Author: Ria Tomar

Quilts are functional art. Lovingly stitched together, combining memories and meaning in every scrap of fabric. They offer warmth, security and beauty. Quilting also spans far back into history, possibly playing a vital role in the Underground Railroad. A quilt knowingly placed outside, possibly “in the window or on a clothesline”, could signify coded directions or messages to escaping freedom seekers (Bohde). The “Monkey Wrench” pattern, for example, might indicate that it was time to collect tools for the move towards freedom. The quilts were ten in number, each having a different message. They were placed outside one at a time, representing messages that only those who had memorized the quilt design could understand (Bohde). Today, historians continue to disagree about whether such a code actually existed, or whether it was simply a story passed down across generations (Adler).

A piece of this history is actually in Iowa. The Jordan House in West Des Moines was home to James Jordan and his family. As an abolitionist, Jordan made his home a stop on the Underground Railroad for freedom seekers escaping the south. Although such a decision would put his own family in great danger, Jordan made the moral and conscious choice to make his property a place of safety for those escaping, despite the risks.

Below is a link to a website with various quilt patterns, each having a different meaning represented in their uniquely sewn patchwork.

Bohde, Stefanie. “The underground railroad quilt code: a history of African-American quilting from ancient practices to the Civil War Times.” Oakland Journal Number 8: Winter 2005 (2005).

Adler, Margot. (Host). (2007-present). Douglass Memorial Sparks Debate on Art vs. History [Audio Podcast]. NPR.