Vibrant textile collages called crazy quilts were popular at the end of the 19th century. Though their overall patchwork appearance was similar, each quilt was personalized by their maker’s choice of motifs that were embroidered, painted or appliquéd on the fabric. Popular culture often inspired these motifs.
One such crazy quilt was made around 1875–1890 by Helen Dounce of Elmira, N.Y. She featured two sports trends of the period not often seen in quilts: the bicycle and the roller skate. The late 19th-century was an exhilarating time for wheeled travel in the United States, with increasing numbers of men and women alike enjoying biking and skating.
All four sides of Dounce’s quilt depict the high-wheeled “penny-farthing” or “ordinary.” Likely the first machine to be called a bicycle, it produced many injury-causing falls. After 1890, it was replaced by the equal wheels of the “safety bicycle,” which attracted a wider following.
Also interspersed throughout the quilt are roller skates. Frenchman Monsieur Petitbled first patented the roller skate in 1819, and innovations in skate design throughout the century allowed for easier and safer turning. Cities large and small built roller rinks for skating enthusiasts.
The maker was well into her 40s when she completed her crazy quilt, gifted to the DAR Museum by Virginia Mayo Herrick. Even if Dounce didn’t personally engage in either bicycling or roller-skating, including these sports on her quilt revealed her awareness of modern fads.