Enjoy an introduction to quilts with the National Postal Museum and the National Museum of American History. Educators touch on the artistry and history of quilts through collection images, a children’s book, and postage stamps.
Stamp Stories: Quilts
Maureen: Hi, I’m Maureen from the National Postal Museum.
Carrie: And I’m Carrie from the National Museum of American History.
Maureen: Welcome to Stamp Stories, where we explore topics that appear on postage stamps. New stamps come out every year on wide variety of topics. Today we’re going to learn about different kinds of quilts. Quilts are a special kind of blanket that are made from two pieces of fabric sewn together with filling inside to make them very warm. They usually have interesting patterns or decorations on them.
Carrie: Did you know we have around 1000 quilts in our collections at the Smithsonian? Over 500 of them are in the National Quilt Collection at the National Museum of American History. Before we explore some quilts though, let’s read our story for today. Pay close attention and see if you notice any quilts in our story.
Our story for today is Owl and Office Smitty and the Case of the Missing Blankie, which was illustrated by Laura Brenlla and written by me, Carrie Heflin. Let’s start our story.
This is Owl. She lives in Wonderplace. Wonderplace is an exhibit at the National Museum of American History. Owls sleep during the day, so Owl is always awake at night when the museum is closed. This is Owl’s friend Officer Smitty. Officer Smitty is the night guard at the museum. That means he keeps the museum safe at night.
Owl and Office Smitty love exploring the museum together. One of their favorite things to do is to look for lost things. The museum is a big place and sometimes people lose the things they bring in with them.
“I found a mitten.”
“I found a dinosaur.”
“I found a jacket.”
“I found a hat.”
Owl is good at finding things that are lost because owls can see really well at night.
One night, Officer Smitty brings Owl a note. It says:
I lost my blankie today. I remember looking at a really old blanket with starts on it in one of the museum’s cases when I saw something so GIANT, I had to go over and take a closer look. I was so busy looking and telling Mom all about it that I didn’t notice I dropped my blankie. I think I left it near that old blanket with all the stars, but Mom and I couldn’t remember which exhibit it was in. Can you please help me find my blanket? It helps me go to sleep.
“Owl, we have to help Elliott! Losing your blanket can make you feel sad and scared. I wonder which exhibit in the museum has an old blanket,” says Officer Smitty.
Owl and Officer Smitty think very hard. Then Owl has an idea. “I think I know where the old blanket is. Follow me, Officer Smitty!”
Owl leads Officer Smitty to the Star-Spangled Banner. “Here is the old blanket with all the stars! Let’s see if we can find Elliott’s blanket. Come on, Officer Smitty!” says Owl. Office Smitty looks confused.
“Owl, this is not a blanket. This is a flag,” says Officer Smitty.
“This is called a flag? Officer Smitty, I’m not sure I know what a blanket is. Can you describe it to me?”
“Of course, Owl. A blanket is something soft that helps keep us warm and cozy. A lot of blankets are square or rectangle-shaped. People have used blankets for a long time. Some of the blankets here at our museum are very old,” says Officer Smitty.
“I don’t think us owls use blankets. Now wonder I didn’t know what a blanket is! This flag looks soft. Couldn’t someone use it to cover up? asks Owl.
“I suppose they could, but this flag is too big for someone to put on their bed or snuggle up with in a cozy corner. Blankets need to be smaller,” says Officer Smitty.
“So we need to find something that is not too big, square or rectangle-shaped and soft, and can be used to cover someone up or keep them warm?” asks Owl.
“That’s right. Can you think of anything in our museum that fits those clues?” asks Officer Smitty.
Owl and Officer Smitty think about all the things they’ve seen in the museum on their adventures together. Suddenly, Owl has an idea! “I know where there is an old blanket in the museum. Follow me!” says Owl.
Owl swoops and Officer Smitty follows her around the corner to a different exhibit. “Here is an old blanket. I’m sure that we will find Elliott’s blanket here,” says Owl.
“What a great idea, Owl. This is a rebozo. Rebozos can be used as blankets and for many other things, like as a shawl or to carry a baby.”
“But I don’t see Elliott’s blanket,” says Officer Smitty.
“Owl, we have looked everywhere and we still haven’t found Elliott’s blanket. What if we can’t find it?” asks Officer Smitty. Owl lays a supportive wing on her friend’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Officer Smitty. If we think a little bit more, we will figure this puzzle out together!” says Owl.
Owl and Officer Smitty think very hard. Then, Officer Smitty’s face lights up. “Owl, I think Elliott was distracted by the biggest object in the whole museum.”
Owl follows Officer Smitty into the Within These Walls exhibit. Sitting in the middle of the room is a tremendously huge house! “I think I remember seeing a blanket in this exhibit. Let’s check behind the house,” says Owl.
“Look, here is a blanket with stars. It’s called the Cradle Quilt. And here is Elliott’s blanket!”
“We found it!”
Owl and Officer Smitty share a quick high five before Owl hurries back to Wonderplace. She is tired from all this searching and the sun is almost up. Officer Smitty will keep the blanket safe until Elliott can come and get it.
The next morning, Elliott and his mom come to the museum and head straight to Wonderplace to ask if anyone has found his blanket. Office Smitty is waiting for them and hands Elliott his blanket with a smile. Then Officer Smitty heads home, and Owl smiles and nestles in for a good day’s sleep. They both need some rest before another night’s adventures. The end.
I hope you enjoyed the story of Owl and Officer Smitty and the Case of the Missing Blankie. Did anyone notice a quilt in the story? You may have noticed this quilt when Owl and Smitty found the missing blankie at the end of the story. This quilt is a cradle quilt which means it was used in a baby’s cradle. I notice that there are shapes on this quilt. Do you notice any shapes? What do they remind you of? The shapes on this quilt remind me of stars. I also notice that the shapes are in a pattern where every other row is the same. That means that row 2 and row 3 look different but row 2 and row 4 look the same.
Here is another quilt from the museum’s collection. This quilt is called the Friendship Quilt because it was given as a gift from one friend to another friend. I notice that there are different shapes on this quilt than on the cradle quilt. Do these shapes remind you of anything? They remind me of tiny houses. Does this quilt have a pattern like the cradle quilt? Hmm, it looks like most of the rows are different on this quilt. Only row 2 and row 4 are the same. But looking carefully at the rows did help me notice something else. The way these houses are placed on the quilt creates some shapes. The pink houses in the middle make a diamond shape and the green houses in the middle make the shape of the letter “X.”
The last quilt I want to show you today is called a Hexagon Quilt. Why do you think it is called a hexagon quilt? I think it might be because these shapes all over the quilt are hexagons. A hexagon is a shape that has 6 sides. Let’s take a close-up look at one of the hexagons.
Can you count the sides with me? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6! I notice that there is another shape inside each of the hexagons. This shape reminds me of a star or a snowflake. I also notice that this quilt is very shiny. That’s because it is made out of a shiny material called silk. Have you ever felt something made out of silk before? What did it feel like? Was it soft or rough, smooth or bumpy?
Thank you for helping me find all of the shapes and patterns on these quilts! Now let’s take a look at some of the quilts on stamps from the National Postal Museum’s collection.
Maureen: Thanks, Carrie, for sharing your book with us, and for sharing all those photos and information about some of the quilts in the National Quilt Collection. Quilts have been made and used by people in the United States and all over the world for hundreds of years. Like the Cradle Quilt from the American History Museum, the quilt that these designs are from is very old. It was made in New York City in 1875 – that’s almost 150 years ago! The stamps you see here are from the American Folk Art stamp series and they are the first ones issued by the United States Postal Service that have quilts on them. Folk art refers to arts or crafts that come out of everyday traditions and customs that help express things about a certain culture. Quilts are a great example of folk art in the United States because they are made to serve a purpose – to keep us warm – but they also show the creativity of the people who sew them, and they are often made with the extra materials people have around them.
You can see the shapes on these four stamps are all the same – they are made to look like baskets – but the colors and designs on the fabric are different.
When you put these stamps together, they can make a new design. Here you can see what the four stamps look like, turned at different angles.
And here you can see the full sheet of 48 stamps, with a repeating pattern of basket shapes. It really helps us imagine what the actual quilt looks like!
The quilts you see on these stamps are all examples of Amish craftwork. The Amish are a group of people who live in communities together and who share religious beliefs, values, and customs. They are very famous for their tradition of sewing quilts by hand, and these Amish quilts were selected to be the first images for the American Treasures stamp series that was started in 2001. These quilts are all from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, an area known for its Amish populations. Amish quilts usually feature bold geometric designs and rich colors. These quilts are a bit newer than the last one we looked at – they were probably made less than 100 years ago.
The quilts on these stamps are from a place called Gee’s Bend, Alabama. These are also from the American Treasures series, and they a little newer than the Amish quilts. These were all made between 1940 and 2001. Do you notice how these designs look a little different from the others we’ve seen? Many of the designs on these quilts are improvised, which means they don’t follow a strict pattern, but the people who sew the quilts create them as they go along. They are made with all kinds of different materials, including worn-out clothing or other second-hand things that can be given new life in a beautiful quilt. These pieces are all made by a community of African American women who live in Gee’s Bend and work together on the quilts.
The quilts of Gee’s Bend are an important piece of art history within the United States, and they have become pretty famous in recent years. People pay a lot of money to buy them now, and they are often displayed in museums. The Gee’s Bend quilts even served as an inspiration for the design of the dress Michelle Obama is wearing in this famous portrait of her by Amy Sherald. We can find quilts and quilt-inspired art in communities across the United States and the world.
Carrie: Isn’t it great how books, stamps, and objects can teach us about quilts? If you’d like to learn more about quilts and American history, check out the National Museum of American History website for more fun quilt content and resources.
Maureen: Thank you so much, Carrie, and thank you to our audience for joining us today. You can learn more about quilts on stamps and on all kinds of other topics by visiting the National Postal Museum’s website. We encourage you to just keep exploring!