A New Deal for Quilts is both a book and exhibition. The book, lavishly illustrated with governmental photography and images of quilts, will be available in October, published by the International Quilt Museum, in association with the University of Nebraska Press. Preorder it here. Accompanying the book is an exhibition at IQM with the same name, guest-curated by Janneken, which will showcase quilts made during the New Deal era, including a TVA quilt, a friendship quilt created by WPA work crews in Oklahoma, and some of the ubiquitous scrap quilts of the era. The exhibition runs October 6, 2023 – April 20, 2024 at the IQM at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
During the New Deal—the Roosevelt administration’s legislative response to the Depression—not only did quiltmakers create quilts on both an individual and collective level in response to the unemployment, displacement, and recovery efforts in the U.S., the government drew on the symbolic heft of quilts and quiltmaking in its relief and rebuilding projects. The federal government used quilts to communicate about its programs assisting the impoverished and values and behaviors individuals and families should employ to lift their families out of dire straits. I assert that federal programs—including the Farm Security Administration, the Works Progress Administration, the National Youth Administration, the Federal Arts Program, and the Tennessee Valley Authority—embraced quilts to demonstrate the efficacy of these programs, show women how they could contribute to their families’ betterment, and generate empathy for the plight of displaced and impoverished Americans.
Both the government and American quiltmakers symbolically drew on myths of colonial-era fortitude and self-sufficiency as a means of overcoming poverty. Quiltmakers during this era used quilts to express their frustrations with the downturn and to feel empowered, despite precarious financial positions. These ideas stemmed from the nostalgia-fueled Colonial Revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which celebrated a romanticized version of the experiences of colonial-era Americans, while altering the values with which Americans tried to live, as many looked longingly to the imagined simplicity of the pre-industrial past despite the rapidly modernizing society.