Medallion. Mary Beebe Strong. Made in Windsor, Connecticut, circa 1815. Linen with cotton threads, 97”x92”. 1997.007.0897. International Quilt Study Center & Museum. All photos by Lynne Bassett.
Mary Beebe (1759-1834) was born in Salisbury, Litchfield County, in the northwestern corner of Connecticut. In 1781, she married Elisha Strong (1748‒1826) of Windsor, a town located on the Connecticut River. Her husband was a successful merchant, descended from one of the original English families of the Connecticut River Valley; the respect for the Strong family was such that they were counted among the gentry, called the “River Gods,” of the region. Mary and Elisha raised eleven children in their elegant house on North Meadow Road on the main road through town. Elisha built the house in 1780 and filled it with prestigious items, including a custom made desk-and-bookcase, which, like the house, survive to this day. Another survivor is a quilted, embroidered bedcover in the collection of the International Quilt Study Center in Nebraska.
The quilt was purchased from Sotheby’s 1994 sale of the collection of prominent antiques scholar Nina Fletcher Little. At that time, the quilt was said to have a note written by the maker’s great-great-granddaughter, Anna Elizabeth Holbrook, which stated, “1897 – This quilt is now 125 years old. Made in grandmother Strong’s house.” This note dates the quilt to 1772. The evidence of the quilt itself, however, places it no earlier than the 1810s. The dresses depicted on the embroidered figures clearly illustrate neoclassical fashion, with narrow skirts and raised waistlines; the men’s coats have a cutaway front leading to tails in the back—a fashion that first appeared at the end of the eighteenth century to enable greater ease in horseback riding. Most tellingly, the women’s hair, upswept into a bun at the top of the head, was a style fashionable in the 1810s, and one in particular is holding a parasol.
Though now badly worn, this quilt is a remarkable and imaginative document of Federal Era New England. Perhaps Mary depicted herself on the quilt, holding the parasol, which would have been a very high-style item in the early nineteenth century. She embroidered it with blue, cream, beige, and brown cotton thread, the uneven color of which suggests amateur dyeing at home. The brown ink outlines of her pattern appear under the deteriorated threads on the plain cotton ground fabric. Mary finished embroidering most of her design including a family scene as well a winged woman playing with two children. However, at the bottom of the central design field is a twisted serpent with an arrow-tipped tongue that was never embroidered but only outlined in ink; the serpent is surrounded by grapevines and flanked by hunters.
Mary likely duplicated this particular image of a serpent from one of two similar broadsides published in the Connecticut River Valley–one in Suffield, Connecticut, in 1799, and the other in Windsor, Vermont, in 1812–which show the same twisted serpent with flickering tongue. The costume details depicted in other areas of the embroidery indicate that Mary used the 1812 broadside as her inspiration. Its political commentary, in which the snake represented Britain, and the panther symbolized Vermont, encouraged Vermonters to take a stand against their former ruler in the early days of the War of 1812. As a merchant, Elisha Strong would have been seriously affected by the 1806 Non-Importation Act and Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807, followed by the War of 1812, all of which crippled New England’s international shipping and mercantile business.
We’re thankful that this relic survives as a reminder that grandmothers can be feisty in the coziest of ways.
By Lynne Bassett, 2015
Lynne Z. Bassett is an award-winning freelance museum curator specializing in costume and textile collections consulting and exhibitions. She is a contributor to a 2016 book, American Quilts in the Industrial Age: 1790-1870, on the collection of the International Quilt Study Center. Lynne Bassett was also the curator of the exhibit, Gothic to Goth: Romantic Era Fashion and Its Legacy, which was on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 2015-2016.