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State Historical Society of Iowa Press Release

For immediate release September 27, 2010

Contact: Jeff Morgan, Jeff.Morgan@iowa.gov, (515) 281-3858

State Historical Museum puts “crazy quilts” on display

“Going Crazy! Iowa Crazy Quilts” exhibit opens Friday through March 2011

(DES MOINES) – The State Historical Museum will get a little crazy Friday when it opens a new exhibit of 17 historic quilts dating to the 1880s.

“Going Crazy! Iowa Crazy Quilts” opens Friday through March 2011 at the State Historical Museum, 600 E. Locust Street in Des Moines. Museum hours are 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and noon-4:30 p.m. Sunday. Visit www.iowahistory.org for more information.

“Almost anyone familiar with quilts knows the term ‘crazy quilt,’ ” said Michael Smith, acting director and chief curator of the State Historical Museum. “Few people today, however, realize that 120 years ago the United States was gripped by a nationwide fad for these unusual quilts that flourished for two decades. Even today, many people have an affinity for these quilts.”

“Going Crazy!” coincides with the 2010 American Quilter’s Society Quilt Show & Contest Oct. 6-9, 2010, at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines.

Following is information about the history of crazy quilts:

The “Japanese” Effect
Crazy quilt design reflects Japanese art and culture displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The Exposition was a celebration of the United States Centennial and was also one of the earliest “World’s Fairs.” American exhibits as well as foreign exhibits were on display. The Japanese pavilion drew 9.5 million visitors. Asymmetrical and irregular shaped patching in jewel tones of burgundy, green and gold became fashionable in wallpaper, textiles, interior decoration and crazy quilts. The term “Japanese” became one and the same with asymmetry.

How were they were made?
Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular 19th century magazine, encouraged women to take up making crazy quilts using contrasting stitches and oriental-inspired ornamentation. Thread and silk companies sold scraps and kits for making crazy quilts. More time was allowed for fancy work as sewing machines began to come into the home in larger numbers in the 1870s-1880s. Patches were decorated with embroidered graphics, appliqués, fabric painting, ribbons and beads. Often sentiments such as a scrap from a wedding dress, gown or clothing of family members were used in the quilt. Commemorative ribbons were used from military and political campaigns, military reunions and horseshows.

The Craze for Crazy Quilts
Perhaps the word “crazy” explains why making crazy quilts was a “craze.” English artists such as John Ruskin and William Morris, known for the aesthetic movement in the 1860s, believed a beautiful home had a positive effect on the morality and productivity of a family. The political and economic limitations placed on Victorian women forced them to exercise control within the domestic sphere. The idea of creating an artistically beautiful home added to the crazy quilt “craze.” The fad for making these unusual quilts lasted throughout the 1880s. In December 1887, Godey’s Lady’s Book called for ladies to cease and desist with crazy quilts saying, “We regretted much the time and energy spent on the most childish and unsatisfactory of all work done with the needle, ‘crazy’ patchwork.” Companies were still advertising kits and scraps for making crazy quilts well into the 1890s.


The State Historical Society of Iowa is a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, and is a trustee of Iowa's historical legacy and an advocate for understanding Iowa's past. It identifies, records, collects, preserves, manages and provides access to Iowa's historical resources. Its dual mission of preservation and education serves Iowans of all ages, conducts and stimulates research, disseminates information, and encourages and supports historical preservation and education efforts of others throughout the state. Visit www.iowahistory.org or call 515-281-5111 for more information.


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