From cradle to coffin, 19th century quilts were made to mark the most significant events in a family, such as the birth of a new baby, a marriage, or the loss of a loved one. Cherished as keepsakes, quilts often get passed down the generations. The occasions for which the quilts were made get passed down, too, in pattern names like “Grandad’s Wedding Quilt” or “Mother’s hope chest quilt.”
Today, quilters still bring their ancestors’ quilts to guild meetings to share, and many of them learned needlework from their own mothers and grandmothers. A tangible connection to their family’s heritage, the textiles are also a source of pride; when a historical quilt is donated to a museum, it sometimes comes with a handwritten note pinned to the top, denoting the year, maker, and bits of genealogy. Many such treasures were kept safe over decades in blanket chests, smelling of cedar chips.

Star of Bethlehem and unknown foliate pattern
Pieced and appliquéd quilt
Mary Jane Vincent
ca. 1860
Searcy (White County)
74 x 73 in.
Collection of Historic Arkansas Museum
Gift of Nona V. Ogle
Accession No: 88.47

A tradition in the Vincent family was for the mothers in the family to christen their baby’s birth with a newly made quilt. True to this custom, Mary Jane Vincent completed her Star of Bethlehem on the night her son was born, in 1860. The quilt stayed in the Vincent family well into the late 20th century, until the dying days of the family’s last heir, Nona (Ogle) Vincent. In 1988, Vincent mailed the quilt to the museum with a letter that read: “I am sending my father’s quilt in your care… If you like the quilt, please keep it and restore it, I am 81 years of age, my health is no good, I will not be able to keep it much longer. I am the last one of the immediate family.”

An expansion on the central medallion concept of earlier quilts, the star begins in the center, and thousands of diamond-shaped cutouts emanate to the quilt’s outermost edges. The prismatic effect of this pattern is believed to have been influenced by the invention of the kaleidoscope in the early 19th century.