In 1993 the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Visitor’s Bureau gushed that the Amish had helped make the area into “a patchwork quilt of beautifully tended farms that produce more food than any other non-irrigated county in North America.” Even if the tourist hype is ignored, the statement still shows how much the county has become identified with the Amish, and especially with Amish-made quilts.
A recent journal article by Janneken Smucker traces the development of Amish quilts and the identity of Lancaster County. In the mid-19th century, the Amish women of the area began making quilts similar to the ones their rural neighbors were making, though their styles, emphasizing their own modest values, were expressed through solid colors and a lack of fancy prints. The Amish women tended to make quilts with center-medallions containing solid, simple, geometric patterns and designs.
In 1955 the first Amish-themed tourist attraction opened along U.S. 30 outside Lancaster City. Within ten years, almost two million tourists visited the county annually. The tourist promoters romanticized the Amish as they sought different ways of making money off of them. While some observers viewed the tourism as a threat to the Amish, others felt that the industry tended to concentrate the tourist hordes, which kept them from directly encroaching too much on the rural people.
During this same period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a revived interest in quilts and quilting developed in America. The author argues that the revival was based on three distinct trends: the feminist movement’s focus on women’s arts and crafts; a growing back-to-the-land movement; and the interest in the upcoming American bicentennial. A landmark exhibit of quilts at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971 prompted a rush of interest in antique quilts. They became desirable, highly collectible, art objects.
Major publications such as Life and the New York Times discussed the Whitney exhibition and the growing craze for old quilts. Antique quilts in Amish homes in Lancaster County were suddenly valuable. Pickers hunted for quilts in the Lancaster County Amish community, and prices soared in New York markets. By the late 1970s, prices for an old Amish quilt had rocketed to $800, by 1982 up to $5,000, and by 1988 up to $10,000. There were rumors of thieves stealing quilts from Amish homes on Sunday mornings while the owners attended their religious services.
As the supply of antique quilts dwindled, the tourist industry began to focus instead on the production of new quilts made by Amish women. The commercialization of quilt production caused the old ways of quilting to diminish, Smucker argues. Lancaster County women, for the most part, no longer sat around their quilt frames socializing while they fabricated quilts. The quilt shop owners in the county felt that many hands doing the stitching might lower the quality of the products, so the Amish women performed only single operations, such as cutting, piecing, quilting, or sewing on edges. The Amish quilts became assembly line productions.
That analysis does not necessarily represent other, more scattered, Amish communities in Pennsylvania. For instance, Amish women in a remote valley 100 miles from Lancaster County produce their quilts in a much more traditional manner. According to comments by the women involved, the participants, all from a single, large family, look forward every winter to the pleasures of quilting. A member of their extended family sells their gorgeous quilts in her unpretentious shop located on an unnamed lane that leads off an unnumbered back road through the valley.
Smucker points out that the Lancaster County Amish have discovered a mixture of blessings and tribulations from the tourism and rampant development in their area. While skyrocketing real estate prices prevent the Amish from buying up more farm land, the tourism provides ready markets for small businesses, including quilting. As one Amish quilt-maker said, “the quilt business makes the tourist situation a lot more tolerable. In every cloud there’s a silver lining.” An article two years ago indicated that quilt making in Lancaster County also brings important social and personal benefits to Amish women, especially elderly ones.
Smucker concludes her article by analyzing the ways tourists consume the local experience and take home quilts as souvenirs of their visits. While patchwork quilts now symbolize the small, charming farms in the Lancaster Valley, they are more than that. They also have come to represent, at least to the tourist promoters, everything America has lost in its rush to adopt modernity, materialism, and plastic crap. The patchwork quilt symbolizes good, wholesome, rural living, a return to simplicity, bedrock American values, and a nostalgia for a lost Arcadian existence. “By purchasing … Amish quilts, collectors and tourists grasped for what they thought they had lost in their rush toward progress,” the author says.
Smucker, Janneken. 2006. “Destination Amish Quilt Country: The Consumption of Quilts in Lancaser County, Pennsylvania.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 80(2): 184-206.