War changed women's roles
Mon, 02/03/2014 - 9:31am admin
History savant Connie Lanz gave a presentation on Civil War quilts and how the Civil War changed the role of women at that time at the Big Lake Library Saturday morning.
Quilts were highly prized during the Civil War and very few examples of them remain, Lanz said.
With 15% of the population involved in fighting the Civil War, there were very few able-bodied men left to take care of everything else, so women’s roles changed, Lanz said.
“Women became more involved in society,” Lanz said. “They stepped up to manage their farms, they became teachers and nurses, some even became camp followers or dressed up as soldiers and fought alongside their husbands.”
In the North, lots of women joined the Sanitary Commission, which sewed quilts, collected money and raised $25 million to keep army hospitals clean, an action which saved lives.
“In the South, women were more sheltered and didn’t join groups, but they did make quilts,” Lanz said. “If you were a Southern woman, you might do embroidery or tapestry but someone else made your dresses. A woman had her place in the South and they weren’t expected to do much more than faint.”
Minnesota was heavily involved in the Civil War, which was as much about economics as it was slavery, Lanz said. Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey was in Washington, DC, when war was declared and he was the first to volunteer troops. Men signed up to fight because they expected the war would be a short-lived affair, over in three months. That was not to be the case.
On top of the war, the Dakota uprising of 1862 left hundreds of women and children virtually unprotected in the state.
“The end of the Civil War marked the end of the golden age of quilt-making,” Lanz said. “Every soldier had to provide their own uniform, gun and bedding. Soldiers took their quilts to war with them. Some were wrapped in them for burial.”
More Northern quilts than Southern quilts survived for a number of reasons. After the war, a Southern soldier could be arrested for wearing any part of their uniform, which included quilts, since they often had patriotic themes.
Also the South had less access than the North to materials. While the South grew the cotton, the manufacturing plants, which turned it into material, were located in England or the Northern states, leaving the south with a great shortage.
“Northern soldiers would destroy sewing machines if they found them and set fire to the cotton,” Lanz said. “Sometimes they would kidnap women who sewed and send them to the North. And sometimes women would bury their quilts and other treasures to keep them safe from invading soldiers.”
Part of every soldiers equipment included a small sewing kit known as a housewife, Lanz said.
Things were so bad, Southern women had to relearn the skills needed to spin cotton and weave their own fabric from cotton, wool or a silk blend. Women also served as spies during the Civil War and would sew maps and other information into their skirts or hide them in their hair.
Slaves also made quilts of their own and legend says slave-made quilts had symbols on them to help guide their owners to freedom through the underground railway to the North.
“There is no documentation of this, just an oral history,” said Lanz. “But it is a good story and oral history was an African tradition so it may be fairly accurate.”
While few slave-made quilts survive, no doubt these quilts were loaded with symbolism and used to tell stories.
The quilts contained a variety of colored fabric from Turkey red and Prussian blue to poison green and chrome yellow. Poison green was made using arsenic and is was very poisonous.
Brown madder, made from vegetable die, was also popular, as was puce, a purple-brownish color, like the fleas it was intended to camouflage. There were also double pinks and violets for younger girls. Purple, the color for royalty, was also popular. There were some French Provincial prints with a diagonal pattern and conversation or object prints available for dresses and quilts.
Womens’ dresses or skirts with an overblouse of the same material were popular and stripes and plaids were abundant, most made of woven material which had been printed.
Slaves all wore Osnaburg cloth, which made them immediately recognizable as slaves, even from a distance.
“For a slave to escape, one of the first things they would have to do is find a change of clothes,” Lanz said. “They had to dress as free people.”
One question on the subject which often arises is was the log cabin quilt pattern used as a code by the slaves,” said Lanz. “But the pattern didn’t really show up until after Lincoln was assassinated. The lots of log cabin quilts were made in his honor.”
Lanz offered a reading list of quilting books and Civil War history books. She also taught some of those in attendance how to do English paper quilting with hexagonal pieces of material.