The Bird Trap Quilt – May be new to me, but has been around since the 1870sWhile doing my browsing of quilt articles on Chronicling America, I found a full page article from 1906 that showed a woman with a quilt on her lap with many different block patterns listed.
“Many Old Patterns - Among the designs in which the patchwork pieces were placed in the quilt were rising sun, goose chase, three-pieced rhomboid, honeycombed hexagons, Star of Bethlehem, diamond and cube, winding blade, trap and nine patch, Philadelphia pavement; oakleaf and orange, flower vase, willow chair, cravat, basket of fruit, plain basket, swallow at the window, nine patch, ocean wave, whig rose, king's diamond, six-pointed star, double swallow, evening star, daisy bird-trap (usually with log cabin alternate patches), sunlight and shadow, friendship center, devil's wall, star and circle, star and compass and Roman stripe.”
I was familiar with most of them, but had never heard of a “bird trap” design and that piqued my interest, especially since it was mentioned with log cabins – one of my favorites in quilt research.
I have done quite a bit of gathering of log cabin mentions, pattern mentions and fair premium awards given for quilts using the log cabin design. One of these days I will post about it.
In the meantime, while researching the quilt pattern called “Bird Trap” I found several references to the quilt pattern in folklore sources. In the 1933 article Quilt Names in the Ozarks by Vance Randolph and Isabel Spradley, the pattern is mentioned along with some 250 quilt patterns described to them.
“Some quilts have geometrical names, or other names ... , Blue Bird, Bird Trap, Bird's Nest, Bird in a Tree ... Rider, Square Log Cabin, Spool Bed, Pickle…”
In 1978, Sally E. Weatherford wrote about a quiltmaker Nellie Virege (aka Verge) from Murfressboso, Tennessee in the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, where she gives this description, along with an illustration of the “Bird Trap” design. (More on Nellie later.)
“The “Bird Trap” (illustration #1) is an individual block or square. Of the quilts viewed, several were in this pattern. Each block is different both in makeup and colors, but the general pattern is the same. The entire quilt s pieced of this same block design. A small inside square is banded with strips pf alternating colors which forms the “Bird Trap.” The pattern itself is quite similar to one found in several quilt books and referred to as “log Cabin,” in which a small square is banded in strips. With the “Log Cabin,” however, light and dark strips are arranged in a manner so that the completed block has an overall pattern as well as the individual patterns of the blocks. These overall designs may appear has horizontal zigzags, diagonal stripes or concentric diamonds, among others. The “Bird Trap” does not use this arrangement of light and dark. The block illustrated is executed in blue, red, white, and brown and white checked strips surrounding a green center square.”
On the web site Folklife in Louisiana (www.louisianafolklife.org), an interview by Susan Garrett Davis in the Quilting section, of two quilters Turlie Richardson and Lillie Payton, the Felicianas – “Lilly Payton only recalled the name of one of the patterns she used, a "Bird's Trap," which resembled the traditional log cabin pattern.”
Pecolia Warner, 1983 WCA (Woman’s Caucus for Art) honor award recipient, bio indicates “The artist’s designs spring from many levels of her experience. Some of her quilts have been inspired by memories of her mother’s quilts, by dreams, by introspection, by patterns seen in books, by household objects or by things remembered from her life in farming. Designs she calls “Pigpen” and “Bird Trap” reflect her memories of objects she watched her brother build as a child. … Two of her better known quilts she pieced from blocks containing the letter “P” – as in Pecolia.”
Most recently, in 2013 blogger Sophie showed her version of a “Bird Trap” quilt. She was inspired by a “Bird Trap” quilt she saw in the Belger Arts Center collection.
These are the more recent, i.e. after 1900 mentions of the “Bird Trap” quilt patterns, but what about the 1800s? I was on a quest and found several mentions in the 1870s along with several interesting images of bird traps by with twigs.What About the 1800s?
At the October 1871 Giles County Fair in Tennessee, in the Floral Hall “A satin and velvet quilt made by an old lady in Gallatin in 1868, compelled the praises of all. It was an elegant hexagonal, put together with hexagons and diamonds, lined with silk, bound with satin and edged with cords, which cords terminated at each end into two rich tassels. There was also a bird-trap quilt, made of silk that was greatly admired.”
Later, at the West Tennessee Agricultural and Mechanical Association Fair in Jackson, Tennessee, the Floral Hall had quilts. “The quilts and counterpanes on exhibition showed considerable ingenuity and skill. One of the latter made of silk of the bird trap pattern, had 10,200 pieces in it, a monument to the patience and industry of the maker.
In the Dalton of North Georgia Fair Association, Fourth Annual Fair held in October 1873, Mrs. Thomas A. Harris entered two quilts, a silk bird trap and a worsted log cabin.
“QUILTS, COVERLETS AND SPREADS. Mrs. ME Harkins’ quilt attracted universal attention; while it is showy it is not dashy. Miss Euphine Higgins has one that was made of 5,500 pieces. Mrs. C.C. Fulsome one of the Rock Mountain patterns. Mrs. Thomas A. Harris a silk quilt of the bird trap pattern; also, a worsted one of the log cabin pattern. While these were all beautiful, and attracted marked attention, the diamond figured quilt made by Miss Celeste Conner, aged twelve years, (a grand-daughter of Judge Towns,) was the one which all examined. The sprightly Miss received many honest compliments and she deserved them all.”
Theft of Bird Trap Quilt – More than one?
Yes, I found two references of “Bird Trap” Quilts being stolen. The first one was in Danville, Kentucky, in 1876 according to the Kentucky Advocate, May 5, 1876. There were a rash of robberies, and a quilt was stolen.
“The neighborhood between Perryville and Nevada seems to be infested by one or more thieves, who are becoming quite daring, and which will probably end in someone getting into business. The houses of Peter Hamilton and Mrs. Peach, were robbed some time back. A short time since, Wm. Moss’ was entered and a lot of things taken. Last Sunday seek, while Squire J.C. Barkley and family were away from home, entrance was obtained, his papers searched, it is supposed for money, and carried away a few things. On last Thursday, during the absence of the family, the residence of Chas. Gray was entered, a table drawer broken open and a pocket-book containing forty dollars were found, but in searching the pocket-book a ten-dollar bill was found that the thief had overlooked, making Mr. Gray’s loss in money about $30. There was also taken a worsted quilt, black and red, of the log-cabin or bird-trap design, with blue buttons sprinkled over it. We hope that everyone seeing this notice will be on the look-out for the quilt, -- as the finding of it may lead to the detection of the thief.”
The second mention of a stolen Bird Trap Quilt was reported in The Tennessean on February 19, 1897.
“INTERESTING CASE. Eva Smith Found Not Guilty of Stealing a Quilt. A very interesting case was heard yesterday afternoon by Justice Jake Levine, at his office on North Cherry street. It was that of Eva Smith, colored, alias Jane Smith, who was prosecuted by Albert White for the larceny of a quilt. Albert White was rooming in the house of the defendant, and claims that when he went to his new lodging house he carried eight quilts, among which was a "bird-trap" one. He said he folded and packed all eight of the quilts between the mattresses of his bed. He then went off for a few weeks, and upon his return, claims he found the "bird-trap" quilt missing. One of his witnesses, a woman, claimed that Eva Smith hid it in a straw mattress, but the house was searched in vain by a Constable. The case was dismissed on this evidence, and the prosecutor taxed with the costs.”
Log Cabin Blocks Have Light and Dark Sides – Except One
Most of the log pattern quilt designs dictate that there should be a dark side and a light side, save for one. In the 1884 booklet by the Patten Publishing Company called How to Make the Home Beautiful says that “Shading may be done in a variety of ways – diagonally or straight across, or there may be no shading attempted, but the colors placed hit or miss, which makes a really pretty patchwork when it is not convenient to have colors enough to handsomely shade a quilt.”
This design option was what quilters Nellie Verge, Pecolia Warner and Sophie from Block Lotto used to make their “Bird Trap” quilts.
Actual Bird Traps
In Pecolia Warner’s bio, she mentions she was inspired by her brother building a “Bird Trap” when she was younger. It got me thinking as to what a bird trap looked like. I found some good images in W. Hamilton Gibson book on Camp life in the Woods.
“The Coop Trap. …the first thing to be done is to cut four stout twigs about an inch in thickness and fifteen inches in length and tie them together at the corners,…This forms the base of the coop. Next collect from a number of twigs of about the same thickness, and from them select two more corresponding in length to the bottom pieces. … proceed to lay the two selected sticks across the ends of the uppermost two of the square, and directly above the lower two. Another pair of twigs exactly similar in size should then be cut and laid across the ends of the last two, and directly above the second set of the bottom portion, thus forming two squares of equal size, one directly over the other. The next pair of sticks should be a trifle shorter than the previous ones and should be placed a little inside the square. Let the next two be of the same size as the last and also rest a little inside of those beneath them, thus forming the commencement of the conical shape which our engraving presents. By thus continuing alternate layers of the two sticks cob-house fashion, each layer being closer than the one previous, the pyramid will be easily and quickly formed.… proceed to build up the sides until the opening at the top is reduced to only four or five inches across. The square board will now come into play.”
This description pretty much describes the quilt pattern used by Mrs. Nellie Verge. You can see an actual bird trap made using this method done by Christopher Nyerges. He calls it the Arapuca bird trap, and ancient and primitive method for capturing birds.
I also found an etching done by German artist Konrad Grob, where an older gentleman is constructing a bird-trap while two youngsters watch intently. The steel engraving was printed in the August 1879 volume of the Art Journal of London.
Now back to Nellie Virge (Verge)
The Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin was the only place I could find an illustration and description of what a “Bird Trap” quilt looked like. There were many descriptions and illustrations of log cabin quilts from the mid-1870s, and mentions as early as 1862. In the early 1870 references there was a distinction made between log cabins and bird trap designs, and that was evident in the 1906 article.
I was lucky enough to get a copy of the 1978 Profile of a Murfreesboro Quiltmaker and Her Craft article by Sally E. Weatherford. I was fascinated by the quilter Mrs. Nellie Virge, age 96 when her story was written and decided to do a bit of research on her. Her parents were Jim and Sophia Humes of Mooresville, Alabama. In 1989, Nellie Verge passed at the ripe old age of 107 (See Age Note). Right there, the story was similar, but the spelling of the name was a bit different. It turns out the spelling changed back and forth on several documents before finally resting on Verge.
At the time of Nellie’s death, February 14, 1989 she was survived by 4 sons and 3 daughters, 40 grandchildren, 75 great-grandchildren and 21 great-great grandchildren and is buried in Stones River Cemetery, Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She was born to freed slaves and was one of 10 children (her youngest sibling was actually a granddaughter to her parents per 1920 census). At age 19 she married a sharecropper named Athey Verge. Her husband passed in 1959 and Nellie, being retired, and having a good supply of fabric from her sons who worked at a factory in Murfreesboro, began quilting as a hobby.
On March 5, 1989 following her death, Kelly Anderson, News Journal Lifestyles Writer penned a tribute to Nellie with the help of two of her daughters, Mrs. McGowan and Irean Hughes. I want to share her story with you.
Sunday, March 5, 1989, Murfreesboro, Tenn; LIFESTYLE, Sunday News Journal
Nellie Verge: 107 years of good material
By KELLY ANDERSON, News Journal Lifestyles Writer
Jim and Sophia Humes greeted their squalling baby into a world of oppression in sweltering Mooresville, Ala., July 14, 1881. For the next 107 years of her life, Nellie Verge learned to use her God-given abilities to get she and her family through rough times. Mrs. Verge's last few years were spent with her daughter, Mrs. Lizzie McGowan. On Valentine's Day this year, Mrs. Verge died in bed of old age. Born to freed slaves and married to a sharecropper named Athey, Mrs. Verge had never known a time until her last few decades that hadn't been lean and hard. "We were poor," Mrs. McGowan, Mrs. Verge's daughter, explained. “But we never really knew it. We always had food, clothing and a roof over our heads. "Since daddy was a sharecropper, there were good years and bad ones. When there was a bad year, we didn't have nothing. I don't know how we all made it. As a child, you don't understand the poorness. Now I look back and wonder how we survived." Mrs. McGowan and her 11 brothers and sisters survived and grew up to be optimistic, a quality they attribute to their, mother's survival instincts, wisdom and old folk knowledge. Using the vegetables they grew on their plot of land, Mrs. Verge would always provide a meal for her children. I’m sure she worried about whether we were getting a well-balanced meal, Mrs. Irean Hughes, another of Mrs. Verge's daughters, commented. But she never let us know about these problems she faced." Sugar and flour sacks were utilized by Mrs. Verge for her children's clothes and shoes. "All our dresses and panties were made from sacks," Mrs. McGowan said. "Since we were too poor to buy elastic, all our clothes had drawstrings, including our panties. "To make the little houses we lived in look more homey, she'd paper the house with magazines ' and newspapers," Mrs. McGowan related. "It looked good. She'd always make it so the newspaper could be read. The Verge children were also treated to Bible readings by their father and ghost stories by their mother at night. I remember the women with, their burnt front legs from working in front of the fireplace all the time," Mrs. Hughes recalled. "Mom, with her burnt legs, would sit in front of the fireplace at night and tell us ghost stories right before we went to bed. “It's such a vivid memory for me. I remember those stories like they were told yesterday." To keep her children warm on frigid Tennessee nights, Mrs. Verge made quilts and quilt pieces. These weren't ordinary quilts. They were quite extraordinary. So extraordinary that Mrs. Verge's designs were featured by Sally E. Weatherford in the September 1978 "Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin. “Mrs. Weatherford wrote: “With over 100 quilts to her credit during her lifetime, Mrs. Verge admits she started piecing quilts as a child of 7 or 8. Quilting back then, she is quick to remind, was for practicality rather than beauty. As one of 10 children, she soon learned to pitch in and help provide the large family with patch-quilted coverlets. "Of course, these were made out of whatever fabrics were available. Worn-out coats, pants, dress skirts (the skirts wore out quicker than the bodices) and anything else too ragged to wear, but too good to throw away were used for quilts. Mrs. Verge can show how an “old- britches” quilt (as she-calls it) was made from heavy wool overcoats and pants, and patched in almost a ‘crazy quilt’ manner." Quilting for Mrs. Verge changed from necessity to hobby after her husband died of cancer in 1959. Instead of material from old clothes, Mrs. Verge now had the luxury of fabric supplied by two of her sons, who got leftovers from a factory in Murfreesboro where they worked. Mrs. Verge possessed another skill which assured healthy children a knowledge of folk medicinal remedies. One such remedy suggested taking a wad of snuff and soot, kerosene, turpentine and sugar and mix it with spider webs and apply it to your child's heel when a nail has been stepped on. That's exactly the remedy Mrs. Verge put on her daughter's heel. "We didn't go to the doctors when we were little Mrs. McGowan said. "If we fell ill, she'd cure us. It always worked. "Sardine juice was also wrapped - up in a cloth and tied around the head for ailments. Other cures included sheep shap tea and chicken cap tea for measles, bruised gypsum leaves as an ointment, sagegrass and peachtree bark tea for fever and mare’s milk for whooping cough. "She didn't believe in doctors right up until she died," Mrs. McGowan related. "She believed in her home remedies." However, Mrs. Verge did resign herself to a fairly lengthy hospital stay when she threw a blood clot into her lungs in 1981. “The doctor told her that condition would kill most people in seconds," Mrs. Hughes recalled. "Momma lived more than seven years with it. "Even in the hospital she wanted a can of sardines," Mrs. Hughes related with a smile. "When she finally got a hold of a can, she gulped the sardines and juice down. I suspect she thought that would cure her." Mrs. Verge died fulfilling 107 years of life. She left behind her one sister, Sophia Lewis of Huntsville, Ala.; three daughters, Lizzie McGowan, Effie Verge and Irean Hughes of Murfreesboro; four sons, Floyd Verge and the Rev. R.C. Verge of Murfreesboro, Jimmy J. Verge of Nashville and Willie Verge of Detroit, Mich.; 40 grandchildren; 75 great-grandchildren and 21 great-greatgrandchildren. "I can't ever remember her being unhappy," Mrs. Hughes said of her mother. “The only time I can recall her crying was when our little brother, Joe Robert, died of spinal meningitis. If it were me and my children in her world, I would have been in the pits of depression." What do her daughters attribute as the reason for her long life? "She was a very religious woman," Mrs. Hughes reasoned. "Both she and daddy were very religious. She was a member of Stones River Primitive Baptist Church for 21 years." Before joining Stones River," Mrs. Verge professed her faith and joined Mt. Zion. Her family's religious convictions can be traced even further back, however "I remember her talking about how her parents would have to meet in a cabin in secret for religious services," Mrs. Hughes explained. "It had to be very secretive so the ol’ master wouldn't find out." But Mrs. McGowan has another answer to this puzzling question: "I guess she was made out of good material."
Age Note: Nellies’ age varies from record to record. Her obituary and follow-up story indicate a birth in 1881 or July 14, 1881, respectively. The Social Security gives December 14, 1888 as her date of birth. The census records also vary – along with the spelling of her last name, using Virge or Verge depending on the year. The earliest census record for her is in 1900, and listed her as 2 year old daughter of James and Sophy Humes. By the 1910 census, she was listed as the 14 year old daughter of Jim and Sophia Humes, with a birth year of 1896. By the 1920 census, she was married to Athey, with an age of 23, a birth year of 1897. The 19030 census indicates 35 year old Nellie was born in 1895, and finally the 1940 census has her at age 50 with a birth year of 1890. Her most likely date of birth was 1896, making her 93 at the time of death and 82 when the Folklore article was written.
Image 1 Sources:
FASHION ADOPTS THE GAY PATCH WORK QUILT by Sarah Williamson; The San Francisco Call, December 30, 1906
Quilt Names in the Ozarks by Vance Randolph and Isabel Spradley; American Speech, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Feb., 1933), pp. 33-36, Published by: Duke University Press
The Tennessee Folklore Society, June 1978; Profile of a Murfreesboro Quiltmaker and Her Craft by Sally E. Weatherford, Cover and pages 108-114
The Daily News-Journal (Murfreesboro, Tennessee), 13 Apr 1979, Page 2; Library Report
Nashville Banner (Nashville, Tennessee), 01 Oct 1959, Page 53; Athey Verge
The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), 16 Feb 1989, Page 31; Nellie Verge
Image 2 Sources:
Women's Caucus for Art, 1983 WCA Honor Awards; National Woman’s Caucus for Art Conference, Philadelphia, February 15-18, 1983
Pecolia Warner 1982, Photo by Maude Wahlman
P Quilts: Pecolia Warner of Yazoo City
Pig Pen Quilt (Log Cabin Variation) by Pecolia Warner
Pecolia Warner (1901-1983) in 1975 with one of her "P Quilts"
Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts by Maude Wahlman, 1993
FOUND INSIDE – PAGE 55
Bird Trap quilt by Pecolia Warner, Yazoo City, Mississippi, 1982; 83"x68"
“Made of twelve different squares, each composed from her own combination of a Log Cabin pattern and triangles”
Bird Trap w/Block Lotto Birds
The Box Trap: An Ancient, Simple Method for Capturing Birds, Christopher Nyerges, March 27, 2017
Camp life in the woods and the tricks of trapping by W. Hamilton Gibson; 1881
Image 3 Sources:
The Art Journal: New series - Volume 5, 1879, Page 386. THE BIRD-TRAP. Original Etching by Konrad Grob
Nashville Union and American, October 14, 1871, Image 3
Nashville Union and American, November 03, 1871, Image 1
The Weekly Constitution, Atlanta, Ga., October 07, 1873, Image 8
Kentucky Advocate (Danville, Kentucky), May 5, 1876, Fri, Page 2
The Ladies Treasury for 1876
American Agriculturist, 1978, Volume 37, Page 146
The Peterson Magazine, December 1880, Volume 78, Page 465
The Home Needle by Ella Rodman Church, 1882, Page 117
How to Make the Home Beautiful, Patten Publishing Co, 1884
The Prairie Farmer, January 3, 1885
The Prairie Farmer, November 1887
The Billings Gazette, September 9, 1904
The evening Star, Washington, DC, May 16, 1927
Folklife in the Florida Parishes: People and Their Crafts (www.louisianafolklife.org)
Turlie Richardson and Lillie Payton, the Felicianas by Susan Garrett Davis
AFRICAN-AMERICAN QUILTS 'WHOOP' WITH COLOR,
by GEOFF GEHMAN, The Morning Call
The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), 01 Oct 1959, Page 51; Athey Verge
The Daily News-Journal (Murfreesboro, Tennessee), 05 Mar 1989, Page 21, 23; Nellie Verge
The Tennessean, Nashville, Tennessee, February 19, 1897, Page 5
Census data from 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940
Various newspaper articles/obituaries on the Verge and Humes families