PENNSYLVANIA PILLOWCASES:
Pieced, Appliqued, and Otherwise Decorated

By Trish Herr
Click on any image to enlarge it.

Figure 4

Example of pieced pillowslips.

Pennsylvania Germans have always been associated with their colorful quilts, Fraktur, and painted furniture.  These settlers who first came to Southeastern Pennsylvania in the early 18th century are also known for their practicality and appreciation of functional furniture and household items. A commonly used phrase in the Pennsylvania German community “just for nice” is often used to explain that objects should be functional, but maybe also very special.

So let’s examine one of the lesser known forms of textile bedding: the simple pillowcase or pillowslip, as they are frequently referred to in Southeastern Pennsylvania. But “simple” is probably not the term one would use to describe the variety of forms that have developed in this 19th and early 20th century Pennsylvania German culture. They appear as wholecloth, pieced and appliqued construction, and less frequently needleworked or block printed forms. Sometimes they were made to match or complement the bed quilt, but many survive that do not have a history of being made to match a bedcover.


Figure 1

Figure 1. Matching set of quilt, bolster cover and pair of pillowcases.

 

Figure 1 illustrates one of the few known complete sets of matching quilt, bolster cover and pair of pillowcases. This particular set was purchased in the Elizabethtown area of Lancaster County. The public sale where they appeared had many sets of similar pieced Irish Chain pattern pillowcases.

Family members told the story of two maiden aunts, Ann and Rachel Shenk who lived by themselves and spent much of their time sewing and creating the many pairs of pillowcases that were sold at the auction. These matching four Irish Chain pattern pieces were the only complete set in that estate auction. Although not dated they appear to have been made in the early 20th century.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Early example of pieced pillowcase.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Detail shows the initials AH and date 1816.

The pillowcase seen in Figures 2 and 3 is one of the earliest pieced examples known. It bears the initials AH and the date 1816 cross stitched with silk thread.

The printed fabric is cotton and it is pieced with white plain weave linen to make a pillowslip that is tied with hand woven linen tapes. Few dated examples from this period have survived.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Pieced pillowslips with stars, dating around 1845.

Figure 5

Figure 5. Details shows that pillowslips are quilted throughout top and back.

The pair of pieced pillowslips shown in figures 4 and 5 are decorated on both sides and quilted throughout. What likely is the top side has a pattern containing five stars and the other side has only one central star.

Making them particularly interesting is the fact that both pieces are quilted throughout top and back. The materials are cotton and the red and blue printed fabrics date this pair sometime around 1845.

Figure 6

Figure 6. Pillowcases constructed of whole cloth glazed chintz.

Figure 7

Figure 7. This pair probably dates from mid-1800s.

 

Another type of early pillowcover is illustrated in figures 6 and 7. This pair is constructed of whole cloth glazed chintz.

The pattern mimics a pieced quilt. This type of roller-print is often referred to as simulated patchwork and probably dates from the mid-1800s. The pair is backed with plain weave cotton material.

 

Figure 8

Figure 8. Pair of pillowcases using whole cloth construction.

Figure 9

Figure 9. Made from roller-printed cloth probably originating from England.

The pillowcases seen in figures 8 and 9 are also of whole cloth construction. In these examples the cloth appears to be roller printed and probably of English origin and produced in the early 1800s. The backing fabric is white plain weave cotton.

On close inspection one can see that they depict a rather theatrical scene of an Indian holding a child over his head in a threatening motion as if to cast him over the bridge into a ravine as the armed men below threaten to shoot. All this activity takes place in an exotic surrounding landscape. Hardly seems like a restful place to put one’s head.

 

Figure 10

Figure 10. Pillowslips pieced and appliqued.

Figure 11

Figure 11. Central circle shows date of 1861.

Figures 10 and 11 are examples of pillowslips that are both pieced and appliqued. One could imagine there might have been a matching appliqued block quilt. The materials consist of printed cottons on a white cotton ground.

One central circle bears the date 1861. The names that appear within the four central motifs are: Mary Denlinger, Anna Mathiot, Susannah Carrolis and Fanny Groff. These names certainly suggest a Lancaster County Pennsylvania German origin. The pillowcases were purchased at the estate sale of Lawrence A. Meshey in the city of Lancaster.

Figure 12

Figure 12. Pair of pillowslips with complex pieced central star pattern.

Figure 13

Figure 13. Detail shows the initials HW.

Figure 14

Figure 14. Back and front surfaces of pieced star pillowcases.

The pair of pillowslips pictured in figures 12, 13 and 14 is unusual because the tops are a complex pieced central star pattern that have the added appeal of being backed with a high quality glazed chintz floral print. This chintz certainly is bold and beautiful enough to have been used as the top side of this pair.

Each case is marked with the letters HW worked in red cotton cross stitching. These are likely the initials of the maker.

Figure 14

Figure 15. Pillowcase with blocks including inked Germanic Fraktur.

Figure 15

Figure 16. This quilt belongs to a group of quilts identified as originating in the Lehigh County area of southeastern Pennsylvania.

Figure 15 shows a single pillowcase consisting of blocks with inked Germanic Fraktur inscriptions. This example belongs to a group of similarly decorated quilts known as Germanic Fraktur friendship quilts that originate in the Lehigh County area of southeastern Pennsylvania.

Cinda Cawley has done extensive research on this unusual form and her paper “Ihr Teppich: Quilts and Fraktur” was published in Uncoverings 2004Volume 25 of the Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group. These inscriptions have been attributed by Cawley to professional scriveners or Pennsylvania German Fraktur artists, who for the most part made their living as school teachers and Fraktur artists. Fraktur, a broken letter form of manuscript that recorded births, marriages and other important events in families, was common in Pennsylvania German settlements.



Figure 16

Figure 17. Pillowslip with pieced block pattern of brown and white.

Figure 17

Figure 18. The pillowcase's opposite side shows a motif of stars and floral forms interspersed with swans.

When viewing the single pillowslip seen in Figures 17 and 18 it is difficult to decide which side is the top. The pieced block pattern of brown prints on alternating with white blocks is certainly a traditional design. The other side, which turns around the side edges might be considered the top. But it is a departure in form from the usual pillowcase as it is whole cloth with block printed decoration.

The motifs of stars and floral forms with swans interspersed has been carefully laid out using a combination of block printing devices coated with blue and brown paints to create the intricate designs one sees. This form of decoration was popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries. This piece is an early to mid 19th century example.



Figure 18

Figure 19. Pair of pillowslips dated 1826.

Figure 19

Figure 20. Chain and outline stitching completes the piece's decoration.

The final examples illustrated in figures 19 and 20 are less problematic to date as they bear, not only the date 1826, but the name of the likely maker, Maria Herr, in needlework cross stitching. There is also chain and outline stitching that completes the decoration. A similar set, executed by sister Barbara Herr and dated 1831, also exists.

With the exception of the articles illustrated in Figure 1, the textiles pictured here are in the author’s collection. The whereabouts of the set of bedding seen in the first illustration is unknown.

This group of pillowcases or slips has been selected to illustrate the variety of decorated, and functional examples of Pennsylvania German bedding. The very fact that they have survived in such fine condition probably attests to the fact the families who owned these pieces treasured them as special, out of the ordinary, pieces of bedding and have kept them “just for nice!”

For more information on the subject, an article “The Evolution of the Pennsylvania-German Pillowcase” by Tandy Hersh, may be found on page 38 of Bits and Pieces Textile Traditions edited by Jeannette Lasansky, and published in 1991 by the Oral Traditions Project of the Union County Historical Society, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.