Record-breaking Civil War-era quilt displayed at International Quilt Study Center

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LINCOLN, Neb. – “The Reconciliation Quilt,” a famous piece thought to be the world-record quilt sold at auction, was a recent donation by Robert and Ardis James to the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The pictorial album quilt by Lucinda Ward Honstain is widely known among folk art and quilt collectors as an outstanding example of the use of textiles for the expression of political sentiments – in this instance, the abolition of slavery.

Expensive piece. The piece is one of the most widely photographed and publicized antique quilts in recent history, and sold for $264,000 in 1991 at auction at Sotheby’s. The Jameses, avid quilt collectors and benefactors, later acquired the quilt and recently donated it to the International Quilt Study Center.

This quilt is “one of the finest pieces of Americana to come across my desk. It’s unsurpassed in condition, composition, and historical importance,” said Nancy Druckman, director for American folk art at Sotheby’s New York, where the quilt first came to the attention of the art world.

Civil War era. It features 40 unique quilt blocks depicting scenes of domestic, commercial and political life in the United States during the years before and after the Civil War.

The quilt includes a block portraying a black man on foot towering over a white man on horseback with the inscription “Master I am Free.” One block features the embroidered date Nov. 18, 1867, the year blacks gained the right to vote. Another block commemorates the release of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, from Fort Monroe, Va., where he was imprisoned.

Clearly, the maker wanted to mark the emancipation of African-Americans nationwide after the Civil War, but also the reconciliation of the North and the South to create a stronger nation in the years that followed.

The maker. Although the maker of the quilt clearly expressed her abolitionist sentiments, her name, Lucinda Ward Honstain, remained obscure until Irene Preston Miller, a textile craft shop owner who lived in the area of the maker’s descendants, heard about the quilt, recognized its importance and sought more information.

Little else was known about Honstain until Melissa Woodson, a graduate research fellow at the International Quilt Study Center, began to search for information to shed light on Honstain’s life and the genre scenes depicted in the quilt.

Research revealed that Honstain, born in Ossining, Westchester County, N.Y., July 24, 1820, moved to lower Manhattan with her parents when she was 5 years old and remained in the area for the rest of her life. She was an adult in her mid-40s living in Brooklyn when she made this remarkable quilt. A number of the quilt’s pictorial blocks depict common sights and scenes of 19th-century New York City.

More digging. Further research revealed that Honstain’s family owned slaves during her early childhood; she would have seen them freed by the time she was 7 years old in 1827, when all slaves in New York became free under the state’s gradual emancipation law.

It appears from census records that the family’s freed slaves may have continued to live nearby on the same street. Honstain’s childhood memories of these events and the resulting changes in her family’s daily life may account for her depiction of African-Americans in a number of the blocks of her unique quilt.

“This quilt merits careful examination and further research, which is currently under way,” said Patricia Crews, director of the International Quilt Study Center and professor of textiles.

“The study of quilts and other folk traditions has great potential to advance the understanding of American culture and the history of women and their varied and changing roles in society.”

Gallery display. The quilt, which has never before been publicly exhibited, will be on display in the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln until the end of February, which is Black History Month. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and Sundays, 2-9 p.m. The gallery is closed Mondays.

The International Quilt Study Center now has more than 1,200 quilts from around the world in its collection, dating from the 1700s to modern times.

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