A Feminine Mania Which Has Many Sides.
“What’s all this talk about crazy quilts?” asked a Chronicle reporter of a young lady acquaintance.
“Is it possible that you have never seen one?” exclaimed the young lady, “when dozens of them have been exhibited and raffled right here in San Francisco. Why, I’ll show you mine. There,” said she triumphantly, after spreading before the attentive gaze of the reporter a dazzling army of bright-colored blocks, “that is a ‘crazy quilt,’ or will be when these blocks are all stitched together on the machine. You can judge of the effect by placing them together.”
“It’s a great deal of work, isn’t it?” asked the reporter.
“Well, that depends,” was the reply. “Mine is made on these squares with a piece of cloth for the foundation of every block; on each of which the silks and velvets and brocades are placed in erratic fashion, the more zigzag the pattern and the greater the contrast of colors the better. Some, though, put all their patches on one large foundation, which is a very bulky, clumsy way, for, as you see, each scrap must be worked all around its edges with a fancy stitch in bright silk or floss. The ordinary stitch is the featherstitch or else the old-fashioned ‘herring-bone.” But, of course, if one choses, the needlework may be very elaborate, illustrating all the stitches known to decorative art.”
“I should think that the silk for the ornamentation of the patches would an item of expense?”
“It was to me until I stopped buying it by the spool. I get waste silk now, all sorts of colors, for 25 cents an ounce.”
“Where did this idea of a ‘crazy quilt’ originate?” was the next question.
“Well, I’ve been told all sorts of versions, but I believe that the truth is this: The officers’ wives in a military post somewhere on the frontiers invented it. Of course it’s only a new variation of an old idea. Patchwork is as old as the hills. Silk patches are an innovation on the calico quilts of our grandmothers, who early in their tender years were initiated into the mysteries of ‘star quilt,’—that of the ‘rising sun,’ ‘fox and geese,’ ‘flowers’ and the ‘log cabin’—all the rage during the Presidential campaign of ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler too,’ as the old Whig war-cry had it.”
COLLECTING THE PATCHES
“Tell me why this particular style is called a ‘crazy quilt?’” persisted the reporter.
“Oh, for any number of reasons. Because the pattern is crooked, confused, confounded; because there’s an infatuation in the work itself; because to see one is to want to make one; because in our search for pieces we drive dressmakers, milliners and dry goods clerks crazy.”
“Why, is it so hard to make a collection of patches?”
“Awful!” exclaimed the young lady in a tone of desperation. Everybody wants them. Whenever two ladies meet greetings are hurriedly exchanged, and if they do not both speak at once, the one who can talk the fastest says: ‘Oh, my dear, I’ve been wanting to see you this long time to ask you for some silk scraps.’ ‘You’re not making a crazy quilt are you?’ the other one interrupts. ‘I was going to ask you for some scraps myself!’”
“”Why, do you know,” continued the young lady, “I’ve had people I was visiting want to cut off a piece of my bonnet string.”
“Yes. I’ve asked all my gentlemen friends for their cravats and hat linings; there’s always a clean piece, you know, underneath. Last week I went to my milliner for some pieces and she told me all their customers were coming for the same thing. I didn’t get any there. Then I went to my dressmaker, who does a rushing business. ‘Mrs. F.,’ said I, ‘have you any—‘ ‘Stop,’ said she, waving me off with her hand; ‘don’t say “crazy quilt” to me. I’m wild. I’ve just taken away my own shears from a lady who intended to snip off some pieces of the goods on my cutting table.’ Nothing there. It’s no use going for samples—they won’t cut them for us at the stores. But you’ll save me your cravats, won’t you?”
DEVICES OF THE MANIACS.
The reporter, after giving the required promise, took his leave. On his way he stopped at a dry goods store, and as a query said “Samples” to the clerk at the silk counter.
“Don’t give any after 10 A.M. Are you making a crazy quilt, too?” “No. But tell me, do you have many such requests?” “Guess we do! The ladies have no conscience at all; expect us to cut and hack away at our richest goods. We’ve had to shut down on the sample business. Why it took time and cost us something. But we’ve had our fun out of it, too. One day a little girl came in and asked for samples of light silks. I noticed that she looked queer when I gave them to her. Before she got out of the store she began to cry. Mr. S., the proprietor saw her and asked her if she’d lost anything. What do you suppose she said? ‘No, sir; but that man over there cut the samples in such long, thin strips, that they’re no good for the built.”
“What was too bad,” said the reporter.
“I can tell you a better one than that of Mrs. __,” mentioning a well-known name that the reporter was surprised to hear. “She came in to look at some brocades. I showed her our handsomest. She couldn’t make up her mind. Then she said: ‘I really don’t know which of these blues will match my silk, but if you will cut me a piece of each I can tell when I get home and send for the one I like best.’
‘Why, mamma, that’s what you said at all the stores,’ said her small boy.”
“Dead give-away, wasn’t it?” said the reporter.
“Guess so, for the youngster, for she took him out quick.”
San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 28 September 1883: p. 3
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil hopes that none of her readers are sample fiends. Dry-goods stores resented the “sample nuisance” as a form of shop-lifting:
A manager of a dry goods firm, when asked about this petty form of shoplifting [candy], said that what the manager of the candy department said was as true in his case as in others. He further made the statement that this form of theft [for crazy quilts] was actually conducted by mail…
“Well, that is where we lose, principally. Persons in town and out of it—women mainly—write to us for a bunch of sample of some particular color. That is the last we hear of the samples or the supposedly prospective customer. And if we had any means of checking it we would probably find that the same women were procuring samples of other colors from other stores. These silk and satin samples cost money, and the loss occasioned by this deliberate theft amounts to something considerable in the year.
“Another form of petty larceny is of the same class, practically, but really more expensive to us when you know that the samples that go in this case are fine cloths, such as are used for trouserings and coats. These samples are those used in the making of fireside rugs.” Watertown [NY] Daily Times 23 February 1905: p. 6
A scheme to stop the sample fiends was invented by a Boston retailer:
Fair dames who have been wont, when paternal and fraternal neckties ran short, to replenish their crazy quilt materials by writing to large dry goods houses for samples of this or that silk or velvet, will be obliged to exert their ingenuity in some new direction, if a scheme to be put into operation by a big Sixth avenue concern is generally adopted. This firm is now having printed on large cards a figure something in the shape of a numerously spoked wheel. The figure is in black lines, and the triangular spaces between the lines are filled on each side with a different shade of color. Above is a space on which is to be pasted a small piece of silk or velvet goods. This will show the quality of the material. The triangular spots, each of which has a number printed on it, stand for the colors. The fair applicant for samples “from which to order a new dress” will hereafter instead of a package of 15 or 20 scraps from as many different pieces of goods, receive a few of these cards and will read beneath
The Gay Wheel
A printed request that she will order her dress from the one the quality of the sample which suits her best, and according as to colors, to the numbers. The firm that is about to try this plan claims that its loss from its “sample” nuisance amounts to thousands of dollars annually, and that any attempt to refuse outright the demands of the ladies results in a severe loss of trade. Boston [MA] Herald 20 June 1886: p. 8
“Crazy-quilt fiends” would stop at nothing to get fabric, even importuning celebrities:
The “crazy quilt people,” we are assured, are worse than all. They apply by the hundreds to Mrs Harrison for scraps of her dress. Scores of them send her bits of silk, on which she is requested to write her name, the autograph being intended to form the centre-piece of a crazy quilt. If she does not immediately comply with their demands, they write and beg of her to hurry up. Wanganui Chronicle 12 September 1890: p. 3
The crazy quilt fiend has again tackled the Governor. This time the request is not for a piece of one his discarded neckties, but for a block of silk bearing his autograph and the date. Verily, some of the prevailing fads are peculiar. Idaho Statesman [Boise ID] 17 May 1891: p. 1
This narrator suggested that the styles of gents’ neckwear had been altered by the craze:
The crazy quilt rage goes on in as intense a fashion as that of roller skating, and Lent has not subdued but rather emphasized the rush for “pieces” of the most gaudy hues. Men growl that their neckties are not safe, the dry goods houses are getting niggardly about samples, and gradually masculinity is arraying itself against another woman’s right. Have you noticed the tendency toward sobriety in color in men’s neckties? It is a growing one and only the result of a plot between men and brothers against women and sisters. And I don’t wonder at it. Neither will you, when you lose a brilliant-hued scarf for days and have almost forgotten it, when it suddenly appears to you in the form of a center piece in a crazy quilt. I have gone necktieless, suffered and cursed, and am therefore a rabid adherent of the new movement in neckties, even if it, in the end, leads us to black and sober solid colors. There are more ways of crossing a river beside jumping it. Therefore a change of style in mankind’s wear that will cripple the crazy quilt mania will be in the nature of an elevation of the dynamiter with his own mechanical can. Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH] 25 March 1885: p. 4
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.