QUILT HISTORY STORIES
A Quilt Maker Uncovers Buried Treasure
Susan Wildemuth, Atkinson, IL
Janette Dwyer - Atkinson, Illinois
When Janette Dwyer is not quilting, giving quilt history lectures, or designing quilt patterns, this busy Illinois farm wife can be found rummaging through boxes at estate sales and farm auctions looking for buried textile treasures.
A traditional quilt maker, she appreciates all kinds of quilts, but is most inspired by the scrap and crazy quilts that were in vogue in the late 19th and early 20th century. “I make scrap quilts and those are the type of quilts, I’m drawn to at auctions. My favorite era is from the 1860s to the 1930s. They used what they had and I suppose that’s what appeals to me the most about this time period. These women didn’t waste anything and they were able to create these wonderful quilts.”
While attending an auction back in the 1990s with her sister one Sunday afternoon, Janette found the “find of the century” for a quilt maker who collects antique quilt tops, quilts, and quilting paraphernalia from her home base in Illinois. Peeking out from underneath a table, she spotted two soiled quilts unceremoniously stuffed in a box. Janette and her sister unfolded one of the quilts and noticed the words VISITORS WELCOME. “I was so intrigued that I bought both quilts at a bargain price and took them home. I laid out the Visitors Welcome quilt on my living room floor and the words CENTURY OF PROGRESS EXPOSITION, 1933. Chicago, Illinois began emerging. Later that evening, I began to wonder what kind of special event had gone on in Chicago in 1933 that would warrant someone investing their time, money, and heart into making a quilt about it. I decided I had to research the history of this quilt.”
1933 Century of Progress Quilt
Created for Sears National Quilt Contest
What unfolded next was serendipity, a second case of being in the right place at the right time which still amazes her today. Back in the mid 1990s, she went shopping with one of her friends and they stopped at a quilt shop in Moline, Illinois. Janette was talking with one of her quilts friends who worked at the shop about her latest acquisition, when the young women stopped her and shared that the quilt Janette was describing sounded just like the quilts in a book she had recently read.
Rummaging through a pile of books which had just arrived in the shop, the young woman handed Janette a book written entirely about souvenir quilts of the 1933 World’s Fair, an event that took place in Chicago, Illinois, and the theme for this fair had been a Century of Progress. “The more I read the book, the more excited I got. It seems the Sears, Roebuck and Company sponsored a quilting contest in conjunction with the 1933 World’s Fair. The first place prize money was $1,000.00 with Sears adding an additional $250.00 to the pot if the words Century of Progress appeared somewhere on the top of the quilt that won first place. During the Depression, $1,000.00 was a small fortune so it was not surprising that a whopping 25,000 entries came into ten regional centers across the United States before the contest was closed and the winner chosen.”
Lightening struck a third time when Janette discovered that several of these 1933 World’s Fair quilts had been touring the country for the past three years and their closest stop to Janette’s Atkinson, Illinois home was within driving distance at Janesville, Wisconsin. Joined by her sister and sister-in-law, this trio of quilt enthusiasts climbed into the car to see the Century of Progress quilts. “The original first place quilt winner was not there, that quilt had been given to Eleanor Roosevelt, but that quilt show was well represented by the other available entries. The beauty, workmanship, and originality of these quilts were incredible and it really boggles the mind when you consider these women only had five months to complete their quilt.”
While attending the quilt show, Janette learned that the curators of this traveling quilt collection were still trying to locate other 1933 World’s Fair entries. Out of the 25,000 entered in the contest sponsored by Sears, they had located 159 quilts by the mid 1990s. Janette’s Century of Progress quilt would eventually be documented as 160. What a find!
The touring Century of Progress exhibit has closed, but Merikay Waldvogel and Barbara Brackman, co-authors of the book Patchwork Souvenirs of the 1933 World’s Fair are still searching for C of P quilt contest entries and stories about the quilt makers. By 1996, 183 of the 25,000 Sears-sponsored quilt contest entries had been located and recorded.
If you have a 1933 World’s Fair Century of Progress quilt or know where one is located you can contact Merikay Waldvogel email@example.com or Barbara Brackman
Janette Dwyer Biography
When Janette Dwyer is not working along side her husband Mike on their Atkinson, Illinois grain farm or being mom to two college students, she can be found in her sewing room working on her latest project, designing patterns, lecturing on quilts and/or quilt history throughout the Midwest, attending a meeting of her quilter’s club, or when time permits, spending a Sunday afternoon scouting estate sales and farm auctions for antique and vintage quilt tops, quilts, and quilt-related treasures. Janette is presently taking appraiser classes and is working towards becoming a certified quilt appraiser.
Lectures or Classes:
19781 U.S. Highway 6
Atkinson, Illinois 61235
Janette Dwyer Design