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Quilt

Artist/Maker:
Webster, Elizabeth
Place Made:
Harford County Maryland United States of America
Date Made:
1796
Medium:
cotton
Dimensions:
HOA: 89 1/2; WOA: 86 1/2
Accession Number:
3271
Description:
MAKER: The earliest known dated quilt from Maryland is marked with needle and thread “E W 1796”. This patchwork quilt was made by Elizabeth Webster (1777-1840) from Harford County, Maryland when she was nineteen years old. Elizabeth’s life was defined by Methodism and the Society of Friends. Born in 1777 to Richard Webster (1741-1824) and Phebe Smith (1745-1823), Elizabeth first exposed to the birth of Methodism in America with her father being one of the first Methodist preachers born and trained in America.

As early as 1770 the Webster household was a center for Methodist preaching. In 1821 Richard Webster built on their land a Methodist chapel they named Calvary. This church still stands today and is a Harford County Landmark and listed in the Maryland Inventory of Historic Places.

At age twenty-two, Elizabeth married Joseph Downing (1769-1841), a prominent Quaker from Chester County, Pennsylvania. Their lives are highlighted by author Francis Brown in his book entitled “Downington Friends Meeting: An Early History of Quakers in the Great Valley” in which he states that “Elizabeth Webster Downing stands out as one of the most important personages in the history of our Meeting.”

The nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Webster most likely made this quilt in anticipation of her marriage. The marking of linens including towels, sheets, and tablecloths, were a common practice in the 18th century. Using skills learned as young schoolgirls working stitched samplers, this technique typically was used to inventory very valuable and precious textiles.

After Elizabeth’s marriage in 1799, she moved to her husband’s home in Downington, Pennsylvania – a town named after his grandfather, and she immediately accepted his faith in the Society of Friends. Their home was the Downing family farm, built by Joseph Downing’s grandfather, Thomas Downing. Their life centered around their church, which still stands today – the Downington Friends Meeting. The Society of Friends, or Quakers, were against slavery and many were active in the Underground Railroad. Maryland was a slave-holding state, and the Webster family were slaveholders. Every year after her marriage, Elizabeth Webster Downing would bring from her Maryland home two slaves to be freed in the North. It is thought that Elizabeth was behind the 1813 decision to set aside in the church graveyard a section “for the internment of such persons of color as Friends may judge it proper to admit”.

One of Elizabeth’s most important contributions may be her and her husband’s donation of land in 1818 for the building of a school. A building was to be constructed using stone and materials from their property. It was an octagonal school house and was known as the Bell School. The school operated through the 1880’s and taught both black and white children.

Elizabeth Webster Downing died in 1840 and is married at the Downington Friends Meetinghouse Cemetery in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

DESCRIPTION: Elizabeth’s patchwork quilt utilizes twelve woodblock printed cotton patterns. The quilt is characterized as a “hit or miss” patchwork using small squares cut to a uniform size and shape and are pieced in an all over pattern. When light and dark materials are alternated, the resulting design is known as the “brick” pattern. Elizabeth’s design is unusual for this early date and we have yet to record any similar examples at MESDA. While the patchwork on the top of the quilt is pretty straightforward, it is interesting to note the variety of quilting designs on the back. Diagonal parallel quilting borders the bedcover, with a clamshell or scallop design filling in to the center medallion which is quilted in a circle pattern with a variety of geometric designs within it. The inscription sits at the top (or bottom) of the quilt on the backside.

Credit Line:
Gift of Frank L. Horton