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Letter and photograph regarding Harriet Powers quilt

Letter and photograph regarding Harriet Powers quilt

Descriptive Summary

Title: Letter and photograph regarding Harriet Powers quilt
Creator: Smith, Jennie, 1862-1946
Inclusive Dates: 1886
Language(s): English
Extent: 1 folder(s)
Collection Number: ms1412
Repository: Hargrett Library

Collection Description

Historical Note

Harriet Powers is one of the best-known southern African American quilt makers, even though only two of her quilts, both of which she made after the Civil War (1861-65), survive today. One is part of the National Museum of American History collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The second quilt is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The cotton quilts consist of numerous pictorial squares depicting biblical scenes and celestial phenomena. They were constructed through applique and piecework and were hand and machine stitched. Powers was born into slavery near Athens on October 29, 1837, and lived more than half her life in Clarke County, mainly in Sandy Creek and Buck Branch. The first of the Powers quilts was displayed in 1886 at a cotton fair in Athens, where Jennie Smith, an artist and art teacher at the Lucy Cobb Institute, a school for elite white females in Athens, saw it. She asked to purchase it from Powers, but Powers declined to sell it. Smith remained in touch with Powers, however, and five years later Powers, having financial difficulties, agreed to sell the quilt for five dollars. At the time of the sale Powers explained the imagery in the squares, and Smith recorded the descriptions along with additional comments of her own. Powers's quilts are remarkable for their bold use of applique for storytelling and for their extensive documentation. Her use of technique and design demonstrates African and African American influences. The use of appliqued designs to tell stories is closely related to artistic practices in the republic of Benin, West Africa. The uneven squares suggest the syncopation found in African American music. Only one image of Powers herself survives. The photograph, made about 1897, depicts her wearing a special apron with appliqued images of a moon, cross, and sun or shooting star. Such celestial bodies appear repeatedly in her quilts and are often carefully stitched in complex ways, indicating their importance to her. These images may have related to a fraternal organization or had religious significance to her. Powers's interpretations of both quilts have survived, though they are likely influenced by their recorders. Powers herself probably was illiterate and may have used the quilts as visual teaching tools for telling biblical stories. In January 2005 Cat Holmes, a doctoral student in history at the University of Georgia, discovered the grave of Harriet Powers, as well as that of Powers's husband and daughter. The headstone, which was uncovered at the historic Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in Athens, reveals that Powers died on January 1, 1910. "Harriet Powers (1837-1910)" New Georgia Encyclopedia (Retrieved January 13, 2009)

Scope and Content

The collection consists of a picture of a quilt made by Harriet Powers which is now housed in the Smithsonian. Also included is a Xerox letter written by Jennie Smith describing the quilt as well as giving a key to the individual squares. Smith intended to exhibit the quilt in the Colored Building at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta.

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Letter and photograph regarding Harriet Powers quilt, ms 1412. Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, The University of Georgia Libraries.

Related Materials and Subjects

Subject Terms

African American quiltmakers -- Georgia -- Clarke County -- History.
Powers, Harriet, 1837-1911
Quilting -- Patterns.
Quilts -- Design.
Quilts -- Photographs.

Series Descriptions and Folder Listing

11Picture and descriptive letter