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Smithsonian American Art Museum Press Release


Touring Exhibition Highlights Early American Quilts

Media only:
Laura Baptiste (202) 275-1595
Amy Mannarino (202) 275-1592
Public only: (202) 357-2700
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"Calico and Chintz: Early American Quilts from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" features 22 rare pieced and whole-cloth American quilts made before 1850. This exhibition opens at the Speed Art Museum (Louisville, Ky.) on Dec. 16.

These quilts are selected from the collection donated to the museum in 1999 by Patricia Smith Melton, a Washington playwright and quilt historian.

"These spectacular quilts enrich our knowledge of early America, and I am honored to introduce these seldom seen treasures to the nation," said Elizabeth Broun, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

These heirloom quilts, dating from about 1810 to 1850, preserve a notable era in textile and quiltmaking artistry. Before the United States developed a textile industry in the 1840s, colonists and citizens imported quality printed cottons from Britain or France. These fabrics were used by affluent quiltmakers along the Eastern Seaboard and on Southern plantations for the sumptuous bedcovers that were an important decorative element in prosperous homes.

"These rare and beautiful quilts will come as a revelation to all quilt lovers," said Kenneth Trapp, former curator-in-charge of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery. "The pre-1850's textiles demonstrate this earlier society's embrace of vivid color, rich pattern and exuberant beauty."

The cotton fabric used in these early American quilts incorporated vegetable and mineral colors—chemical aniline dyes did not arrive until the 1850s—and represented high standards of woodblock, copperplate and roller printing. The term "calico" comes from Calicut, a port on the Malabar Coast of India where European traders in the 17th century bought the colorful cottons that revolutionized Western taste in textiles. "Chintz" is derived from "chints," a phonetic transliteration of the Hindi word meaning variegated. While the terms calico and chintz were used interchangeably to describe colorful cottons, calico properly describes unglazed fabric printed with repeat patterns of small floral or abstract shapes. Chintz refers to fine glazed cotton printed with prominent flowers, birds and other representational motifs. The exhibition also includes fragments of the kinds of imported period textiles used to construct the quilts in the collection.

Some of the quilts in this exhibition are the most intricate and complex of their kind. "Pieced Bedcover (Honeycomb)," about 1825, is composed of template-formed hexagons—each measuring only 5/8 inch—for a total of 442 rosettes of colorful cotton. Others are quite bold and expressionistic including "Pieced Quilt (Nine Patch on Point)," about 1845. This New York quilt would have been appropriate with the interior decor of a middle-class bedroom of the early 1840s.

Made for a child's bed, "Pieced Quilt (Honeycomb)," about 1830, is a rare survivor of a type of pre-hexagon quilt constructed with a broad whole-cloth border of glazed chintz. The realism of the blooms printed on the tea-colored backgrounds of the English chintz border contrasts sharply with the abstracted "flowers" pieced from both block- and roller-printed calicoes spanning the period from 1800 through 1825. In the shape and colors chosen, the quiltmaker creates an exciting rhythmic vitality.

The textile fragment, "English Pillar Print Chintz," about 1825–1835, demonstrates an extremely popular design in the United States. Pillar prints depicted classical columns garlanded with ribbons, birds or wicker fruit baskets. This design was often used on America's highest quality quilts as borders, as long stripes in bar-patterned designs and as tops for whole-cloth bedcovers.

Smith Melton has collected American pre-1850 whole-cloth, pieced and appliquéd bedcovers for more than 20 years. She built the collection with the intent to have them viewed in their entirety as an educational experience and has taught classes on the history of quilts and quilt textiles.

A catalog to accompany "Calico and Chintz: Early American Quilts from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" with an essay by Jeremy Adamson, chief of the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress, is available.

"Calico and Chintz: Early American Quilts from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" is one of five exhibitions featuring the museum's collections that are touring the nation through 2005. The tour is supported in part by the Smithsonian Special Exhibitions Fund.

More information and full itineraries for each exhibition in the tour "Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" can be found on the museum's Web site at

The Smithsonian American Art Museum collection began with gifts of art donated to the federal government in 1829 and has evolved into the world's most important American art holdings with approximately 40,000 artworks in all media spanning more than three centuries.

While the renovation of the museum's historic building continues, American Art offers a full program of exhibitions at its Renwick Gallery (Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W.). For information about Renwick Gallery activities, call (202) 357-2700 or visit the museum's award-winning Web site at

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