By: Mary Jane Furgason and Patricia Cox Crews
A study of records from the Nebraska State Fair quilt competition coupled with a study of winning quiltmakers and their quilts exhibited at the Nebraska State Fair during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provides information about the quilt competition over the years and broadens our perspectives on Nebraska quiltmakers and their quilts. In addition, it clearly demonstrates that the annual State Fair competition reflects the cultural, social, and economic trends of the time.
Premium offerings for quilts throughout most of the twentieth century included pieced, applique, embroidered, and crib quilts, best quilting by hand, and since 1936 a “Best Quilt” premium award. Some categories, such as “log cabin” and “silk crazywork,” were eliminated over the years when entries declined as a result of declining popularity of particular quilting styles; others, such as machine quilting and non-functional, were added to accommodate the entries of quilters undertaking new quilting styles. Because State Fair entries and premium offerings reflect so well quiltmaking practices within the state, a study of them contributes to our understanding of this important cultural tradition.
Premiums offered at the State Fair also reflected economic and social changes within the state. The value of premium awards rose and fell, corresponding with changes in the economic climate of the state. Although, in general, the value of premiums appeared to be consistent with the amount of work involved in making an entry, there were some exceptions that revealed inequities based on gender. Those inequities were largely remedied by the early 1980s reflecting changes in social order and consciousness.
In addition to the analysis of the State Fair premium listings and other records, we examined selected award-winning quilts dating from 1929-1989, interviewed their makers, summarized responses to completed questionnaires, and compared findings to profiles of Nebraska quiltmakers that emerged from the statewide survey conducted in the late 1980s. Results of this analysis showed that most Fair quilters, like their contemporaries, were housewives with high school or even college educations who quilted because of the great personal satisfaction derived from creating something of beauty for themselves or their families. Most “Best Quilt” winners were of English and Scotch-Irish descent and affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, unlike their contemporaries, most of whom were of German descent.