Tucked away behind glass in the Baltimore Community Museum is an incredibly vibrant Eight Pointed Star quilt (see figure 1) made by Catherine Hensel Thomen prior to her 1871 marriage to Jacob Keller Thomen. Many quilts from this period were not produced to be functional objects, but rather to commemorate an event or relationship. Based on the provenance surrounding this particular quilt, it is likely that this quilt was produced to commemorate Catherine’s marriage to Jacob Thomen.
Catherine Thomen (figure 2) was born on August 28th, 1846 and died at the age of 95 on September 8th, 1941. Jacob Thomen (figure 3) was a civil war veteran born on January 27th, 1840 who died on October 21st, 1939 at the age of 99. According to a note written by Marian Thomen found within handwritten ledgers kept by the Baltimore Community Museum, he was affectionately referred to as “Uncle Jack” within the Baltimore community. Together, he and Catherine had four children; Lester Wallace Thomen, Pearl W. Thomen, Grace May Thomen Kistler (figure 4), and Chester Martin Thomen.
Quilts tell the history of a community, serving simultaneously as a functional object and as an art form embedded with layers of cultural context. For instance, the rich heritages of the self-sufficient women who helped build homesteads are stitched into the quilts from the era of westward expansion. In another example, more than a hundred years later as the feminist art movement began to develop in the 1970s, artists such as Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro used textiles and patchwork in their work to connect to this traditionally female medium.
Much more than just decorative or artistic objects, quilts were also frequently used as political tools in the years before women could vote. In the 19th century, women created quilts to raise funds and awareness for causes such as the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. One quilt pattern, the Drunkard's Path, became a popular medium for women to express their views on the proliferation and negative effects of alcohol.
This particular quilt, however, is most likely a commemorative marriage quilt. During the time period it was created, it was common for families to send their daughters into marriage with two or three quilts, although the folklore suggests that families would prepare as many as a dozen quilts. Quilts would often be the only decorative pieces a woman might have in her home because they were portable and easy to store. Although it is unknown how Catherine and Jacob met or how far apart their families lived, new brides traditionally made quilts as a physical reminder of their old life, especially if their new home was distant from friends and family.
The Eight Pointed Star pattern created by this quilt is one of the most common patterns used on quilts both because stars were used to navigate during the long trip west and because they were religious symbols for faith in God. Even a basic star pattern is not a simple design to cut or sew and the quilt present in the Baltimore Community Museum is especially complex, with each point of the star created through hundreds of smaller diamond pieces (figure 5). The quilt needed to be expertly pierced or it would not lie flat when it was finished. The intricacy of the design lends weight to the idea that this quilt was made to commemorate Catherine and Jacob’s marriage and was not intended for everyday use. This also explains why the quilt remains in excellent condition almost 150 years later.
Little is known about Catherine Thomen’s life, but her legacy lives on in the masterfully sewn quilt currently hanging in the Baltimore Community Museum. Her story represents the story of the many nameless Baltimore women who helped to build the Baltimore community, making it what it is today.
1. Peck, Amelia. “American Quilts and Coverlets.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/amqc/hd_amqc.htm (October 2004)
2. "Quilt Discovery Experience." National Park Service. Accessed June 25, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/home/planyourvisit/quilt-discovery-experience.htm.
3. "Quilts As Art." World Quilts: The American Story. International Quilt Study Center and Museum. Accessed June 25, 2018.
4. "Weddings." World Quilts: The American Story. International Quilt Study Center and Museum. Accessed June 25, 2018.