When Ruth McConnell made her quilt in the 1790s, Philadelphia was America’s most prosperous, populous, and cosmopolitan city. It was also the young American nation’s capital—although this distinction was a temporary one, bestowed while the new capital of Washington, D.C. was being built. Ruth McConnell’s Philadelphia was a city of culture, stately buildings, and a host of stylish, finely-made goods for those who could afford them.
By the 1790s, Americans had fallen in love with all things neoclassical, a style inspired by the decorative motifs of ancient Greece and Rome. There was an air of elegance and refinement in this new neoclassical style.
As Ruth McConnell unfurled the colorful yardage of her newly-acquired chintz fabric, she scanned the decorative motifs it held. She then carefully cut out the flowers, leaves, birds, and the other elements printed on the chintz and then arranged them on solid white fabric in a design of her own choosing. Ruth gently tucked under the edges of the printed chintz pieces and then carefully sewed them onto the white foundation fabric. When finished, Ruth put the three layers of her quilt together—the white fabric with its lovely appliquéd design, cotton batting for warmth, and a plain white fabric as the bottom layer. Ruth—probably assisted by her Parry cousins—then spent hours making neat rows of tiny stitches to hold the three layers together.
Ruth McConnell’s composition was inspired by the new fashion for lightness and balance. She skillfully captured its delicate aesthetic through her graceful, balanced placement of the printed chintz fabric motifs. Airy arrangements of flowers spill lyrically over the quilt. Even the “solid” elements of Ruth’s design—the urn, cornucopia, and basket motifs—are rendered with a light touch. These motifs were very fashionable and could be found on all kinds of decorative items. For the baskets, Ruth was probably inspired by the pierced openwork ceramic and silver tableware of the period. For the cornucopias, Ruth would have seen the carved versions that graced tables, chairs, and other furniture. And the urns—well, urn motifs were everywhere!
About the time that Ruth finished her quilt, a virulent Yellow Fever epidemic broke out in Philadelphia, spreading like wildfire. Between August and November 1793, 5,000 Philadelphians died—about a tenth of the population. Another 17,000 fled (including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and members of Congress). Any family with the means left the city. Matthew and Ruth McConnell and their sons 12-year-old Robert and 7-year-old Matthew, were among those who fled the epidemic. Ruth was pregnant. Her daughter Julia was born at Beverage’s Farm in the countryside outside of Philadelphia on September 10.
The following year, Matthew McConnell purchased some land in the rolling countryside across the Schuylkill River in what is now West Philadelphia, and began to build a new house. Did Matthew McConnell buy this land to provide a safe haven for his family should another epidemic arise? Or was he following the lead of other prosperous Philadelphians who had established their own country homes there? By 1800, after experiencing some financial setbacks, the McConnells moved back to Philadelphia.
A Cherished Heirloom
Ruth’s quilt was a prized possession. It graced each of the family’s Philadelphia homes, and their country house as well. Then it travelled with Ruth to Cambria County after her husband’s death in 1816. Ruth’s son Matthew had moved to that central Pennsylvania county after the War of 1812; his mother and younger sister Julia joined him there. In her last years, Ruth lived with her now-married daughter Julia in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania until Ruth’s death in 1832.
Many years later, Ruth’s daughter, 55-year-old Julia McConnell Miles, wrote an inscription on the back of the quilt. Julia’s words read: “The work of my Mother Ruth McConnell & her cousins Hannah and Mary Parry in the year 1793 previous to my birth (September of that year) during yellow fever - Julia M. Miles May 14th 1849.” Julia clearly wanted to make sure that her mother’s name and the quilt’s story—including its ties to American history and her own birth—would not be lost to memory.
-- Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life