Photograph of a blue and red checkerboard quilt, with a signed piece of cloth sewn into each square.

Highlights from the Museum: The Sanitary Commission Quilt

2 min read

During the Civil War, soldiers and civilians fought not only the injuries and infections caused by battle, but also diseases caused by battleground living conditions. In 1861, the government formed the United States Sanitary Commission, allowing people barred from the front lines—women, older men and religious leaders—an avenue to support the war effort while providing significant improvements to basic sanitary and health practices. The Sanitary Commission itself can be considered a precursor to the American Red Cross, founded by the notable Clara Barton. The brave men and women who volunteered to be a part of the Sanitary Commission engaged in a variety of crucial tasks, including cooking for the soldiers, running the hospitals, sewing uniforms and nursing the sick. Through its efforts, the Commission reduced the rate of sickness and death in the Union Army.

“Clara Barton.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1889.

The Sanitary Commission’s efforts were partially funded through Sanitation Fairs. At these Fairs, civilians would receive a full meal and be able to browse and buy donated goods, the profits of which would go to a noble cause. At the 1864 Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia, two unnamed women donated a patriotic red, white and blue quilt to help raise money. A beautiful braided rope trimmed the edges, giving it a luxurious look.

However, what was—and is—most interesting about the quilt was the plethora of signatures of well-known Civil War-era politicians, artists, and military and religious leaders on each of the quilt squares.

Notable signatures include President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of State William H. Seward and even several major generals, such as George B. McClellan and George Meade. The quilt was also signed by John Greenleaf Whittier, a poet and abolitionist who wrote for several abolitionist magazines and newspapers to support the abolishment of slavery. Whittier’s famous works include Legends of New England Prose and Verse and Snow-Bound.

Another signer of the quilt was Joel Parker, the governor of New Jersey, who established a juvenile reform school during his term.

The quilt would have appealed to potential buyers at the 1864 Sanitary Fair for both its functionality and the novelty of all the incredible signatures.

Learn More:

Clara Barton Biography

Nora Barenblitt was the winter/spring 2014 Archives Intern at Ford’s Theatre and did some volunteering for the summer in the exhibits department. She received her bachelor of arts in history with a minor in geography from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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Nora Barenblitt was the winter/spring 2014 Archives Intern at Ford’s Theatre


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