There were several references during the lectures and at QuiltCon that nudged my interest in researching and understanding more about quilt history. As Daisy @Ants to Sugar recounts, Mary Fons referenced her interest in the history of quilt making in the Maker to Making a Living Lecture. Listening to the testimonials of the Gee’s Bend Quilters also got me thinking about quilting history. In particular, I have been interested in learning more about civil war era quilts, so I figured I might as well scratch that itch! 🙂
Quilts were made and used to raise money and keep soldiers warm on both sides of the war, but I especially am proud that quilts were used by abolitionists to work towards ending slavery. Quilts were made to be shown and sold at fairs to raise awareness and money for the abolitionist cause . That much seems certain and agreed upon.
What peaked my interest recently about Civil War era quilts are several conversations in the past year I had with friends who are teachers about the use of quilts in the Underground Railroad. Based solely on the conversations I had with these friends, it appeared to me that new research had been done to show that quilts were also used to either mark safe houses along the Underground Railroad or even went so far as to contain “code” to help give directions for the next leg of the journey. However, this is where things get a bit more murky when I look into it.
There are no exact numbers for the number of slaves who were able to escape slavery between 1800 and 1865, but estimates put the number as high as 100,000. Many of those escaping from the south did not even flee north.
Escape from slavery was not easy. Most slaves were uneducated and ill prepared for a long journey. Escapes were generally not planned; they were spur-of-the moment decisions made to take advantage of a favorable circumstance. Few took advantage of the Underground Railroad from Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas. In fact, […], less than 1% fled north. Most melted into local black communities passing themselves off as free men or headed south to the parts of Florida and Mexico which had been settled by the Spanish to pass as having Spanish ancestry. Slaves that did travel north found themselves facing professional slave catchers patrolling the borders between slave states and free states. 
Addressing the romantic notion head on that quilts were made that had specific symbols – or codes – that helped slaves escape, another source states:
Sometimes these quilts had symbols in them, but they were not secret codes that helped runaway slaves. The story of the Secret Quilt Code began with a book called Hidden in Plain View published in 1999. Before then, there was no talk about a Secret Quilt Code. In all the interviews with freed slaves done in the 1930s, no one mentioned the Code, and since 1999, many historians have disputed the truth to the story. It is also unrealistic to expect that slaves could gather the material and make a quilt fast enough to help escaping slaves. Escaping slaves certainly did not carry quilts with them in their escape to freedom – they were just too heavy. 
What concerns me about all of this is how widely the false idea might be spreading through the US. And as a Wikipedia entry on the topic so baldly points out, this myth might be a way of avoiding the more difficult conversations about the reality of the era.
These theories have been adopted widely for use in classrooms in the United States as a more palatable and fun way to share “history” instead of talking about the harsh and brutal realities as well as challenges of slave escapes. 
Obviously, I quickly found a fair amount of articles and publications to point out the fact that the use of quilts as code for the Underground Railroad is a myth, so some steps are being taken to make sure that correct knowledge is recorded. As I mentioned, I have had several conversations with friends who are teachers, and I plan to go back and re-open those conversations now that I have had the opportunity to learn more about the topic.
So, what details are known about quilts made during this era of American history?
[Q]uilts were generally made with basic fabrics and very simple block patterns. Time was always an issue, so the faster the quilts could be made the better.
As time went on, women would often cut up two existing bed quilts and re-sew them into three or four cot quilts!
Men’s clothing, old blackets, feed and fertilizer sacks, wool weave, old uniforms, suits, coats, twill flannel, sleeves, pocket-flaps and pants legs were all used to make quilts!
Sometimes they used the wardrobes of the men who had died fighting in the war to make blankets for other soldiers. Many of the quilts did not have batting as it was scarce and often could not be found. The backing was generally made out of old fertiliser or feed sacks.
These types of quilts were often very roughly put together, with large chick track stitching. Their purpose was solely practical and functional with the aim to keep someone warm, and there is no beauty or skill in the finished masterpiece.
Many soldiers were buried in their quilts and as a result very few original civil war quilts have survived. As most of the quilts were made hastily and were poorly constructed, many did not survive the war. By the time the war ended it is estimated that over 250,000 quilts had been made for the union soldiers. 
By searching for quilts that have been authenticated to be made in this era by museums, I was able to fine a few images of quilts from the Civil War time frame.
Is there a specific era in quilting history that draws your interest or imagination?