Tuesday, August 21, 2007

15 years ago Smithsonian Reproduced "Bible Quilt"

Who'd a Thought - 15 years ago quilters protested at the doors of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History ... telephoned and hand-delivered petitions signed by thousands of quilters to their Congressional Representatives... and more! Why?

In 1992 the Spiegel catalog (remember Spiegel?) featured handmade copies of historic 19th century quilts from the Smithsonian collection. The Smithsonian had licensed the reproductions to American Pacific Enterprises Inc. to generate needed revenues. The four quilts licensed were the 1851 Bride's Quilt, the 1830 Great Seal of the United States quilt, the 1850 quilt called Sunburst, and the beloved 1886 Bible Quilt stitched by Harriet Powers. The quilts were to be stitched in China.

Many factors contributed to the uproar. Some quilters felt the reproductions would "compromise their provenance and create confusion about their origins." Others argued that the Smithsonian should have contracted American quilters to stitch the reproductions, not folks overseas. Some feared the quality of the Chinese reproductions might be sub-par and, as a result, negatively affect the market for American-made quilts. Many wanted the quilts to be clearly labeled "Made in China." Others wondered why the Smithsonian would have reproductions made in China when the US was running a $12.7 billion trade deficit at the time with China. Some quilters also wondered if museums which collected their works would license their creations without permission in future.

Organizationally, quilters turned up the heat! The National Quilting Association faxed its official position paper to its member chapters requesting action. Smithsonian officials met with quilters to understand their viewpoints. Some concessions were made. One was that the Smithsonian would ensure its name and the copyright year (1992) were printed on each reproduced quilt.

1992 was the second year that I quilted. While I recall the controversy, I can't say I knew the details then. Looking at newspaper articles from the NY Times and the Washington Post from 1992 - 1993, here's a few tidbits:
  • Each of the quilts took 50 hours of labor by 3 or 4 workers
  • American textiles were used for the applique and Chinese-made cotton for the backing and batting. The quilt was sewn by machine, but quilted by hand.
  • Anticipated royalties during the 3 year contract were between $500,000 - $800,000
  • American Pacific sold more than 23,000 of the four reproductions by March 1993.
One can occasionally find one of the Harriet Powers' reproduction Bible Quilt on eBay, including the 12 page Smithsonian Collection booklet with photos and descriptions of each of the four quilts and numbered Certificate of Registration card.

It's been 15 years. I wonder what insights and reflections those who remember or were involved with the protests have now. I wonder:
  • How many Smithsonian Collection reproduction quilts were finally sold?
  • What did it feel like to protest on the steps of the museum in March 1992?
  • How really did quilters nationally get the word out about the reproduction concerns? Remember there wasn't instant messaging, blogs, websites, 5 cents a min long distance rates, or email news alerts. What were the protest communication channels?
  • What was the final list of agreed upon consessions by the Smithsonian?
  • What value did registering the quilts offer? Is there still a registration record?
  • Where can one (ok, me!) get a copy of the NQA 1992 position protest paper?
  • What's the thoughts of the Smithsonian textile curators today?
  • What's the perspective of American Pacific Enterprises today?
  • Will the remodeled National Museum of American History include an improved quilt display area?
  • Is there an active secondary market for the reproduced Smithsonian quilts?
  • Have the actual reproduced quilts lasted? Were they indeed of good quality?
  • Did the protest have a lasting impact on museum decisions to reproduce other historical quilts in their permanent collections?
  • Have there been any published articles or papers taking a considered look at the 1992 protests and aftermath?

Please do leave a comment with your reflections of the 1992 events. Did you purchase one of the reproduced quilts? Thank you!


Deborah said...

Wow, you still amaze me with your blog!

Great story and history. Always love your features.

Anonymous said...

I have one of the Bride's quilts. My mothet purchased 3 one for each of her daughters. I was wondering what they are currently valued at. It is queen size & has two matching shams. Any information would be greatly appreciated.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting story, please follow up on the above comment and perhaps get photos. This sounds like a good article for a magazine! I certainly never heard of it.

Anonymous said...

Several years ago I saw the Harriet Powers reproduction quilt being offered on Ebay as an antique. I wrote to the seller to tell him what he really had, and he was cooperative. He changed the listing description. I had sent him web links for more info. I was against those quilts being reproduced for many reasons.

nancy said...

I purchased the Indian Wedding Quilt from Speigal along with 2 matching throw pillows. Wish I had gotten the shams too - the quilt is still on my bed today - it washes like a dream. Even have the Smithsonian card that came with it.

joan wood said...

I bought a Smithsonian Bible quilt in 1993 from Garnet Hill. I had it cleaned about 10 days ago, had it in the trunk of my car, and it was stolen. How to replace it? I don't think it was registered.

Kyra said...


So sorry to hear that your Harriet Powers quilt reproduction was stolen. You might try eBay.com. Every so often one of the Powers reproduction quilts goes on auction. You can even set up an alert on eBay to notify you when the quilt goes on auction. Best wishes! Kyra

Unknown said...

I just made a huge find of one of the Bible Quilt reproductions at my local thrift store. I had never heard of it, but knew it was special the minute I saw it. I have spent the last two days following the trail on the 'net and learning about this amazing quilt. I am in awe of the quilt, and I hope that whomever donated it to the thrift store will know that the person who received it loves it and will treasure it. (Am I a lucky girl or what.)

Anonymous said...

I was just reading the Bible and thought about the Bible Quilt and shams I bought at Stroud's in Las Vegas years ago. It's reg. #4989 Funny thing it was on clearance which I thought was ashame since, as a quilter, I know what effort was involved in creating it. God Bless Harriet Powers and the Chinese workers for keeping the Message alive.

emmapeelDallas said...

I have 3 of the Bible quilts, and they've held up beautifully. I was not happy that American quilters were successful in stopping the manufacture of these beautiful and affordable reproductions. I have yet to see a "modern" American quilt that appeals to me or is affordable. Judi Boisson is the only one I know of who's making quilts that interest me, but no one seems to protest her overseas manufactured reproductions, which run at about $1600 for a king-sized quilt. I question what was accomplished in shutting down the manufacture of these beautiful quilts.

Anonymous said...

I have the bible quilt. My aunt purchased it on QVC the night my Granny died. It is very special to me and has held up very well. It is like new.

Unknown said...

Hi, I have the Bible quilt and want to sell? Anyone know how much I should list it for. I also have the book too.

Tussie Mussie Creations said...

I just found a Bible Quilt in the attic of an estate sale. The owner gave me the quilt because it had a hole and a couple of stains. I think I can repair it if I can find the right fabric. I have become so fascinated with the quilt, its history and controversy over the reproductions. I just received a copy of your book "I Accomplished." Do you know which issue of the Speigel catalog sold the controversial historic reproductions? What are these quilts worth now? Not that it really matters, I am having fun researching and planning the restoration of this little piece of quilting history.

Anonymous said...

I have the Brides quilt [queen]...I watched them on EBAY and found the matching shams and throw pillows. I would say $200-$300 when I was watching.

Unknown said...

I bought the bible quilt and
I really love and cherish it, i could have never afforded an original black folk art quilt. It is in pristine new condition, has never faded. It is still just beautiful. I put it on the back of my sofa, so it is displayed, but only in the summer when the leaves are on the trees, there is too much sun light in that room in the winter for the quilt.