Baltimore Album Quilts


Baltimore Album Quilts (BAQ) were made in and around the Baltimore, Maryland, during the 1840s and 1850s.  The quilt blocks have a unique “look” and construction that set them apart from quilts made elsewhere.   They are considered, by many, to be the epitome of quilt design and workmanship.  Baltimore Albums are a brief time capsule, in which we can peer into the windows of the lives of nineteenth-century women.  

Album blocks are so named because they are similar to the pages of autograph albums that became popular keepsakes in the 1820s.  Album owners, usually women, would ask family and friends to sign a page of their small album booklets.  Often the signers included drawings, poems, scripture, watercolor pictures and pressed flowers.  Dr. William Rush Dunton, Jr. explained in Old Quilts, “The practice of giving individual blocks for quilts with the idea of having the whole recall friends to the owner had its counterpart in the autograph albums….” 

The first album quilts originated in the Delaware Valley of Pennsylvania in the early 1840s, according to scholars.  Blocks in these quilts included geometric shapes and simple botanicals, plus motifs cut from printed chintz.  As the new style spread to other areas, it picked up local preferences.  In Maryland the taste for floral chintz applique, which dominated high-style quilts of the 1820s into the 1840s, merged with the newer album-block style.  Often the result was floral designs made in bright calicoes that resemble printed chintz motifs. In Baltimore, the album block quilt reached a high point of creativity.

Baltimore Album Quilts were, many times, made of blocks contributed from friends and family, and might depicted an image which had meaning to the maker or the recipient.  These blocks were designed and stitched by the donors or purchased as a “kit” from a professional designer then completed. 

Typically, these large quilts were composed of 25 blocks set in a grid pattern but many variations existed, such as those with only nine blocks or with a large central square.  Some had borders, some did not.  Not all BAQs had multiple block makers.  Many, judging by their unified designs, had only one maker.

Early Album Quilts
Early BAQs include some geometric blocks such as mosaic, LeMoyne star, and mariner’s compass, and simple florals such as crossed Photinia branches or laurel leaves, and baskets with flowers.  A few chintz wreaths also appeared. Examples of the early style Baltimore Albums are the 1842-44 Harvey quilt (Dunton p.52), the 1843 Owings family quilt (Katzenberg p. 70) and the Suman family floral center block (DAR Museum, Quilt Index).

By 1846, a group of quilts emerged that exhibited a unique artistry that set them apart from other quilts of the period.  Dena Katzenberg, author of Baltimore Album Quilts states,

"It is apparent from looking at the quilts themselves that, whether from professionalism or competition, the needle workers developed an extensive vocabulary of similar design themes, stitchery techniques, and identical fabrics.  For instance, in their hands the relatively simple applique technique of laid-on-cloth evolved into a remarkably intricate, multilayered superimposition of fabric pieces.  They could deftly articulate a designer’s dimensional qualities by manipulating cloth to suggest contour, texture, or shading.  Their pictorial blocks depict their world with skill, naïve charm, and humor."

Jennifer Goldsborough, former curator of the Maryland Historical Society, examined more than 300 Baltimore Album quilts for the exhibition and catalogue in 1994.  She described three broad categories of distinctive block designs that continue to be used by scholars today.

Designer I
Goldsborough assigned the designation of “Designer I” to those blocks with the most elaborate compositions and realistic appearance.  These blocks define the “high style” of Baltimore Albums.  In her 1981 exhibition catalogue, Katzenberg describes these blocks as

"elaborately layered fabrics to create complex, three-dimensional floral compositions, by a wide variety of fabrics including plain cottons and silk, small-figured calicoes, chintzes, and large-scale printed furnishing fabrics.  She relied on the manipulation of shaded and rainbow fabrics rather than padding to create a sense of three-dimensionality."

Goldsborough examined how Designer I, by the late 1840s had “…created elaborately layered flowers from irregular and paisley-shaped pieces of fabric to imitate floral chintz.”

Examples of the early style Designer I quilts include the DAR Museum top and the Herget/Pool (Yale University).  Examples of the mature style Designer I blocks are found in the Elizabeth Sliver (BMA), Laura Horton (MdHS), and Captain Aust (MdHS) quilts. 

Designer II
Designer II’s work relied on a strongly red-and-green color scheme, additional padding or ruching to create dimension, and quantities of wool and silk embroidery for details and highlights; there is little or no inking on Designer II quilt squares, according to Goldsborough.  She goes on to say that Designer II quilt squares feature fewer fabrics, rarely use layered fabric pieces.  The designs are less complex than those of Designer I, and often closely resemble Pennsylvania quilts in their boldness.
[3]   The German influence for both the Designer II and III quilts can be attributed to the large German population in Baltimore at the time.  By 1850, one-half of Baltimore’s foreign-born residents had emigrated from Germany[4] evenly dividing the population between those of British and German heritage.   Examples of this designer are the Brown and Crowl quilts in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society.[5]

Designer III
Goldsborough describes Designer III quilts as having,

"deliberately stylized flowers rather than striving for naturalism.  Her flowers closely resemble the exotic printed and embroidered Persian, Indian, and Chinese textiles…was fascinated by animals and lavishly deployed both domestic and outlandish animals across her quilts…less inclined to use printed calico…was more willing to experiment with non-traditional quilting fabrics."

The quilt made by Rachel Meyer Walters (MdHS) is a wonderful example of the Designer III style.  Walters was a German Jewish immigrant who came to Baltimore from Bavaria in 1839.  Other Designer III quiltmakers such as Goodman (MdHS), Reiter (AFAM), and Rosenstock (Charleston Museum) were also Jewish German immigrants, Baltimore residents as well as members of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
[6]  A pronounced cross-cultural German influence is displayed in this group of quilts.

Other Designers
In the last two decades, more Baltimore Album quilts have emerged into public view from auction, online sales sites, museum and private collections.  Upon close examination, scholars have identified the work of other designers.  Quilt historian Virginia Vis found a group with “round scalloped “cookie cutter” flowers, although similar to those seen in Design Style II have sharper edges and often contain a center of concentric circles in contrasting colors.”  She has called this blockmaker “Designer IV.”  Her “stylized tulips have reverse applique details, also in sharply contrasting colors.  Baskets have strong diagonal ribbing in multiple fabrics, vases have colorful slashes in their bowls to create the appearance of cut glass and both have distinctive round handles from which often hang pendulous elements…"
[7]  A quilt made by Sarah Anne Whittington Lankford, in the collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has several examples of Designer IV. Close study may isolate the work of other professional or equally skilled nonprofessional designers.

Baltimore and Beyond
Is a Baltimore Album Quilt only termed as such if it’s made in Baltimore?  The origin of many album quilts is unknown but the motifs and fabrics identify them as part of this genre; they cannot be excluded simply because the maker has not been identified as a Baltimore resident.  It has been established that many of the album blocks were designed by professional needle women, kits were assembled and sold to women and men living in the city and surrounding areas; to visiting family and friends; and to travelers or those on business in the city.  Documentary evidence suggests the sale of blocks, but entire basted quilt tops might have been available.  Blocks by Designers I – IV have been found in quilts made in other Maryland counties, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

Baltimore-style album quilts soon appeared in a wider area as the beauty of the floral motifs and skillful needlework started a trend.  Recognizable BAQ variations were made in counties around Baltimore, and less elaborate “Maryland Albums” appeared in western Maryland and on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay.  Variations on the Baltimore style spread quickly to Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Today, women (and sometimes men) from around the world recreate the original BAQs or create new album block designs in the spirit of the old Designers. 

[1] Dena S. Katzenberg, Baltimore Album Quilts, (Baltimore: The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1980), 22.
[2] Jennifer Goldsborough, “Baltimore Album Quilts: Lessons in History”, Maryland Humanities, (September/October 1994), 2-9.
[3]Katzenberg, 23
[4] D. Randall Beirne, “German Immigration to Nineteenth-Century Baltimore”, Maryland Humanities, (September/October 1994), 15.
[5] Jennifer Goldsborough, Lavish Legacies, (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1994), 76
[6] Ronda McAllen, “Jewish Baltimore Album Quilts”, Uncoverings 2006 (Volume 27), 187-217
[7] Virginia Vis, “Conformity and Diversity: Characteristics of Baltimore Album Quilts”, Eye on Elegance, Early Quilts of Maryland & Virginia,(DAR Museum 2014), 44-47