The Quilting Bee and New Deal Collectivism

In the early years of the New Deal, some federal administrators aimed to develop experiments in cooperative living and farming. In 1933 the government established the Federal Subsistence Homesteads Corporation, which created subsistence farm homestead communities. The FSA sponsored cooperative loans for its clients to collectively purchase livestock and farm machinery. Also through the FSA, the Tenant Purchase Division broke up large southern plantations and subdivided them into small family farms anchored by cooperative farm associations and community centers. And federal farm labor camps provided temporary homes within a planned community for migrant families in California and Oregon.[1] The New Deal mentality was one in which Americans were stronger when they banded together, rather than went at it alone, what historians have called a cooperative ethos.

A romanticized version of collectivism took the form of a quilting bee, a nostalgia fueled embodiment of a community coming together to make the work both more efficient and more pleasurable.  Quilting bees, or quilting frolics or simply quiltings as they were often called, emerged as a performative reenactment of perceived colonial values during the sanitary fairs of the Civil War and late nineteenth century Worlds Fairs.  Work parties including quiltings certainly did exist in early America, although nostalgia for those preindustrial days made the myth more potent than the reality of such work parties. Already in the mid-nineteenth century, as early as 1830 by one newspaper account, women referred to such bees as “old-fashioned quilting part[ies].”[2]

Marjorie Collins, “Lititz, Pennsylvania. The Moravian sewing circle quilts for anyone at one cent a yard of thread and donates the money to the church,” 1942. Library of Congress.

Quilting bees made good sense during the Depression, as the women, and sometimes men, stitching together could support one another, lifting each other through the trials and tribulations of the Depression.  Carrie Hall and Rose Kretsinger’s romanticized 1935 description of the quilting bee of the pioneer days noted that “The social, gossipy interchange of neighborhood news did not interrupt the swiftly flying fingers of those expert quilters, but seemed rather to add to their agility.”[3] With such romanticized understandings of group quilting, it is no surprise that again and again FSA photographers presented women working in groups on quilts.

John Vachon, “Making a quilt in Scranton, Iowa, home. The ladies will give the quilt to a needy family,” 1940. Library of Congress.

Cooperative quiltmaking took various forms. Some federally sponsored planned communities used surplus cotton to make quilts, working under the direct auspices of an FSA project. Others, like the Moravian sewing circle in Lititz, Pennsylvania, photographed by Marjorie Collins, used their quilting to generate money to support the church.[4] Photographers took pictures of Helping Hands Clubs which made quilts to benefit those in need, such as the quilting bee John Vachon photographed in Scranton, Iowa, captioned, “The ladies will give the quilt to a needy family.”[5] These Helping Hands Clubs comprised farmwives associated with a farm cooperative or homestead community.[6] Cooperative homestead communities, like Granger Homesteads in Iowa, built under the auspices of the federal government’s Division of Subsistence Homesteads, promoted craftmaking as a virtuous educational activity for children and adults alike and provided community space for women’s clubs to meet and work on quilts.[7] Photographs of quilting bees—a romanticized form of collectivism that hardly any American would frown upon—were an easy way to celebrate and publicize positive aspects of one of the more controversial aspects of the FSA, its emphasis on collectivism.[8]


[1] Roberts, The Farm Security Administration and Rural Rehabilitation in the South, 36–37, 97, 109–28; John Beardsley, “River Island,” in The Quilts of Gee’s Bend: Masterpieces from a Lost Place (Atlanta: Tinwood Books in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2002), 26–27; Cannon, “Keep on A-Goin.”

[2] Lynn Zacek Bassett, “‘A Dull Business Alone’: Cooperative Quilting in New England, 1750-1850,” in Textiles in New England II: Four Centuries of Material Life, ed. Peter Benes, Annual Proceedings of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife 24 (Boston: Boston University, 1999), 27–43; Barbara Brackman et al., “Quilting Myths and Nostalgia,” in “Workt by Hand”: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts, ed. Catherine Morris (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn Museum, 2012), 28–29.

[3] Carrie A Hall and Rose Kretsinger, The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America (New York: Bonanza Books, 1935), 21.

[4] Marjory Collins, Lititz, Pennsylvania. The Moravian Sewing Circle Quilts for Anyone at One Cent a Yard of Thread and Donates the Money to the Church, 1942, Still image, 1942, LOC, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/owi2001014419/PP/.

[5] John Vachon, Making a Quilt in Scranton, Iowa, Home. The Ladies Will Give the Quilt to a Needy Family, 1940, 1940, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017810133/.

[6] John Vachon, Ladies of the Helping Hand Society Working on Quilt. Gage County, Nebraska, 1938, Still image, 1938, LOC, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1998021274/PP/; Dorothea Lange, Farm Women of the “Helping Hand” Club Display a Pieced Quilt Which They Are Making for the Benefit of One of Their Numbers. Near West Carlton, Yamhill County, Oregon. General Caption Number 58-11, 1939, Still image, 1939, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa2000004638/PP/.

[7] John Vachon, Members of the Women’s Club Making Quilt. Granger Homesteads, Iowa, 1940, Still image, 1940, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa2000041543/PP/; Paul Keith Conkin, Tomorrow a New World: The New Deal Community Program., Reprint; First published 1959 by Cornell University Press (Miami, Fla.: Hardpress Publishing, 2012), 301–2.

[8] For a discussion of the challenges to the “cooperative ethos” of the New Deal see Timothy Kelly, Margaret Power, and Michael D Cary, Hope in Hard Times: Norvelt and the Struggle for Community during the Great Depression (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016), 111–28.

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