Textual Analysis

Quiltings, candy pullings, log rollings, and corn shuckings, were significant social gatherings identified by ex-slaves interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. Explaining ‘quiltins’, three interviewees state that, with permission from their masters, slaves were able to attend a quilting at another plantation.  The ‘quilting party’ is also significantly mentioned in 19th century American texts, as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1 English Quilt Term Variants 1800-1900 (sm=5)
  • The most popular way to refer to the event being discussed was ‘a quilting’, followed by the plural version ‘quiltings‘.

Both of these use the string of letters q-u-i-l-t-i-n-g as a noun, and its use as a noun is far more popular than its use as an adjective to modify ‘bee’ or ‘party’. Investigating the primary sources used in Google Books to compile this data confirms that in the phrases, ‘a quiltin’ and ‘a quilting’, q-u-i-l-t-i-n-g is being used as noun, not a verb or adjective. A quilting was its own significant categorical event in the American psyche. All of the terms occur less frequently in British English publications, and both ‘quilting party’  and the informal variant ‘a quiltin’ are absent altogether, as shown in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: 19th century British English quilt gathering term variants (Google Ngram, sm=5).

This indicates that audiences for ‘quilting party’ and ‘quiltin’ are unique to the American population. The ‘quilting party’ is mentioned more in 19th century American print publications than any of the term in British print. Returning to Figure 1, it shows that these American phenomena were first mentioned in print in 1820.

  • The phrase ‘quiltin’ peaks in American print in the 1840s (~0.000000850%) and ‘quilting party’ in the 1850s (~0.000001750%).
  • The phrase ‘quiltings’, the most frequently occurring variant in British print, was most popular in the 1830s (~0.000001600%)

    Figure 3: American English quilt gathering term variants (Google Ngram, sm=3).
  • Most of these variants show a rapid birth and increase in American print usage 1820-1850.
  • The phrases ‘quiltin’, ‘quiltings’, and ‘quilting party’ slowly decrease in occurrence in American print throughout the 20th century.
  • The ‘quilting bee’ replaces ‘quiltin’, ‘quiltings’, and ‘quilting party’.

The phrase ‘a quilting‘ sees revival and growth, beginning in the 1970s, but investigating the Google Books used for the data set shows that, for the latter half of the 20th century, quilting is used as an adjective in these occurrences, not as a noun. Falling out of usage first is ‘a quiltin’, hitting a low during the 1920s and never recovering. The phrase ‘quilting party’ occurs as often relatively in the 1940s as it does in the 1850s, consistent for roughly one hundred years before a steep decline in the 1950s. The pluralized noun ‘quiltings’ decreases in popularity from the 1880s throughout the 20th century. Social quilting gatherings by these names have a life span of ~140 years, likely their audience did as well. In the lifespan of these particular 19th century American quilters a phenomenon occurred that did not exist before, and it has since faded from collective discussion.

One subject that has occupied popular conversation in the quilt domain since the 1996 publishing of Hidden in Plain View is the theory that quilts blocks were used for a code system in the Underground Railroad. Figure 4 below shows the introduction of each phrase in to American English texts.

Figure 4: American English URR Myth (Google Ngram, sm=1).
  •  The uniquely American social gatherings to finish quilts predate the popular phrase ‘underground railroad’, but not the act of resistance embodied in the phrase ‘runaway slave’.
  • The two Google Books showing ‘underground railroad’ mentioned in 1800 are incorrectly dated and are actually from 1860 and 1890.

As Figure 5 shows, of any social gathering for slaves with the potential for planning such an endeavor, a ‘quiltin’ or ‘quilting party’ are the most significant.

Figure 5: Terms for slave gatherings in American English during the URR (Google Ngram, sm=0).
  • The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 requires that runaway slaves are returned to their owners.
  • In 1854 the Republican Party forms.
  • In 1858 Abraham Lincoln, nominated by the newly formed Republican Party, runs for Senate.
  • January 1, 1863 President Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation.

  • In 1857 the Dred Scott decision states that the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to slaves.
  • In 1860 Abraham Lincoln is elected President of the United States.

The theory of a quilt code has many enthusiasts, but no concrete evidence. Quilt historians and Underground Railroad scholars have disputed and criticized the idea since it came to light.  Comparing American and British English shows that the ‘quiltin’ and ‘quilting party’ are unique American events that developed in the 19th century. An examination of the relative occurrence of all social slave events and acts of escape shows that quilt gatherings had the most potential for the correlation of activities. Looking at the quilt patterns associated with the myth demonstrates that the phrases ‘railroad crossing’, ‘breakfast dish’, ‘birds in the air’, and ‘half an orange’, are significantly used in the decade prior to Emancipation.

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