More "Code" blocks
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.
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.
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.
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"
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.
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?
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
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
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
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.
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
Wilson holds the "Sue bonnet" quilt her grandmother Nora made in the 1950s
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
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.
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
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
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?
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
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
Conversely, Clarice Boswell claims the
pattern "alerted slaves to be aware of their environment and
watch the path of the bear."
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
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.
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"?
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?
different "Bear Paw" designs from Brackman's
"Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns".
do we know which - if any - is the right one?
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
as a "monkey wrench" during the first half of the
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.
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
If a block did
have more than one meaning, how did slaves know which one was
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?
claims yet another pattern dating to the 1930s. Taking her cue from the title of a 1972 Goldie Hawn movie, she declares:
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
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?
lectures, Clarice Boswell claims for the "code" two more
patterns not mentioned by either Ozella, her nieces, or anyone else I
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.
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.
ring of roses [presumably President's Wreath] was used as
celebration that the slaves had arrived safely in Canada.
examples of such an "award" quilt have been documented.
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.
"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?
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