In 1856, a seventeen-year-old girl from Rhode Island embarked on a unique and brilliant quiltmaking project. The girl’s name was Adeline Harris and her project was to make a quilt incorporating hundreds of celebrity autographs. While signature quilts were nothing new, the contributions were typically sourced from within a small community, such as a church, and functioned to commemorate a single event, such as a birth or marriage — Adeline, however, had bigger ideas, her community as the notable figures of her day, her event the phenomenon of nineteenth-century celebrity. Although one might imagine Adeline dutifully lugging a quilt to all corners of the globe for the famous to adorn with their scrawl, her process was much more ingenious (and practical). She sent a small diamond of white silk in the post with an explanation of her project and a request that they send it back to her signed. The returned and now autographed fragments were then worked into the quilt as the “top” planes in a wonderful trompe l’oeil tumbling block design. The response she got to her unusual request was nothing short of phenomenal — she ended up incorporating 360 signed pieces in total, including those from such luminaries as Jacob Grimm, Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Abraham Lincoln (one of eight American presidents represented). According to her grand-daughter the Lincoln signature was, due to a family connection, actually acquired in person, and Adeline was meant to have even danced with Lincoln at his inauguration ball. Many of the pieces included a short message in addition to the signature. The diamond from the poet and editor N. P. Willis includes the following (suggestive?) rhyme: “Dream what thou willst / beneath this quilt, / My blessing still is — Yours.”
You can read and see more of this quilt, and the brilliant Ms. Sears at The Public Domain.