child and the crib.

In the following article I have divided the quilts into what one would assume to be their proper category. This assumption is based on my findings from physically examining the quilts, along with my research of how quilted textiles were used in the home in the past two hundred years. Clues like size, design and style, as well as workmanship help identify quilts. However, without documentation one would have no way of determining with certainty for example, if a 20″ x 30″ quilt was meant to be used as a cradle quilt or a doll quilt. By studying small quilts I have come to some conclusions and have divided the quilts into the following categories, but I keep an open mind to other possibilities when classifying small quilts.
Crib Quilts

Crib quilts are a favorite of collectors. Some say their small size makes them easier to store and display than full sized quilts that often reach king sized bed proportions. While there may be obvious practical advantages in collecting these smaller sized quilts, there can also be a special charm to having these little quilts around to view daily. The small size of crib quilts does make them easy to display in the home or office, and therefore enjoy on a daily basis.

Antique crib quilts sometimes exhibit very fine quilt making skills. Often done in complex patterns with fine quilting, crib quilts can be just as elaborately and expensively made as adult sized quilts, and no less beautiful in design and workmanship.

These small quilts are usually made in tiny patchwork patterns that correspond to the small size of the quilt. Blocks may measure only two or three inches in size, and can be made with individual patches that are less than an inch in size. They may have sashing and a border much like adult sized quilts, and they may also be finely and elaborately quilted. Extravagant displays of handwork indicate that a great deal of time and talent were invested into some of these small crib quilts.

The sizes of antique baby quilts vary. The quilts from this time period would have likely been made at home by baby’s mother, or perhaps another family member, who were likely to have used a favorite family pattern, in a familiar style and size. Cribs and cradles that were to hold baby were often made at home also, and this would have influenced the size of the quilts. Custom or home made baby cribs varied in size, and in fact, I once saw a home made antique crib that was very large and square, much larger than the size of today’s cribs. The industry standard today for a crib mattress is 27″ wide by 52″ long, but a look through early 20th century catalogs shows that they were available in sizes as large as 36″ wide by 60″ long.

Since we find baby or crib quilts in such a large range of sizes, perhaps it is not possible to pinpoint the purpose of the quilt with certainty. It’s also likely that the quilts were made for Baby, and not to fit a crib, and that personal preferences or family quilting traditions were uppermost thoughts while constructing these baby quilts.

Doll Quilts

Doll quilts are also favorites among collectors. Perhaps it’s because many were made by young girls as sewing projects when they were learning to sew. Or it may be the childhood memories of playing with their own dolls and toys, which make doll quilts special to collectors. Certainly they are conveniently sized for collecting, taking up less storage room than even the small crib quilts.

While it is often the assumption that doll quilts were made by young girls while learning to sew and quilt, and this may be true of a great many, we frequently see many little quilts that were obviously made by a talented and experienced quilter. Records show that many doll quilts were made by older family members like mothers, older sisters, and grand mothers, as gifts for little girls and their favorite dolls.

While doll quilts were sometimes made in complex patchwork patterns and can be examples of fine quilt making skills, the majority were economically made with simple patchwork patterns, and then quilted simply and sparsely. We find many little doll quilts of the late 1800’s with machine work and it’s not at all unusual to find machine quilting on doll quilts from this period.

Doll quilts were made in all sizes, and a perfunctory look at typical antique dolls tells us that dolls varied in size from a few inches tall to large child sized dolls, just as they do today. We see the same variation in the size of old doll cradles because of course, they were made to fit the various sized dolls. Large doll cradles are common and I personally own a doll cradle that can hold, and rock, a small baby.

One baby quilt that can be mistakenly identified as a doll quilt is the carriage quilt. A study of 19th Century and 20th Century catalogs indicates that carriages (or prams as they were sometimes called) measured an average of about 15″ wide by 23″ long with the back up in the seat position, or 34″ long with the back down in the bed position. While we don’t know how many quilts were made specifically for the purpose of covering baby while out in a carriage, we do know that they were made, just as small stroller quilts are made for babies even today.

Identifying small quilts as doll quilts is not always easy. There may have been other reasons for making a small quilted textile, patchwork pot holders, pillow shams, table mats, or lap quilts, are an example of other small quilted pieces. It’s best to consider all possibilities when viewing these small quilts.

Quilts for Older Children

Quilts for the older child may be difficult to identify. We often see quilts that are larger than crib quilts, but smaller than the typical adult sized quilt. Many such quilts are found measuring 60 – 70 inches in size. These quilts would seem to be too small for an adult’s bed, but without provenance, we may not recognize them to be children’s quilts.

Yet we know that quilts were made for the older child. During my research I came across one book that suggests that a child’s quilt be made 48″ by 68″ long. The same book suggests that an infant’s quilt be either 20″ by 36″ (presumably a cradle quilt) or 36″ by 54″ (presumably a crib size).

Out of curiosity I did a little research into a bit of the quilt literature and I discovered that some people who cataloged quilts in the 60″ – 70″ range, labeled them as children’s quilts, while most others did not. Perhaps again, the older child’s quilt is so similar in pattern and style to the adult quilt, we overlook the importance of its small size.

Classifying Small Quilts

When studying small quilts we find some will be difficult to label with certainty. These quilts fall into borderline categories, either by size or style.

One type of quilt we sometimes come across is the quilt that looks like it’s incomplete or perhaps it looks like it’s been cut down or altered. When examining these small quilts one may notice uneven or unbalanced designs, edges trimmed with part of the blocks cut off, and large patchwork or appliqué blocks that seem out of scale with the small size of the quilt. There could be many explanations for these design variations. For example, perhaps a mother needed a small quilt for her child, and instead of making a new quilt she altered a larger quilt, making it a smaller size. Or perhaps a large quilt was damaged and it was possible to salvage a portion of it to serve as a child’s quilt. Time was limited in many households and women were thrifty, always trying to make good use of their time as well as making good use of the materials available to them.

Collectors of valuable quilts are unlikely to purchase quilts that look like they may have been altered, either recently or in the distant past. For the rest of us who study or collect these small quilts simply for pleasure, the possibility of a quilts having been altered may just seem to be part of its history and not necessarily a “flaw” making it less worthy of study.

Although many doll and crib quilts are made using small blocks, and some consider this to be a sign of an original small quilt, we do come across many that use larger blocks. Making a quilt using small patchwork can take a great deal of time. Certainly there were occasions when Mother’s time was too scarce or valuable to expend many hours and days in making a baby’s quilt with 2″ or 3″ blocks, and she therefore chose to use a pattern with larger 8″ or 12″ blocks so the quilt could be made quickly. It therefore seems hasty to dismiss a crib sized quilt because the blocks are larger than expected.

Sometimes we find crib sized quilt tops that are unfinished or not yet quilted, and we wonder whether they are indeed true crib quilt tops. Or are they perhaps, unfinished, partial tops that were intended to be much larger quilts, but just never completed. These quilts can usually be identified by studying the design of the quilt carefully. Does it have borders on all four sides? This could be one indication that the quilt maker had finished the top.

The size of the blocks can be a good clue, but not all small quilts are made with small blocks, so this is usually only helpful if the blocks or patches are smaller than usual.

Of course there’s always the possibility that a quilt maker would begin making a large quilt, and then stop before it reached its intended full size, the maker deciding that a child’s size quilt was just what was needed. I have done this myself, deciding a smaller quilt would be just fine.

Other Small Quilted Textiles

There will be other quilts that are small and complete, and yet may not comply with what we think is the usual style for children’s quilts. A typical example is the small crazy quilt made from silks and lace with fancy stitching. Period photographs do show that small crazy quilts were used as fancy spreads or toppers on beds. Small quilted textiles were also used as covers on tables, pianos, and chests. Some of these small quilts can be difficult to identify, but a careful study of the materials used and their practicality can give strong clues to the intended use of the piece.

However, before dismissing a quilt as a decorative piece rather than a child’s quilt, we might consider whether the small quilt could fall into more than one category. An example would be a small quilted textile made to decorate a child’s bedroom, and if so, wouldn’t it indeed be a child’s quilt? Then also there’s the small decorative quilted item made by a child, wouldn’t it too be a child’s quilt even though it was never used on the child’s bed? Even with careful study one may never know if such quilts were meant as children’s quilts or if they were made for purely decorative purposes.

Whether a small quilt is a doll quilt, a cradle quilt, a pram quilt, or a crib quilt, or even some other type of textile, these small quilted treasures can bring great enjoyment to quilt collecting and study.

I hope you have enjoyed this article about 19th Century children’s quilts as much as I have enjoyed sharing it with you

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