Quilts Galore

In my previous job as a Digitization Facilitator, for an OurOntario project, I had the opportunity to work with a number of great local history collections.  A few of these collections contained quilts made and donated by community members.  I was instantly impressed by the work and community memory contained in so many of these handmade quilts. A number of the quilts were done as community fundraisers or as keepsakes and have local family names stitched onto them – a great source for any local historian.

Since my first introduction to quilts in a historic context I’ve continued to be amazed by the work that goes into quilt making.  Some of my favourite quilts from museum collections include: 

From the Huron Shores Museum, a Pink and White fundraiser quilt.  Community members paid a small fee to stitch their name into the quilt.  Additional details for this quilt can be seen here.

Circa 1940

Detail of a section of the names on the quilt. 

An intricate scrap style quilt held by the McCord Museum.

Crazy quilt, M965.76.1 1897, made in 1897

The Castle Kilbridge National Historic Site has placed a virtual exhibit on the Virtual Museum of Canada which focuses on quilts given as wedding presents.  The quilt below is an example of the items contained in that exhibit.  

“Rising Sun,” made in 1885

The Literary and Historical Society of Quebec

A recent Ideas episode on CBC radio examined the history of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec. Established in 1824, by the Earl of Dalhousie, the society is the oldest historic society in Canada. In addition to the age of the society, the society is historically significant based on its original status as an English strong hold, the library it houses, the built heritage of the society’s building, it’s role in establishing the National Archives of Canada, and the more recent development of the Morrin Centre.

The Society is located on a site with a diverse history. From 1712-1808 the location was home to the Redoubt Royal, which was a military barracks and eventually a holding place for prisoners of war. The current building was built between 1808 and 1813 and served as the Quebec city jail until 1867. The jail was the site of the last public hanging in Quebec. Following the closure of the jail the building was re-purposed by Morrin College. In 1868 the Literary and Historical Society moved into this building.

Currently, the Society’s library collection is open to the public. However, borrowing privileges are restricted to society members. The library collection is unique as despite being located in a predominately French area the library specializes in preserving the city’s English language heritage and history.

The podcast of this Ideas episode is well worth a listen as it highlights some of the unique history surrounding the society.

Historical Societies and Community Heritage

Regardless of the size of the city, town, or rural community you live in there is a good chance your community has a historical society. These societies are often comprised of passionate volunteers who care greatly about the preservation of community history. What role does your local historical society play in the preservation and interpretation of your community’s past? How active is your local historical society? How do historical societies fit amongst heritage institutions such as museums and archives?

One of the great things about historical societies is that membership is often open to anyone. By volunteering with a historical society people looking to gain more experience in the heritage field can participate in fundraising, research, and interpretation projects. Historical societies are also a great place for people who are just generally passionate about history or who would like be more involved in their community. Additionally, anyone one with a professional background in heritage, who is willing to share their expertise, is usually enthusiastically welcomed by historical societies.

The volunteer nature of historical societies is great for the variety of people the societies attract. However, there is a downside to being a volunteer based organization. Without active and committed volunteers local historical societies can easily become inactive and in some cases disband entirely. The problem of the disappearance of historical societies is particularly troublesome when a historical society has acted as a collector of community history. What happens to a photo collection or archival collection held by a historical society when there is no longer a group of dedicated volunteers to maintain the collection? Good historical societies have plans in place to deal with this possibility. These plans may include donating the material to a local heritage institution or appointing a knowledge community member to act as curator of the collection. Regardless of how vibrant a historical society is currently, the volunteer nature of most historical societies makes it essential that plans are created to ensure to the longevity of any holdings the historical society maintains.

Historical societies play an important role in increasing public awareness of local heritage. Many historical societies run genealogy workshops, walking tours, lecture series, and in some cases play an active role in heritage preservation initiatives. In addition to their role as promoters and educators of local history, some historical societies have taken on a role of collecting community histories. In some cases this is done in terms of collecting oral histories, preserving photo collections, or working in tandem with local heritage institutions. Examples of historical societies acting as collectors of community history include: the Guelph Historical Society which maintains its own archival collection, and the Milton Historical Society which has partnered with various libraries and other historical societies to digitize their photo collection. Both of these historical societies are active in their respective communities and have made an effort to increase accessibility to their collections.