Yesterday, June 14, was Flag Day: the anniversary of the adoption of the US flag in 1777. This is a holiday that, I confess, typically passes me by unnoticed. But this year I spotted enough references to the occasion that it made an impression – and that impression was, Hey, an idea for the blog!

Today’s flag-related artifact is a pieced and tied quilt, maker and history unknown. The back is one piece of black cotton; rather than quilted or sewn together, the three layers (top, batting and back) are tied together at intervals with brown wool yarn. It is the top that interests us today, of course. It is made of “tobacco flannels” or premiums: small fabric freebies that came packaged with tobacco products (usually cigarettes, although they’re sometimes referred to as “cigar flannels”). These giveaways included a variety of small textiles, from fuzzy “oriental rugs” to silk ribbons to flannel flags and banners. The patterns were often designed as a series, encouraging buyers to “collect ‘em all!” Resourceful crafters often added these bits of fabric to their work or, as in this case, created an entire quilt out of them.

Our 48″ x 68″ quilt features a variety of flags, plus two “Indian blankets” and a few baseball designs. The baseball teams represented are Harvard, Boston and Chicago, plus two that are too faded or damaged to identify.  The national flags include eighteen US flags, six US Naval “Union Jacks,” and four German Empire; two flags each for Japan, the Netherlands, Greece and France; and one each for Scotland, “Burmah,” Siam, Russia, Chile, Peru and Nicaragua.

The specific history of our “tobacco flannel” quilt is unknown, but there are several hints that help us to assign a probable date. The fabric tobacco premiums were introduced in the early 20th century and were particularly popular in the 1910s; during World War I, most American tobacco companies abandoned the practice. Many of the flags included here are datable by pattern: the US flag, for example, has 48 stars, so it was printed in 1912 or later; the Siamese flag, showing a white elephant on a red background, was changed to a new design in 1916; the black, white and red striped German Empire flag was used 1871-1918. Although it is possible that the unknown maker(s) saved up some flannels during the teens but didn’t make the quilt until years or decades later, sewing with premiums was rather a fad in the 1910s (many women’s magazines provided patterns and ideas to their readers); it seems a safe bet to say that our quilt was made around that time.

What else can we tell about our unknown creators? Not much, alas. There is definitely a preponderance of US flags here, but maybe more US flags were printed and sold. Likewise, the baseball images could indicate a sports fan, or it could simply mean that’s what the cigarette buyer ended up with. Although some thought went into the design – the US flags line the long ends (until he or she ran out of them), and a large “Indian blanket” is in the center – the quilt is, let’s call it inexpertly made; seams overlap strangely, blocks are cut off to make them fit, and the large, uneven stitches are starting to come apart. Perhaps it was a first effort, or something whipped up in a hurry. Nonetheless there is evidence of use in the worn, flattened batting and water-damaged corners; whoever made it (or received it as a gift) must have thought it was worth the maker’s efforts.

Intrigued? Here are a few links to information on tobacco premiums, and examples of other tobacco quilts in museum collections.

“Textile Tobacco Inserts and Premiums Used in American Quilts…” by Laurette Carroll

“Better Choose Me: Collecting and Creating with Tobacco Fabric Novelties 1880-1920,” Johnson County (KS) Museum of History

Rocky Mountain Quilt MuseumGreat Lakes Quilt CenterThe Bowers Museum

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