Local Historical Context

The origin of the crazy quilt is unclear. Though the donor is identified as Louise Beck, no additional documentation indicates whether the quilt was a family heirloom. Beck had the means to purchase luxury items, so the possibility that she selected an art object for aesthetic reasons cannot be overlooked. But the quilting traditions of Pennsylvania,1 and the importance of fancywork in Victorian era households, should not be dismissed. In proposing Louise Beck’s mother, Margaret, as the creator of the crazy quilt, I will engage in a mental exercise which reveals something about Philadelphia neighborhoods, gender, and class in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The colorful life of Louise Beck

Louise Peyton Heims was born in Osceola Mills, Pennsylvania, in February of 1889. In 1900 she lived at 204 De Kalb Square in Philadelphia with her parents (Charles and Margaret), brothers (Ler and Donald), sister (Beulah), cousin (Nettie Hastlet), and two boarders. In 1910 she lived at 3716 Locust with her maternal aunt (Susan M. Patchen), mother, sister, and a trio of lodgers.2 Census records show local residents employed as professors, salesmen, librarians, lawyers, physicians, engineers, accountants, dressmakers, teachers, secretaries, and students. Some households boasted live-in servants or sufficient wealth to support non-working family members; some took in boarders. In 1900, Charles Heims employed as a dry goods clerk and his teenaged sons as grocery clerks. Nettie Hastlet worked as a stenographer, but Margaret Heims reported no employment and both daughters attended school. In 1910, Margaret listed herself as the proprietor of a boarding house; her sister, the head of the household, worked as a purchasing agent. Beulah was employed as a music teacher and Louise as a librarian.3

Louise graduated from Drexel University’s library program in 1911 and left Pennsylvania, working as a librarian at Wake Forest and the New York Public Library before abruptly switching careers to become a vaudeville singer. She met Martin Beck, a prominent figure in the theater world, and they married in 1920. Marriage and increased wealth did not eliminate Louise’s participation in the public sphere: she helped launch the Tony Awards, was a supporter of the Actors Fund, and founder of the American Theater Wing (work which earned her a Special Tony Award in 1958).4

The luxuries of a theatrical manager’s household outstripped those Louise’s childhood, though it appears that even Martin Beck’s resources dwindled over the years. Louise’s 1920 passport application, completed shortly before her marriage, indicates plans for “travel and recreation” throughout Europe.5 The Becks made several trans-Atlantic crossings during the 1920s and 1930s.6 In 1925, the Beck’s East 67th Street residence included a substantial staff: five maids, a houseman, a valet, a butler, and the butler’s wife.7 Five years later, living at a new address on Lexington Avenue, the Becks employed two maids and a ladies maid.8 Shortly thereafter, they moved to East 64th Street, but maintained a second residence in Elberon, New Jersey.9 By 1940 (the year of Martin’s death), the Becks had only a single maid and a lodger at their East 64th Street residence.10

Louise Beck lived most of her life in New York, but her connection to Philadelphia persisted. She and Martin married in the city. Her sister, Beulah, married, had a daughter, settled in Lansdowne, and was an active member of her community.11 Beck chose to donate the quilt, a fan, and a Parisian handbag to Drexel’s Historic Costume Collection in 1962 and in 1977 (the year before her death), Drexel awarded its “fascinating” alumna an honorary Doctor of Letters.

The complex life of Margaret Heims

Attributing the crazy quilt to Margaret Heims (née Patchen) requires a leap of the imagination. But once one is reconciled to the lack of documentation, the thought experiment offers the opportunity to explain aspects of the quilt’s design and construction, as well as its place in Philadelphia households.

Margaret did not report a profession in the 1900 census. Living in a household with four children between the ages of 11 and 14, as well as two boarders and a niece, it is likely that Margaret performed a variety of domestic tasks. These doubtless included such practicalities as cooking, cleaning, and management of household finances, but also fuzzier aspects of “homemaking,” including decoration; the creation of a crazy quilt would have fallen into the latter category.12 By 1910, Margaret was living with her sister and listed herself as the proprietor of a boarding house. In the absence of a male head of household, the informal work of a housewife was professionalized—or at least formalized—for the benefit of the census takers.13

Perhaps the quilt was displayed in this public/private boarding house context, part sentimental creation, part marketing tool, part throwback to an earlier aesthetic. The quilt was undoubtedly created during the time when Margaret’s domestic work was considered part of the private sphere. The personalized design elements—the embroidered “L” and “1887”—likely commemorated the birth of Margaret’s sons.14 The production of a crazy quilt could easily take years, spanning the birth of multiple children and precluding the possibility of making separate quilts for each child. A grand project to commemorate one’s firstborn, with production speed and enthusiasm eroded by the realities of caring for said child and his siblings, is a plausible scenario. In the context of the quilt, representing one son with an initial and another with a date is more design choice than inconsistency.

The patchwork life of a neighborhood

Stiteler Hall (left) and Solomon Labs (right).

Solomon Labs (foreground) and Huntsman Hall (background).

The residential neighborhood where the Heims family lived in the early twentieth century no longer exists. The expanding University of Pennsylvania swallowed up the entire area. The deep, narrow lots of nineteenth-century row homes, now visible only in archival maps,15 have been replaced by mid-twentieth century institutional buildings and Georgian structures erected after World War I. Despite the profound architectural changes, a physical exploration of the area is still illuminating.16

Solomon Labs (left), Graduate School of Education Building (top), Stiteler Hall (right).

DeKalb Square no longer exists in any meaningful sense, having been replaced by a quadrangle of institutional buildings—Stiteler Hall, the Caster Building, the Graduate School of Education building, and Solomon Labs—in the 1960s.17 One can perceive the ways in which architects hoped to create welcoming spaces. The plazas between buildings are open, enabling congregation, and filled with tables to encourage communal lunches. However, a late morning visit revealed a largely deserted area which from some angles could have served as the setting for a post-apocalyptic film.

Huntsman Hall (left) and Solomon Labs (right).

Discrete groups of individuals used the space, but it did not appear especially popular. There was minimal through-traffic, particularly in comparison to nearby Locust Walk and 37th Street. This lack of traffic and the narrowness of the space between Solomon Labs and Huntsman Hall, could easily be read as sinister.18 The quadrangle communicates gendered expectations about anticipated use. Though the University was entirely co-educational at the time of its construction,19 the default “student” envisioned in the space is male.

Georgian fraternity houses, Locust Walk.

Locust Walk, the site of Susan Patchen’s home in 1910, is more subtly altered. The entire block was not redesigned at the same time by a single architectural firm; 1920s Georgian architecture sits alongside 1970s office space.20 The tree-lined walkway successfully encourages foot traffic. The row homes are gone, but a number of fraternity houses help preserve something of the street’s residential character. The McNeil Building, completed only a few years after the Walnut quadrangle, nestles more comfortably on its street; though it occupies space in the block, it does not seek to completely transform it.

Kappa Sigma Fraternity House, 3706 Locust Walk (left) and McNeil Building, 3718 Locust Walk (right).

Though 204 DeKalb Square and 3716 Locust Walk no longer exist, walking around the area offers some insights into Louise Beck’s formative environment. Physical proximity to multiple universities may have left her with the impression that higher education was something of a default state. A number of professional neighbors—male and female—would surely have underscored the importance and accessibility of education and the opportunities for women outside the private sphere. She lived near the university in which she was enrolled, so despite living at home rather than in a dormitory it would have been easy to take part in university life, as well as social and professional opportunities in Philadelphia at large. The close juxtaposition of her place of residence, schooling, and work may have blurred the lines between those activities, allowing for a lifestyle that smoothly integrated private and public spheres.


1. Cindy Brick, Crazy Quilts: History, Techniques, Embroidery Motifs (St. Paul, Minn.: Voyageur Press, 2008), 28.

2. Charles Heims was still alive in 1910; at the time of his death in 1918, he had moved back to central Pennsylvania. Given the focus of this project, I have not attempted to create a complete family history, or resolve such apparent discrepancies as the biologically improbable proximity of the birthdates of Beulah and Louise (11 October 1888 and 23 February 1889, respectively), and the question of whether any of the Heims children were adopted.

3. Year: 1900; Census Place: Philadelphia Ward 27, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll: 1469; Page: 5B; Enumeration District: 663; FHL microfilm: 1241469, Ancestry.com, accessed 30 September 2012. Year: 1910; Census Place: Philadelphia Ward 27, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll: T624_1401; Page: 6A; Enumeration District: 0623; Image: 1087; FHL microfilm: 1375414, Ancestry.com, accessed 30 September 2012. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925; Collection Number: ARC Identifier 583830 / MLR Number A1 534; NARA Series: M1490; Roll #: 1333, Ancestry.com, accessed 30 September 2012.

4. “1958 Tony Award Winners,” BroadwayWorld.com, http://www2.broadwayworld.com/tonyawardsyear.cfm?year=1958, accessed 28 October 2012. Guy Garrison, “A Century of Library Education at Drexel University: Vignettes of Growth and Change,” Lazenow Lecture, 19 November 1992, 4-5, http://archives.library.drexel.edu/pdf/centuryoflibraryeducation.pdf, accessed 30 September 2012.

5. NARA passport application.

6. Perhaps the Parisian handbag, included in the same donation as the crazy quilt, was purchased during one of these trips. Year: 1925; Arrival; Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: T715_3630; Line: 13; Page Number: 102, Ancestry.com, accessed 30 September 2012. Year: 1932; Arrival; Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: T715_5165; Line: 4; Page Number: 70, Ancestry.com, accessed 30 September 2012. Year: 1933; Arrival; Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: T715_5395; Line: 8; Page Number: 162, Ancestry.com, accessed 30 September 2012. Year: 1933; Arrival; Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: T715_5427; Line: 5; Page Number: 165, Ancestry.com, accessed 30 September 2012. Year: 1935; Arrival: New York, United States; Microfilm Serial: T715; Microfilm Roll: T715_5651; Line: 2; Page Number: 29, Ancestry.com, accessed 30 September 2012.

7. New York State Archives, Albany, New York, State Population Census Schedules, 1925; Census Place: Election District 21, Assembly District 15, New York, New York, 3, Ancestry.com, accessed 30 September 2012.

8. Year: 1930; Census Place: Manhattan, New York, New York; Roll: 1567; Page: 8A; Enumeration District: 560; Image: 301.0; FHL microfilm: 2341302, Ancestry.com, accessed 30 September 2012.

9. Year: 1933 passenger list; Page number: 165.

10. “Martin Beck,” Internet Broadway Database, http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=23085, accessed 28 October 2012. Year: 1940; Census Place: New York, New York, New York; Roll: T627_2656; Page: 4A; Enumeration District: 31-1364B, Ancestry.com, accessed 30 September 2012.

11. “County School Boards Elect New Officers,” Chester Times, December 8, 1942, 16, http://newspaperarchive.com/chester-times/1942-12-08/page-16/, accessed 25 October 2012. “County School Boards Meet,” Chester Times, December 5, 1939, 12, http://newspaperarchive.com/chester-times/1939-12-05/page-12/, accessed 25 October 2012. “Nineteen persons honored by William Penn Schools,” Daily Times, June 6, 1977, 32, http://newspaperarchive.com/daily-times/1977-06-06/page-32/, accessed 25 October 2012. Grace Patchen Leggett, The History and Genealogy of the Patchin-Patchen Family (The Patchin-en Family Association, Waterbury, Conn.: 1952), 459.

12. For discussion of nineteenth century fancywork, see Penny McMorris, Crazy Quilts (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984), 13-16 and Helen Sheumaker, Love Entwined (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

13. Year: 1900; Census Place: Philadelphia Ward 27. Year: 1910; Census Place: Philadelphia Ward 27.

14. This particular object eschews the explanatory text helpfully included by some quilters. See for example McMorris, Crazy Quilts, 68, 84-5, 90-1,

15. George W. & Walter S. Bromley, Atlas of the City of Philadelphia, 1895, G. W. Bromley and Co., http://www.philageohistory.org, accessed 27 October 2012. George W. & Walter S. Bromley, Atlas of the City of Philadelphia, 1910, G. W. Bromley and Co., http://www.philageohistory.org, accessed 27 October 2012. Dodd, Mead & Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1903, http://www.philageohistory.org, accessed 27 October 2012.

16. See photographs, taken 22 October 2012.

17. “Facilities & Real Estate Services,” University of Pennsylvania, http://www.facilities.upenn.edu/map.php, accessed 28 October 2012. Subsequent interior renovations, and some 2001 renovations to the Grad Ed building’s Walnut Street face do not alter the decidedly 60s feeling of the quadrangle.

18. Though not particularly worried about stranger rape, I am still quite conscious of the numerous warnings communicated in American culture regarding safety and public spaces (especially complicated and distasteful when issues of class and race—explicit or encoded as “urban”—are factored in). Among individuals of my acquaintance, I have noted a gendered divergence in the reading of spaces.

19. “Memories: Being a Woman at Penn,” Association of Alumnae: The History of Women at the University of Pennsylvania, http://www.alumni.upenn.edu/alumnae/history.html, accessed 28 October 2012.

20. “Facilities & Real Estate Services,” UPenn. Philadelphia Architects and Buildings website, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, http://www.philadelphiabuildings.org, accessed 27 October 2012.

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