Destination Amish Quilt Country: The Consumption of Quilts in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

Article excerpt

Abstract: During the late twentieth century, visitors flocked to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, often with the goal of purchasing an Amish quilt. As fine art, souvenir, commodity and symbol, these Amish quilts played a significant role in attracting tourists--and consumers--to Lancaster County. Appealing to both consumers' taste for modern art and nostalgia for the perceived simplicity of the past, the market for antique and new Amish quilts helped establish Lancaster County as a quilt destination. Examination of primary historical sources--including tourist literature, popular books and magazine articles drawing attention to the Amish and their quilts, and advertisements marketing quilts for sale--reveals the extent to which quilts became part of Lancaster County's tourist and consumer lure.

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The 2005 official map and vacation guide to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, urges, "Face it, you'd love to own an authentic, handmade Amish quilt" (see Figure 1). These words, however, are almost unnecessary, as the guide's message is hardly subliminal. Page after page of the glossy brochure features the rich colors commonly found on antique Amish quilts. Each section, with headings such as "Your Grandmother's Kitchen" and "Historic Towns and Villages," highlights a traditional quilt pattern, using it in the graphic design of the page. The designer has subtly inserted lines of digitally created quilting stitches around boxes introducing various tourist attractions and amenities. This vacation guide's message is clear: Lancaster County equals quilts. (1)

Few cultural objects have become more closely associated with a geographic place than Amish quilts with Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, during the late twentieth century. Lancaster County's nickname, "The Garden Spot," coined before the American Revolution, signals both the county's fertile farmland and a prelapsarian pastoral ideal. (2) Through its close association with this idyllic Garden Spot, the thriving Amish quilt industry has played a significant role in attracting tourists to the region. In recent decades, Lancaster County became a destination for people seeking Amish-made quilts as tangible goods that reflect consumer tastes for modern art and contemporary home fashions and that also appeal to a nostalgia for the perceived simplicity of a rural past. (3) In short, Amish quilts--both antique and new--offered visitors the possibility of possessing a commodity from Lancaster County deeply imbued with a sense of nostalgia.

EARLY AMISH QUILTMAKING IN LANCASTER COUNTY

The Amish began settling in southeastern Pennsylvania during the mid-eighteenth century. Emigrating from Germany and Switzerland to escape the religious persecution and economic hardships of Europe, Amish families established their North American settlements with a strict church discipline and a desire to be separate from the "world." In subsequent centuries, the Amish maintained this separation through their continued use of Pennsylvania German dialect, their distinctive style of plain dress, and their Ordnung--written and unwritten guidelines that, among other things, limit use of tractors, electricity, automobiles and telephones.

Amish women in Lancaster County began making quilts in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, adopting and adapting the bedcovering style of their non-Amish neighbors. Unlike most nineteenth-century American quiltmakers who favored quilts pieced with lively printed calico fabrics, the Amish used only the same solid-colored fabrics used to sew their plain, "un-worldly" clothing. Perhaps as a symbolic means of maintaining their distance from the rest of society, these Amish quilt-makers adapted a center medallion quilt style, which had been out of fashion among most quiltmakers since the early nineteenth century. Distinct among all Amish communities, Lancaster County Amish quilts featured large fields of fabric in simple geometric patterns such as center diamond, center square and bars (see Figure 2). …

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