More "Code" blocks 

Wedding Rings

The block shown in the article is the Double Wedding Ring, which Wilson says represented both slave chains and being free to marry. (How does this help slaves escape?) But quilt historian Barbara Brackman's research shows the earliest examples and published patterns of this block are from the late 1920s.  On October 20, 1928, Capper's Weekly published a Double Wedding Ring pattern, whose design it credited to Mrs. J.D. Patterson of Wellington, Kansas. 

(This was Celia Yeager Patterson, b.1855 in Illinois to parents from Pennsylvania; she emigrated to Kansas between 1874-77.)  A week later the pattern appeared in Ruby McKim's Kansas City Star column, and also was featured in the Ladies Art Company catalog.  

Quilt historian Roderick Kiracofe says that there are no reliably documented quilts in this pattern that date before 1920.  Jonathan Holstein concurs.  In the September 1978 issue of Quilters Newsletter Magazine, Holstein observed that he had never come across a Double Wedding Ring quilt whose design, materials or workmanship suggested it dated from before the 20th century, and that that the design originated in the late 1920s or early 1930s in one of the many quilt articles published during that period:

This dating would account for its absence from the [Ruth] Finley book [Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them] (published 1929) and presence in the [Carrie] Hall book [The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America] (published 1935)....As for there not being "even folk takes about it to satisfy our curiosity," this would be accounted for by its recent origin.

In The Romance of Double Wedding Ring Quilts, Bishop observes that this pattern appears to be the most popular in the history of quilting - but notes only three claimed to originate in the 19th century.  The museum said to house one states it has no record of ever owning such a quilt; the evidence cited regarding the age of the other two (both of which are said to date from well after the Civil War) leaves many questions unanswered. For a detailed discussion of the Double Wedding Ring pattern and pictures of these quilts, click here.

Further, Wilson's claim about the Double Wedding Ring contradicts what her aunt Ozella said.  According to the account in Hidden in Plain View,  once slaves got to Cleveland they were supposed to "put on silk or cotton bow ties, go to the cathedral church, get married and exchange double wedding rings." In other words, slaves still in danger of being captured were told not to head for the Canadian border, but to stop in Cleveland, get dressed up, go to the biggest church in town, and get married, exchanging "double wedding rings," this is a 20th century custom; in the 19th century, only the bride received a ring. (Nobody ever explains how any of this helps slaves escape to freedom.)   

The authors of Hidden in Plain View seem to have realized the 20th century origin of the Double Wedding Ring pattern was problematic.  But while they are happy to take Ozella's claim the "Code" even existed at face value, here they doubt her recollection.  Rather than wonder about this inconsistency, however, they speculate that perhaps the Double Wedding Ring pattern wasn't used after all; perhaps it was another pattern (author Dobard has suggested Job's Tears, while Tobin points to Irish Chain), or perhaps not a quilt pattern at all - maybe the ringing of bells.  They propose that "cathedral church" didn't really mean an actual church, but perhaps a cave or a cemetery, or not an actual place at all.  Likewise, they suggest "get married and exchange rings" had nothing to do with marriage or rings.  On further questioning, Ozella admitted to the authors that perhaps this really meant getting your slave rings cut off in a cathedral where the stained glass windows would keep people from seeing what was happening inside - a very different message from the one she first volunteered.  

It seems that at least according to Hidden in Plain View, nothing can be determined about how or even whether this pattern was used or what it  conveyed. 

Fuller says simply that "we" call the pattern "Slave Chain," and that it meant that slaves were not free to marry.  (She does not explain how this helps slaves escape.)

But according to Boswell in a 2004 lecture:

From their steeples, Catholic churches hung quilts with the slave chain design, later renamed the wedding ring design by Dutch women in Pennsylvania. The quilt was hung when the bells rung at noon and indicated it was a safe place for the slaves to stay.

(We can assume that by "Dutch women in Pennsylvania" Boswell means the German-American community commonly known as the Pennsylvania Dutch but she gives no source for her information.)  Even presuming that escaped slaves were wandering around downtown at midday to see this quilt in its unusual location, it is hard to imagine a more obvious way of sending a "secret" message.  

"Sue Bonnet" 

Although the name seems to refer to the block we know as "Sunbonnet Sue," the one pictured and displayed by Wilson in the Traditional Quiltworks article is known as Southern Belle, Colonial Lady and Umbrella Girl, so both designs are addressed here.

Wilson says that "Free women in the North wore long dresses with Sue bonnets," and says this block tells slaves they would receive disguises once they reached the North. But capture was more likely (and disguise more critical) while escaped slaves were still in the South.  Why does the block tell them they will receive such clothing only "when they reached the North"? (In 2002 Boswell said the pattern used was "Britches", which meant "slaves could get clothes for their children", but in Lizzie's Story, that message is conveyed by "Bow Tie" - which in Stroud's The Patchwork Path tells fugitives to hide in a church!)  Whichever block was used, how does this message help them escape?

Early 1930s Sunbonnet Sue quilt blocksIf Wilson's reference is to the Sunbonnet Sue block, we must wonder why Eliza used this name for it. During the Underground Railroad period and for generations afterward, these deep-brimmed hats were universally known as "poke bonnets".  The first reference this writer has found to a "Sunbonnet Sue" quilt block dates to 1930.  And according to West Virginia Heritage Quilt Search findings, the Southern name for the block was "Dutch Girl". 

Why did Eliza call the block and the hat by a name not used in her part of the country? If she did use her region's common name ("Dutch Girl"), what message does that convey? 

In fact, the earliest "Sunbonnet baby" figures are in redwork embroidery, and date to around 1905.  The "Sue" applique block didn’t appear until 50 years after the Underground Railroad disbanded; the earliest known "sunbonnet" applique quilt (by Marie Webster, called Sunbonnet Lassies or Keepsake) was first published in the Ladies Home Journal in January 1911. Quilt historian Brackman  notes that the Sunbonnet applique pattern "did not trickle down to the quiltmaking public until the late 1920s". 

For more information on the history of the "Sunbonnet" block, including pictures of old patterns and illustrations, click here.

If the reference is in fact to the Southern Belle block, the number of names by which it is known shows how vague the period is which it supposedly depicts, making a 19th century origin doubtful. In fact, the style of dress shown in the block is a romanticized, 20th-century interpretation of 18th and 19th century fashion. The design's popularity spanned the 1920s Colonial Revival (ironically, considering the Code’s inclusion of it) the 1936 release of Margaret Mitchell’s book Gone with the Wind and its 1939 movie version. It was also available in embroidery transfers, dinnerware, planters, and pictures.  In fact, the pattern for the "Colonial Lady" quilt pictured in Wilson's article - the one she says her grandmother made "during the early 1950s" - is a later adaptation of the pattern that first appeared in Grandma Dexter's New Applique and Patchwork Designs (36B, #2900-2905), published by Collingbourne Mills in 1932-33, along with the Double Wedding Ring and Dresden Plate patterns.

Wilson holds the "Sue bonnet" quilt her grandmother Nora made in the 1950s

Dresden Plate quilt, 1936, California (Library of Congress collection)Dresden Plate

Wilson says this block instructs fugitives to "look for a church with Dresden Plate windows in Canada." She says that she was told by an historian that the Niagara Falls BME Church (presumably the church where "they would be welcomed by a Free Black Society") was "established in 1856 as a meeting place for the Black community."  

In fact, that church was established in 1814.  The original building, constructed in 1836 at the beginning of the Underground Railroad, is still standing.  Its windows are not round like plates, but pointed at the top in a Gothic arch as was typical of that era.

But although segmented-disk blocks did exist in the last decades of the 19th century, the name "Dresden Plate", and the design's unique serrated or scalloped edges, originates in the late 1920s, most probably with Ruby McKim's 101 Patchwork Patterns.

Dresden Plate block from HIPV - the block and photo were supplied by Dobard. Click to enlarge.Since the publication of Hidden in Plain View, Tobin has said that the "Dresden" reference in her book was an editorial error and had "nothing to do with the quilt block, despite the fact that there was a later quilt pattern of that name."  If as Tobin claims the inclusion of the Dresden Plate block was indeed an editorial error, why was one of the book's pictures of the Dresden Plate block supplied by author Dobard himself?  Who is right, Wilson and Dobard, or Tobin? What other editorial errors are in Hidden in Plain View?


The question is unavoidable: If the Dresden Plate, Wedding Ring, and "Sue" or Colonial Lady blocks are part of the Underground Railroad quilt "Code", why is it that while 19th century examples exist of all the other blocks named, there are none for these popular Depression-era patterns? How likely is it that they somehow disappeared without a trace for 60 years, only to suddenly re-emerge in the late 1920s?

If "Code" proponents somehow included these patterns by mistake, 

how much should we rely on the remainder of what they say?

Bear's Paw 

Most proponents claim in one way or another that this block instructed slaves to follow bear tracks to find water and fish (even though the American black bear is almost vegetarian, not a predator, and gets most of its protein from insects).  

Dobard has all sorts of ideas about this block, all having to do with bears.  He says that because "bears have very good memories" (unlike deer or mockingbirds?) they knew where to go for water and "natural" food.  Dobard then suggests that spring is the best season to escape, and that fugitives could hide in a bear's den - "provided the bear doesn’t return."  This presents several problems.  Cubs do not leave the den until April, and the National Wildlife Federation warns that bears can be dangerous "when accompanied by cubs, when surprised by the sudden appearance of humans, when approached while feeding, guarding a kill, fishing, hungry, injured, or breeding.) Finally, he says "there was only one state, really between Cleveland and Charleston where you would find all of these hills and mountains to follow the footprints of the bear. Today, we call that place West Virginia."  This echoes Wilson's claim that an Underground Railroad route went west across the Appalachian Mountains from South Carolina.  

But Dobard seems not to have consulted his book's own Underground Railroad map. No routes  are known to have crossed west over the Appalachians; they divide and pass on either side of that mountain range.  In fact, only one route traverses the Appalachians at all, and it goes from eastern Tennessee, northeastward towards Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Why would slaves be instructed to follow a long, dangerous route not described in any Underground Railroad history, or even on Hidden in Plain View's own map?   

Conversely, Clarice Boswell claims the pattern "alerted slaves to be aware of their environment and watch the path of the bear." 

By the 1840s, hunting had so decimated the bear population in the eastern US that hair-dressing manufacturers had to obtain bear fat from Canada. Population aside, spotting bear tracks is difficult even for experienced trackers:        

I find bears challenging to track because their feet are relatively flat. They walk plantigrade, or flat-footed. You would think that such a large animal would leave huge imprints. Actually, they don’t. Most of the time, the tracks I find are indistinct flattenings of the soil. Every once in a while, I find a nice clear print showing all five toes and maybe the claws. Usually the claw marks are not visible. And, sometimes, the fifth toe doesn’t make an imprint. Tracking bears is like tracking barefoot humans. There are no sharp edges on the feet to leave distinct impressions on the ground.

Leoman, presumably based on Boswell, says that the pattern identified "landmarks on the edge of the plantation."  How is this useful?  Why would fugitives be instructed to follow - or avoid - the hard-to-distinguish tracks of an animal they were unlikely to encounter? Would they really need to be told to "be aware of their environment"?  

Brackman catalogs several different "Bear Paw" patterns, three of which are shown below.  The earliest known by that name (from the first known catalog of quilt patterns, circa 1890) is at left, and looks nothing like the one used by the "Code". The one at center is from the same catalog as the Double Wedding Ring.  And in 1946 author Ruth Finley noted that the one at right (the design claimed by the "Code"),  is also referred to as "Duck's Foot in the Mud" and "Hand of Friendship"!    How do "Code" proponents know which block, and which name, is correct?

Three different "Bear Paw" designs from Brackman's "Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns".

How do we know which - if any - is the right one?


Monkey Wrench 

Ozella said this block instructed slaves to "gather tools for the journey ahead," but her niece gives the block two other, different meanings. First, Wilson claims the monkey wrench was a "very important tool on the plantation" and thus the pattern referred to slaves escaping in wagons (which the monkey wrench was used to repair).  Urban legend (propagated by Ripley's Believe it or Not in the 1930s) claims this tool was invented in 1858 by a Charles Moncke, but historians have found this tool originated in England, and that it was that it was indeed used on carriage axles and  advertised as a "monkey wrench" during the first half of the 19th century. 


However, the tool's use appears to have been extremely limited, particularly before the Industrial Revolution was well under way. Whether it was "very important" on any plantation, or if it was even widespread enough in the rural South for a significant number of slaves ever to have seen it, might be answered by a survey of plantation estate inventories.

Occasional claims that it was invented, made, or used in Africa appear to be without foundation. The adjustable ("monkey") wrench was developed for use on carriage axles, but wheeled transport was not used in subsaharan Africa. And while West Africans readily adopted European products (from rifles to machine-spun yarn), they actively chose to continue to import these items rather than manufacture them locally.

Wilson also says this was an African "symbol of a person who led caravans through the desert and through jungles". But no "deserts" or "jungles" exist in the part of Africa from which most slaves were taken; most of it is grassy savannah (much like a prairie) and seashore, with the remainder rolling hills and low mountains.  

If a block did have more than one meaning, how did slaves know which one was intended?

To add to the confusion, this block has also been known by at least 30 other names, including Bear's Paw - and Brackman's Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns lists four different blocks known as Monkey Wrench!  How do we know this is the right one?

Other blocks  

Fuller claims yet another pattern dating to the 1930s. Taking her cue from the title of a 1972 Goldie Hawn movie, she declares: 

See this butterfly quilt? This means freedom. Butterflies are free! It was made from dresses and shirts of people they left behind so that they could remember the people after they went North and were free.

In other words, this quilt was supposedly made by fugitives after reaching freedom - and has no value in the "Code".  Is there any evidence fugitives actually brought along scraps of clothing of the people they left behind?

In her lectures, Clarice Boswell claims for the "code" two more patterns not mentioned by either Ozella, her nieces, or anyone else I have found:

The grandmothers flower baskets pattern was given to slave owners and often hung in their backyards. They didn't know that a code was sewn into the quilt, leading slaves to a secret cellar or tunnel behind the flower gardens.

Although quilts made of hexagonal pieces were introduced in the mid-19th century, they were commonly referred to as "Honeycomb"; the 1894 Scribner's article says that in "various parts of the United States" it is called "Job's Trouble". Like the Tumbling Blocks pattern, such quilts were typically made of fine silks. Their appearance is very different from the "Grandmother's Flower Garden" name and design introduced in the 1930s. And along with the Wedding Ring, Sunbonnet and Dresden Plate blocks, it is among the Depression’s most popular quilt designs.

Boswell again:

The ring of roses [presumably President's Wreath] was used as celebration that the slaves had arrived safely in Canada.

No examples of such an "award" quilt have been documented.

The Carpenter’s Wheel [a/k/a Dutch Rose or Broken Star]... This pattern would have particular significance to slaves skilled in a craft—such as carpentry. It told slaves to “run with faith” to the west—northwest territories.

The nearest "west-northwest territories" would have been Iowa and Kansas - the latter known in the 1850s as "Bleeding Kansas" because of the violent clashes there between slaveowners and abolitionists.  It did not become a free state until after the Civil War began.  How likely is it that slaves would be instructed to go there?

Update, July 2008:  In a series of Emmitsburg [Maryland] Dispatch articles in 2003, Mary Ellen Cummings claims to have researched some of the "Code" patterns and to have found evidence they existed during the antebellum period. Highlights of Cummings' articles include citing a nonexistent title (Brackman's "Clues in the Attic" and author ("Raymond Tobin"), claiming among other things that the Wollen's [sic] Christian Temperance Union commissioned a Drunkard's Path quilt in 1850 (the organization was founded in 1873), erroneously asserting (probably based on some romantic 1930s quilt writers)  that a number of pieced patterns emerged during "[t]he Pre-Revolutionary War" (most originated after the 1820s), and that "the 1840 Presidential campaign gave birth to 5 [sic] new quilt patterns - Old Tippicanoe [sic], Harrison's Rose, Flying Dutchman and Log Cabin." (Yes, that's only four.)  The following year, Ms. Cummings "researched" the history of Sunbonnet Sue by plaigiarizing part of Serena Wilson's Traditonal Quiltworks article. The Dispatch seems to have folded in late 2007, and has blocked Google and web.archive.org from archiving its website. 

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