Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Chain Letters Quilts


During the Depression, a chain letter encouraged recipients to "send a dime" to friends and family.  It is believed this chain letter originated in Denver, Colorado.  The Smithsonian has a great article (here) on the origin of the chain letter with a photograph of the more than 100,000 letters that hit the Denver post office in 1935.

Desperate times create desperate scams and this one was no different.  But shortly after the "send a dime" chain letter subsided, newspapers began to report on a new chain craze:

Sayre Pennsylvania, 1935

The chain took a variety of forms and names throughout the United States.  In Maryland, the rules of the chain were explained:
In Wisconsin, the scheme was called the World Friendship Chain.  The chains required a fabric square in variety of sizes: in Sayre, Pennsylvania a 6 inch square; in Decatur, Illinois the chain required a 9 inch square of fabric; Sheboygan, Wisconsin requred a 6 inch square.

In September of 1935, it was reported that actual quilt blocks were being sewn and exchanged in this format.  In Marion, Ohio it was reported that the blocks must be embroidered with the sender's name and address similar to this:

The quilt would then form "a veritable map" of blocks from different states.

Rereading this file, I realized that my friend Pam had sent me similar blocks which included the one above.  However many are dated 1927.  These blocks (mailed to someone in Emmaus, Pennsylvania) remain a mystery:

The newspaper in Ohio reported "Few needlewomen can resist the urge to show their skill to others, and that is probably why the quilt block chain hasn't gone haywire yet."  This sentiment was echoed in the newspaper in Green Bay, Wisconsin which cited that a Mrs. C. J. Kyle was "planning to keep up the chain just to see how much of a quilt she will get."

Other textile chain letters of this era included a handkerchief chain letter and in 1937, a chain letter consisting of dishtowels.
1937 Hankie Ad

A similar ploy was made in 1941 in Vancouver.  This time  specific quilt pattern wasn't required but it did call for a quilt block of some sort.  The letter indicated "When your name appears at the top you will receive 12 quilt blocks, enough for one quilt.  Take them to your nearest Red Cross station."  The article continued:

 I haven't been able to find photos of any quilt made from chain letter blocks but I think this might have been mentioned in a book I read years ago, called The Farmer's Wife Sampler Quilt which included letters of women during the depression.  Unfortunately, the book is in our guild library and I can't access it during covid.

You may have even been a recipient of a similar chain letter.  I remember years ago receiving a letter with a square of fabric and I found a lot of evidence that many other quilters did too.  I explored various internet cites and found mention of this in  2009, 2011, and 2015.  For whatever reason, most of the chain letters wanted purple fabric exchanged.  I can't remember what color I received, I just tossed it because I don't do chain letters.

If you're interested in doing a mail themed quilt, I recommend this paper pieced pattern from the Patchwork Please! book by Ayumi Takahashi.  But don't do it as a chain letter; chain letters are illegal in the United States and you would need Ayumi's permission to share her pattern.

Have a safe and happy day!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the link to the Smithsonian article. Most chain letters seem to die after maybe the second person. Every so often I get a "send a fabric square" chain letter -- usually just two people in the chain. Rather than send six copies to other people, I just mail a stack of squares to both of the people. No one has ever acknowledged receipt but I feel virtuous. And it's not as though my stash appears one whit diminished. :)