Here is my initial pass at captions, more basic content than punchy prose at this point. I’ve eschewed specific historical details and instead focused on design elements or larger historical trends. That’s partially because the fun stuff is too speculative and partially because it just doesn’t fit, but mostly because I think Serrell’s advice about focusing on the object itself is wise. I want to work in some subset of technology, women’s fancywork, mass media, and Japonism. They’re interesting things going on at the time of the quilt’s creation, which can be physically illustrated by the quilt, and can be tied into larger narratives. So to a great extent, I think the contents of the caption should be driven by what we decide to say in the exhibit as a whole, what narrative needs to be reinforced and what gaps filled.
Which is kind of a wishy-washy way of saying I’d go with Caption 3, but am not married to it. Caption 1 speaks to technology in general (it feels a bit too general) and highlights color, which is the immediate striking feature of the quilt. Caption 2 speaks not only to middle class women’s roles but to the specifics of what they were doing and making (but as it largely conforms to gendered stereotypes and expectations, I don’t know if there’s much educational value). If we want to talk about fancywork this is probably the object where we should do so. Caption 3 is all about Japonism, which echoes the international connections of some of the other objects, but also ties the quilt firmly to Philadelphia at a specific moment in time and is very clearly illustrated by some of the quilt’s design motifs.
Caption 1: The crazy quilt showcases nineteenth century technological developments. Synthetic aniline dyes offered consumers fabrics in a range of brilliant colors. Machine sewing saved time and allowed for the precise quilting of the cranberry border. Mass media—including Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s Magazine—provided patterns, technical advice, and design inspiration.
Caption 2: Middle class women were responsible for domestic tasks, including decorating the home. Crazy quilts were typically display pieces. The embroidery rewards close inspection: colorful flowers, a three-dimensional cattail, and elaborate joining of pieces are a visual delight. Such fancywork was both a feminine duty and opportunity for artistic expression.
Caption 3: Philadelphia’s 1876 World’s Fair introduced Americans to Japanese aesthetics, including asymmetrical designs and the cracked glaze of “crazed” pottery. The creators of crazy quilts embraced irregularity and incorporated other Japanese-inspired designs. The fan motif was very popular. Look closely and you can see an embroidered figure wearing a kimono and clogs.