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Star of Bethlehem Quilt - ca. 1835

More than ten feet square (122 x 122 in. / 309.9 x 309.9 cm), this American quilt is the largest in the The Metropolitan Museum’s quilt collection. Although the provenance of this exquisite Star of Bethlehem quilt is not known, it was most likely made in one of the southern states. Without a label or a signature block, Museum historians were still able to provide much information:

Quilts in which a central Star of Bethlehem motif is combined with chintz-appliquéd blocks and a chintz border, as it is here, have been found in Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina. It is tempting to conclude that this quilt originated in Maryland.

For one thing, it exemplifies the very fine workmanship characteristic of the tradition of high-style quiltmaking that arose in Baltimore in the 1820s and reached its zenith with the famous Album quilts of the 1840s.

A more fanciful reason for a Maryland attribution is the presence of Baltimore orioles on the four corner blocks, which are appliquéd with an English chintz printed with pairs of these birds. When this quilt was made, the American market was still dependent on England for well-printed chintzes, and naturally, American birds pleased the American buyer.

The fabrics of this quilt's appliqués and border are English, while the printed cottons pieced into the central star are most likely of American manufacture. There is no quilting at all in the pieced star. The rest of the surface is worked with particularly fine and even diamond-and-square quilting, and the white areas are enlivened with ten-pointed stuffed-work stars.

During the 1830s and 1840s, it was not unusual for quilts to be made this size and even larger. What was the purpose of such enormous quilts? This one was most likely a show quilt, meant to be displayed on special occasions to prove the skills of its maker; it looks almost unused and was never washed.

However, very large quilts that clearly show wear exist from this period. In all likelihood, they were made to cover beds heaped high with piles of feather mattresses or straw ticks to avoid drafts. Changes in the construction of mattresses, such as the introduction of the innerspring mattress, which provided a comfortable sleeping surface in a compact form, may explain why quilts grew smaller as the nineteenth century progressed, and after about 1850, quilts of nine and ten feet square were a rarity.

"A bed without a quilt, is like the sky without stars."

I encourage you to check out The Metropolitan Museum's website. The Met's Open Access initiative, which makes more than 375,000 images of public-domain artworks from the Museum's collection available for free and unrestricted use. You are welcome to use images identified by an OA icon for any purpose, including commercial and noncommercial use, free of charge and without requiring permission from the Museum.

The text and photographs used here are works in the public domain, currently ineligible for protection, its protection may have expired, or it may have been placed in the public domain by its creator. Works in the public domain may be freely used without permission of the former copyright holder.

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