Stitching History

What an old quilt can teach us about antebellum America

A detail from the Crouch quilt
A detail from the Crouch quilt

Rachel May’s new book, An American Quilt, has an innocuous enough title, invoking an innocent American pastime. But sometimes ugly secrets can be hidden in the stitchwork—or even, as in the case of the quilt at the heart of May’s book, behind it. The paper-pieced quilt was stitched together from fabric basted onto hexagon-shaped paper templates. These scraps, which turned out to be letters and documents dating all the way back to 1798, tie together one family from the abolitionist North and one from the slave-owning South. This paper trail led May to stitch together the stories of the women behind the quilt, enslaved and free. In the process, she shows how dependent the “free” North was on the enslaved labor of its southern neighbor.

Go beyond the episode:

  • Detail of the Crouch quilt tops which began the Rachel May's investigation into the lives of Eliza, Juba, and Minerva, the enslaved women who worked for the Crouch family. (Images courtesy of Rachel May)

Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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