Quilt Blocks, Drunk Raccoons, and Political Campaigns
Baltimore album quilts, a popular quilting style between 1845 and 1855, inherently hold a trove of historical documentation. These quilts often display women’s and men’s signatures, meaningful passages, and symbolic imagery, all of which make Baltimore album quilts a powerful means of self-expression. Symbols ranged from abstract to literal and, when analyzed, they reveal a lot about mid-nineteenth century society.
One quilt block, in particular, cleverly depicts a log cabin and two rambunctious raccoons, one perched on a treetop and the other breaking into a barrel of cider. An amusing scene, these motifs together reference the Harrison-Tyler Presidential campaign of 1840.
By the 1840s, both major political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, held massive rallies and produced an outpour of political banners, badges, and broadsides supporting their respective candidates.[i] Parties manipulated their candidate’s and opponent’s images to increase their chances of securing the presidency. During the presidential election of 1840, this flood of political propaganda revolved around William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) of the Whig party and Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) of the Democratic party.
The log cabin motif that eventually became so synonymous with Harrison’s campaign that it appeared on ceramics, ribbons, and even quilts actually originated as a slur against him. Harrison’s political opponents mocked the Whig candidate as an aged old man who needed to drop out of the race. On March 27, 1840, the Burlington Free Press shared what the Democrats wrote of Harrison in the Baltimore Republican: “Give him, a barrel of HARD CIDER, and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of the his days in his LOG CABIN, by the side of a ‘sea-coal’ fire, and study moral philosophy.”[ii] Democrats sought to portray Harrison as senile and unfit for the rigors of presidency, yet the Whigs cleverly twisted the imagery to their benefit.
Depicted as living in a log cabin and drinking hard cider, an alcoholic drink associated with the working-class, presidential candidate William Henry Harrison promoted himself as the “common man’s advocate.”[i] Whigs chastised Democrat Martin Van Buren as an aristocrat who was incapable of understanding the average person, despite the fact that Harrison actually enjoyed significant wealth throughout his life. As evidenced by American families owning pitchers, printed fabrics, glasses, quilts, and other souvenirs that displayed Harrison’s campaign motifs, the Whigs succeeded in portraying their candidate as accessible to the commoner. Harrison won a sweeping victory in 1840, securing the first Whig presidential administration in the party’s history.[ii]
Although the museum’s particular Baltimore album quilt dates to the mid-1840s, the log cabin and hard cider imagery continued to appear on objects and in presidential elections, such as Whig candidate Henry Clay’s unsuccessful 1844 campaign (1777-1852), well after Harrison’s victory.[iii] Several Baltimore album quilts feature these motifs and, although we cannot conclusively state whether or not these women included the images as a political statement or as a means to demonstrate adept needlework skills, the inclusion of log cabins and hard cider barrels nevertheless highlighted the expansion and importance of political imagery that emerged in the 1840s.
[i] Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty!: an American History, 4th ed., vol. 1 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 392.
[ii] Burlington Free Press (Burlington, VT, 27 March 1840), Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84023127/1840-03-27/ed-1/seq-3/>
[i] Eric Foner and Olivia Mahoney, A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 35.
[ii] Ibid., 393.
[iii] Jennifer Faulds Goldsborough, Lavish Legacies: Baltimore Album and Related Quilts in the Collection of the Maryland Historical Society (Baltimore, MD: Maryland Historical Society, 1994), 33.