During the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to combat the Great Depression, the quilt became an emblem for how to lift one’s family out of poverty, piece by piece. A New Deal for Quilts explores how the U.S. government drew on quilts and quilt-making, encouraging Americans to create quilts individually and collectively in response to unemployment, displacement, and recovery efforts. Quilters shared their perspectives on New Deal programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the National Recovery Administration, and sent quilts as gifts to the Roosevelts and other officials. Federal programs used quilts’ symbolic heft to communicate the values and behaviors individuals should embrace amid the Depression, perceiving the practical potential of crafts to lift morale and impart new skills. The government embraced quilts to demonstrate the efficacy of its programs, show women how they could contribute to their families’ betterment, and generate empathy for impoverished Americans.


“In this sense, it was not a new deal for quilts at all, as quilts—much more than mere bedcovers—have long empowered their makers and recipients in the face of adversity, in both myth and reality. Whether in our collective romanticized memory, covering our bodies as we sleep, or hanging on museum gallery walls, quilts are potent objects, and the U.S. government harnessed that power to relieve the impact of the Great Depression.” 

A New Deal for Quilts is a book by Janneken Smucker, named New Deal Book of 2023 by the Living New Deal, a national non-profit that preserves the legacy of the New Deal. An exhibition at the International Quilt Museum accompanied the book.

Primary Source Collection

The federal programs developed as part of the New Deal resulted in a multitude of rich primary sources in the public domain that document the ways that governmental administrations and everyday Americans used quilts to express their values and confront challenges. In addition, newspapers, magazines, and other publications from the era demonstrate how Americans interacted with information about quilts and quiltmaking. And the quilts themselves are among the most powerful forms of communication, as Americans made quilts in support of New Deal programs, to send as gifts to the Roosevelts, and to express their hopes and fears amid the economic downturn.


These short written pieces explore what quilts and quiltmaking activities mean within the context of the Great Depression, governmental intervention, the Colonial Revival, and consumer and popular culture of the 1930s.

About the Project

This book and accompanying exhibition are about how government intervention drew on the motif of quilts and quiltmaking during the Great Depression. Prior to March 2020, I was worried that my research was irrelevant and did not relate to contemporary issues. But as the United States government again faced unprecedented circumstances to provide relief, purpose, and support to the American people, it has been an apt time to reflect on how traditional practices and objects can play a role in lifting the spirts, income, and artistry of citizens. Read more about this project’s origins and goals.