Quilts from all around the U.S. led historians to Maryland matriarch


June 23, 1991|By Lynn Williams

"Anonymous," feminists like to say, was a woman.

Before this century, much of the artistry created by women was appreciated only within their own family circles. These home-front artists of the past have left their exquisite, hand-stitched quilts and embroideries, if not their roasts and apple pies and dandelion wines, as their legacy to us. But too few have left their names.

One such artist has refused to remain anonymous, though. Her name was Anna Catherine Hummel Markey Garnhart, and her handiwork is being given its own retrospective at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington. The exhibition, "A Family Legacy: The Quilts of Catherine Garnhart (1773-1860)," on display through Aug. 30, includes nine quilts, color photographs of a few others too fragile for display, and an assortment of objects made by or owned by the Maryland-born quilter and her family, and dutifully passed down through generations of her descendants.

During her long life, which began shortly before the American Revolution and ended shortly before the Civil War, the Frederick mother of three (by her first husband, David Johann Markey) and grandmother of 11 stitched numerous quilts -- mostly the "medallion" type, with a central motif of an eagle or a basket of flowers surrounded by flowers and birds. She was also known as a healer, who served her neighbors and her family through her knowledge of herbal medicine.

Worthy achievements, of course. But how did Mrs. Garnhart -- however skilled she may have been as a needlewoman, however well-respected as a citizen -- merit the kind of recognition denied so many of her fellow quilters?

Mrs. Garnhart's rediscovery can be credited partly to the fact that her quilts, executed in a complicated and rare technique called reverse applique, were so cherished by her descendants that they managed to make their way through numerous generations practically unscathed.

But a lot of it was just happenstance. Mrs. Garnhart's quilts, and her descendants, are all pieces in a historical jigsaw puzzle that just happened to fit together at the right time.

According to Nancy Tuckhorn, the DAR Museum's associate curator of textiles, the saga began in 1974 when the Daughters received a bequest of an early 19th century quilt, a photograph and a sampler.

The eagle-motif quilt was a glorious creation; its designs were worked in roller-printed glazed chintzes on a white ground -- a popular style of quilting at the time -- but the colored designs were not stitched onto the background, as in conventional applique. Instead, the white fabric was cut out and stitched back to reveal the pattern underneath.

The photo depicted the quilter, a stern-faced older woman: Catherine Garnhart. The sampler was not her work, though. It had been stitched by her granddaughter Ann Catherine Markey, the same granddaughter for whom the eagle quilt had been made.

"The DAR has a genealogical library of about 82,000 books, and whenever we get any object we research its history," Ms. Tuckhorn explains. "So we went to the library here and found a book, a family history written in 1917."

The book, by Mrs. Garnhart's great-grandson Frank Markey Gibson, mentions Mrs. Garnhart's skill as a quilter and herbalist, and lists several of her possessions, including an eagle quilt and a jug made to commemorate the death of George Washington in 1799. The jug also bore the Federalist eagle, the design of which, Mr. Gibson wrote, Mrs. Garnhart used as a pattern.

In 1985, a second Garnhart quilt turned up. When the bequest quilt was exhibited in the museum's show of Maryland quilts, a curator at the Plains Indians and Pioneers Museum in Oklahoma spotted its similarity to an eagle quilt in that museum's collection. Sure enough, the Oklahoma quilt was by the same hand. It had been made for John David Markey, Mrs. Garnhart's eldest grandson, and went west with him in the 1850s.

Two quilts, two pieces of the puzzle. But more were soon to be discovered. One of the last remaining Oklahoma relatives directed Ms. Tuckhorn to a distant cousin in North Carolina, Eleanor Hope Newell Maynard, who owned two Garnhart quilts as well as the Washington eagle pitcher mentioned by Frank Gibson in his family history.

When Judy Profitt, curator at the Frederick Historical Society, bought a note card with a picture of the DAR museum's quilt, she too spotted a similarity to a quilt she recognized; it had been included in the state quilt documentation project sponsored by the Maryland Extension Homemakers Council. Thanks to this lead, Ms. Tuckhorn located Theresa Michel of Frederick, who had inherited three reverse applique quilts: a crib quilt with a paisley border, a quilt in an all-over pattern called "mariner's compass" and the eagle quilt that resembled the DAR quilt. Mrs. Michel knew their history, too. The eagle quilt, she revealed, was made for yet another grandchild, Lucy Emma Russell Markey Lester, and taken by her son Louis Lester, a musician, to Italy in 1904.

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