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MENNONITE QUILTS OF WATERLOO COUNTY -- HISTORICAL COMMENTS

The following is from a phone interview with Mr. Aaron Martin: February 24, 2003.
Mr. Martin gave verbal permission to quote him.
(For more details about the family and their quilts please see One Family's Quilts
)
  • In 1727 David Martin and his brother Peter came to America (Lancaster County, Pennsylvania) from Switzerland.
    • (Mr. Aaron Martin assumes the original Martin's were from Zurich or near Zurich, as the current dialect of his area is some English and some German of a type he thinks is spoken around Zurich.)
    • Peter Martin migrated to Canada in 1819 with 14 children. In 1820, his brother David followed with 12 children.
    • There are hundreds of descendants of these two brothers in different Mennonite congregations in Pennsylvania and Waterloo County, Ontario. "Martin" is a common name in the area.
    • (Mr. Martin referred me to a book by Ezra Eby for the genealogy. The book is from 1896 and is called, “Biographical History of Waterloo Township.”)
  • Some of the family history is as follows: In 1819, Peter Martin came from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and homesteaded between St. Jacob's and Waterloo. (Please click here for a map of Waterloo County.)
    • One of his son’s, Benjamin, put up the first buildings in the 1830's and farmed the land.
    • Aaron’s grandfather, Moses Martin, farmed there and was the father of Lydia, Aaron’s mother.
      • Mr. Martin described his mother, Lydia, as a “quiet person”, who “didn’t have much to say”, who “didn’t lift her head much”, and who “was not outgoing.” In this respect she was like her father, Moses Martin, who “was a man of few words” and who, when he spoke, “then people listened.”
    • Lydia’s husband (Aaron’s father) was named Urias. They all lived on the same farm.
    • Aaron took over the farm in 1953 and lived there until 1966 and then moved closer to Elora as Kitchener and Waterloo grew and became less rural. Now he and and his wife live in Elora, 20 miles from Kitchener.
    • The old homestead saw many generations: Benjamin, Moses, Lydia, Aaron, and Aaron’s children.
    • The Webers and Baumans were other families who came to Waterloo County in the early 1800's.
  • Peter Martin, the ancestor who settled near St. Jacob's in 1819, left two married daughters behind in Lancaster County. So Aaron Martin assumes he has many relatives in the Lancaster area.
    • Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Martin have friends in Lancaster County and have maintained these relations for over fifty years.
    • Aaron Martin’s father, Urias, was ordained in 1914, at the age of 26, as a minister in the Old Order Mennonite Church.
      • Lydia (1892-1987), his mother, was also Old Order Mennonite.
      • However in 1939, Urias was a leader in a group that split from the Old Order over the issues of owning telephones and automobiles.
        • The Old Order Mennonites now have phones and are driven in cars but don't own them.
        • This group affiliated with a group in Markham and became known as the Markham-Waterloo Mennonites.
    • The Aaron Martins have friends in Lancaster County who affiliate with this denomination.
      • Their friends Eli and Anna Horst live close to Intercourse.
        • Mr Horst drives the Amish around.
        • Mr.Martin's wife went to their wedding over 50 years ago.
        • Titus and Mabel Martin of Lancaster are friends with Horst and often come up to visit the Aaron Martin's.

Aaron Martin referred us to his sister, Mary Gingrich (Mrs. Edgar Gingrich), who is now living in Elmira, for information about his mother’s interest in quilts.
The following is from a telephone interview with her on February 28, 2003. (With kind permission to quote.)
(For further notes from this telephone interview please go to One Family's Quilts.)

  • As Mr. Aaron Martin said he was not fascinated with quilts, he referred us to his sister, Mary (Gingrich -- wife of Edgar Gingrich) of Elmira.
  • Mary has three boys and two girls and thirteen grandchildren.
  • In 1999 Mary and her husband sold their house and moved into a condo.
  • Her husband worked in the feed mill before he retired.
  • Mrs. Gingrich recalls that her parents did a lot of entertaining, because her father was a minister. “We got a lot of visitors from out of the country, from Pennsylvania. They went back and forth with the churches.”
    • Like her brother, she has friends in Pennsylvania, and “We visit the friends back and forth from Pennsylvania.” She has been to Intercourse, Pennsylvania.
  • Mary loves quilts and quilting.
    • She remembers inviting girls of her age for quilting bee. "It went faster and it was kind of a social thing too."
    • As of the date of the phone interview, she was making one for each of her thirteen grandchildren.
      • She made a Lone Star and a Log Cabin for her grandchildren.
    • And she was teaching the girls who are interested.
    • She made a Broken Star for the Relief Sale, with her sewing circle.
    • And her daughter made one for the Relief Sale for MCC(?).
    • On the other hand, since they live in a condo, she has sold the ones she used to have.
      • She said, "I don’t need them. I don’t have the beds or storage space."
A brief history of the Mennonite movement (from some historical material we have gathered)
  • The Mennonite movement began as a radical wing of the Reformation in Europe in the early 1500's
    • The original name for them was, "Anabaptists". They described themselves as neither Catholic nor Protestant.
    • There were three theological tendencies within the movement: Separatism (from state and society), Pacifism, and Pauline Simplicity.
    • The first reformer In Zurich, Switzerland, was Ulrich Zwingli.
      • Though he was against what he thought of as the excesses of the Catholic Church, he believed that church and the state should be basically one.
        • In 1523, when some of his students disagreed with this view, he agreed to a public debate. The winner would be decided by the city council. But his more radical students thought this was un-Christian. They thought the Spirit of God should decide, not the Council.
          • Amongst other things, the students felt that
            • Most people were not capable of being true Christians.
            • Only those who consciously chose should be baptized into a community of “separated brethren.” Like the early Christian community in relation to Rome.
            • There should be no infant baptism as a means of making unconscious persons Christians and citizens in one stroke.
            • There should be no oaths to a prince or king or city as they could contradict the true oath to God.
            • For those already baptized, there should be a re-baptism. Hence their new name: "Anabaptists" or "Re-Baptizers."
          • These Anabaptists actively preached these views. For example, they tried to get families not to baptize infants. And they re-baptized each other.
          • So, their views had political implications. And the princes and kings viewed them as anarchical.
            • Eventually most became martyrs. They were drowned, burned at the stake, and tortured by many cruelly ingenious methods.
            • Still, Anabaptist views spread around Europe.
    • In 1526, a Dutch Catholic priest named Menno Simons (after who the Mennonites got their name) became an Anabaptist elder. He helped organize and unite the various Anabaptist splinter groups which included communistic communities, believers in war, and even nudists and polygamists. He insisted on pacifism, going along with the state authorities unless an oath was required, and the like.
      • Because of the individualistic tendencies, the Mennonites do not have priests. To them, Christ of the Bible was the ultimate authority.
        • Because of this individualism, there was a lot of fragmentation. This came to be known as the “Anabaptist sickness.”
        • One such individualist was Joseph Ammonn.
          • In 1693, a Mennonite minister, Jacob Amman, had a coviction that the church was getting too lax in the enforcement of the discipline that separated them from worldliness. Amman led a difficult and painful split from the Mennonites. The people who followed him were nick-named Amish. / Because of identical origins and similar faith understandings, the Amish and Mennonites remain much more alike theologically than different. They are like religious cousins. Their differences are primarily evident in their lifestyles and practices rather than in their basic beliefs. (from The World of Amish Quilts, Rachel and Kenneth Pellman)
        • And many branches developed within the Mennonite religion itself. Some were conservative, some liberal.
    • In 1555, there began an organized persecution of the Anabaptists by the Holy Roman Emperor, Philip. This was supported by the Catholic Inquisition.
      • Anabaptism was eradicated in Flanders, and Anabaptists were scattered to many countries including England and Russia and America.
      • In England, first the king welcomed them but soon realized the danger to his authority. He had them killed. But a tolerance for them gradually developed.
        • Anabaptism inspired the English Baptist Church and the Congregationalists. It was closest to the Quakers.
      • Anabaptists were Invited to Pennsylvania by William Penn along with the Quakers. And a group arrived in 1683. It settled in what is now Bricks, Chester, Montgomery, and Lancaster counties.
        • The British made concessions to the Mennonites as well as to the Quakers. They were exempt from oaths and from bearing arms.
        • As the Revolution approached, the Anabaptists felt loyal to the British who had granted them their freedom.
        • Also American super-patriots confiscated Mennonite property and put Mennonites in jail and even threatened to kill them.
        • After the war oaths were required. And even though the Declaration of Independence sounded good, many Mennonites wondered why Thomas Jefferson had slaves. And they became afraid that they might get persecuted again. So they went up to Ontario and formed a settlement where they were joined by many Russian Mennonites.
        • They maintained their ties with relatives in Pennsylvania who stayed.
What is a traditional Mennonite quilt?
  • First, what it is not.
    • It is not just a work of art.
      • True, some have great artistic merit.
      • True, some of the quilters must have focused primarily on their art. Especially for the Sunday quilts meant for display and made out of fancy, store-bought fabrics.
      • True, art historians can trace the artistic aspects of the Mennonite quilts, their stylistic variations and the like.
      • Yet, they were not made for sale, and generally, the quilters made them with more than artistic considerations.
    • It not just a craft piece.
      • True, quilts were functional. They were necessary in cold environments with no central heating.
      • True, some quilts were probably thrown together simply for warmth.
      • True, great skill was needed for some of the best needlework.
      • True some were given away as gifts.
      • Yet they were not made in shops, for sale. And there was more to them than their utilitarian value.
      • (Note: Quilting was not originally German-Swiss. The Mennonites of Waterloo County, mostly of Swiss ancestry, took over quilting from their British neighbors. It is possible to compare various styles -- Amish, Pennsylvania Mennonite, Waterloo County Mennonite, various sects within the Mennonite group, designs of neighboring peoples, and the like.)
    • They were not just expressions of traditional Mennonite religion, values and philosophy.
      • True, thriftiness was embodied in the use of scrap materials.
      • True, the Mennonite ideal of “no idle fingers” was embodied by quilters.
      • True, the Mennonite dislike of pride can be seen in the use black vs. white threads.
      • True, interest in the Bible stories can be found in the names of some quilts, e.g., Joseph’s Coat (even though the secular version of this pattern had a different name).
      • True, humility before God can be found in some quilting practices.(a possible example is our Quilt 16).
        • "It was a tradition earlier to make an 'error' in each quilt because, it was pointed out, 'Only God is perfect.' These errors were made to demonstrate your humility." (from Mennonite Quilts and Pieces by Judy Schroeder Tomlonson, p.33 -- [This book is not specifically on quilts from Waterloo County.]).
      • Yet quilting was not necessarily honored by the Mennonite Church itself. In fact there were sermons against the pride of the women makers. And quilters felt guilt in using colorful fabrics, especially in the more conservative sects.
      • It seems that quilters were doing something more than just expressing official church doctrine.
        • It sometimes feels that quilting was an underground movement within the church that always managed to just stay outside the ban.
  • So what is the essence of the traditional Mennonite quilt?
    • I think it can be found in reading books by Mennonite women who quilt themselves
      • Often the quilted fabrics were not meaningless scraps but contained material from wedding dresses or a brother’s necktie or the like.
        • A mother and daughter could sit and look at a piece and discuss where it came from and tell stories about family events that came to mind.
          • An example from the book Quilts of Waterloo County; A Sampling by Marjoie Kaethler and Susan D. Shantz. Mary Cressman, the maker of the quilt shown on page 21 of that book, said it was made from fabric from her Sunday dresses and baby dresses (dyed) and the dresses worn by her and her sister and part of a dress from her grandmother.
            • Susan Shantz wrote about that quilt, “I, Mary’s granddaughter, who can touch a piece of my great-great-grandmother’s clothing in the quilt, am tangibly linked to five generations of women in my family.”
      • Also, quilts marked transitions -- like a birth, a marriage, a young man’s leaving home, or a young woman’s hope to be married which she would put in her hope chest
      • Further, quilts were used on beds where intimacies occurred, where babies were conceived and born, where family members became sick and died.
        • In a book, one quilt owner recalled having a specific quilt on her bed when she was sick and what it meant to her.
      • Summing up: Quilts contained, woven into them, the most intimate, most important, deepest moments of a family’s life.
        • These are the same moments where one might call a male preacher for help, guidance, or inspiration.
        • But quilts are the woman’s personal responses to these moments.
        • Preachers would preach, quilters would quilt.
          • A quote from Judy Schroeder Tomlonson's Mennonite Quilts and Pieces, p.9: "My mother really liked color, and you could especially see that in the quilts she made. I think, because the times could be so hard, the colors brightened up her world."
          • Men probably designed and engineered the designs for quilts. And the quilters did not design the patterns. They bought them from catalogues. After the advent of machine-made cloths, they bought their fabrics in stores. Yet each quilt is unique.
            • It is like a folktale. The quilt pattern and material is like the tale. The particular way it is designed and made by a particular woman is the individul telling of the tale.
        • Quilting was the Mennonite woman’s personal religion within a religion. Her attempt to understand the meaning of life, to piece together her memories, her emotions, her joys, and her sufferings. Then she would wrap this healing object around her loved ones.
          • It was not much different, in some ways, from Africans who made a statue of their mother or grandmother and kept it as protection, to keep memories alive. Quilts protected like this and were contacts with the past.
            • African ancestor figures were sometimes thought of as entry points to the other world, and women describe their quilts similarly.
    • So, the conclusion is that quilting was not just an art form or a craft or an expression of the official Mennonite religion. It was a movement within the religion. A woman’s personal cult -- an ancestor cult of the most primitive form -- keeping alive a history of love and warmth. A quilt, in it's most basic form, was a magical protective device. It was a book, a diary, a "photo album." But it was also a woman’s Bible.
      • This explains why some of the men who preached tried to contain quilting.
      • It explains why the quilting bees were not just social groups. But were described as like support groups, where women discussed their most intimate secrets.
      • It explains why one Mennonite lady could describe one of her quilts like this: “I tremble sometimes when I remember what that quilt knows about me.”
        • This is close to what anthropologists refer to as “Animism” – where an inanimate object is experienced as living.
      • It explains why there is a difference (as with African carvings) between traditional quilts that are living, charged with the power of the ancestors, with the ability to transport the possessor to another more spiritual world, and the quilts now made for tourists. Which are sold as craft pieces or art pieces.
      • A quilt is not just a piece of public folklore but also an expression of personal religion.
        • And it is appropriate that the deep, let us say religious significance of quilting, is found in the expressions of Mennonite women who were brought up with the idea that each person has to find his or her own way to God.