Friday, June 13, 2014

Why I Love Mrs. Webster

Why I Love Mrs. Webster

Patricia L. Cummings

We never know what is in store for us! In my case, a chance viewing of a “quilt chart” at an historical society where I was a volunteer, led me 14 years later to search for any and all information related to a set of 162 quilt charts, which both depict and save old quilt designs. I wanted to know more about the lady who made them. Mrs. Clarendon (Ellen Emeline) Webster used the quilt designs she had gathered from quilts which were already “antiques” during the 1930s period in which she worked to illustrate lectures she presented on quilt history. She was, indeed, New Hampshire’s very own early quilt historian, as I would soon learn.

Clarendon and Ellen E. Webster: wedding portrait

She knew at least one other quilt historian of the same time period personally and was well-acquainted with the books written by others in the newly-emerging field of quilt history.  Florence LaGanke Harris, better known by the pseudonym “Nancy Page,” wrote about quilts in a syndicated newspaper column. Both Webster and LaGanke served together as judges of antique quilts at an annual competition at Storrowton Village in Massachusetts. Most likely that is where the two became acquainted.

An example of one of the quilt patterns "saved" on a quilt chart by Ellen E. Webster
Photo by James Cummings for the e-book Ellen Emeline Hardy Webster (1867-1950): Her Amazing Quilt "Charts," Her Writings and Her Life (Concord, NH: Quilter's Muse Publications, 2008).

Who else but Webster would take the time and effort to undertake such a huge project of carefully drawing geometric shapes onto charts and then applying scraps of old fabrics with glue in order to help her audience understand the history and variety of quilt patterns? But chart-making was one of her least engaging activities. She had first taught school in a one-room schoolhouse, teaching a wide variety of classes. Not surprising is that fact that she taught a lot of classes in math. Ellen’s own math skills must have come in very handy when reproducing the quilt chart designs.

Lucky I was to discover the true identity of Ellen Webster who had been previously referred to as “Emily Webster in print and who had been misnamed by a New Hampshire reporter, and again in another televised program that portrayed her as a ghost-like figure moving in the background. A curious situation had developed.  It took careful sleuth work on my part to learn why the name “Emily Webster” shows up on some of the charts. It was very apparent to me that Emily did not seem to be the quilt chart maker. But what was her correct name?

Finally, after looking at genealogical information, I put two and two together.  A woman named Emily Webster Brown and her sister, Ellen A. Webster, (not relatives to the Ellen E. Webster we speak of here) were the people whose names Ellen E. Webster had hand-written on her charts. The three women were friends. The two sisters, with roots in the community of Bridgewater, New Hampshire, allowed Ellen E. Webster to study family ancestral quilts in their possession and create quilt charts to add to her collection of them. After learning the correct identity, it was like downhill skiing to come up with "proof" that Ellen was the quilt chart maker.

A quilt chart by Ellen E. Webster

For a full eight month period, I followed every lead I could to understand the life and the times of Ellen E. Webster (1867-1950). Born just two years after the Civil War ended in 1865, by vocation she was a teacher whose scholarly-bent led her to first teach in a one room school house like ones where she had been taught in rural areas. I was thrilled to have been able to purchase one of Webster’s rank books where she recorded the names and grades of students in four different subject areas:  Algebra, Bookkeeping, Physical Geography, and Botany.

I can safely say that "I love Ellen Webster" as states the bumper sticker I had made

One does not need to look far into the activities of Ellen Emeline Webster to discover a woman of extraordinary talents. A true Victorian lady, she and her sisters and mother dressed in the usual long black dress habitually worn. They were exceedingly interested in Botany and would take to the woods to see which wildflowers were blooming and to listen to bird calls.

Although Webster was born in Hebron, New Hampshire, she was educated at Monson Academy, Monson, Massachusetts. In 1893 she married a prominent dentist and moved to Franklin, New Hampshire where his business was established. The couple contributed much to their community. She was elected as president of the local woman’s club. When one of Webster’s sisters died, Ellen and Clarendon took the child into their home and adopted her.

The flood of information I uncovered led me to write a 355 page book in 2008 that serves as a discussion of her many quilt charts and a survey of her life and genealogy, all rich topics in and of themselves. I found many of Mrs. Webster’s writings, copies of speeches, letters, and best of all her two great nephews who were able to visit me to show me two Victorian Era Crazy Quilts, one made by relatives as a “Crazy Quilt,” and the other made by Ellen’s mother, Sarah Diantha Hardy.

In uncovering all that I found about Ellen Emeline Hardy Webster (1867-1950), I am thrilled.  I have learned so much, I almost feel as though I know her personally.  She was quintessentially a Victorian woman.
Time continues to change and sometimes facts get lost along the way. All it takes is one writer or reporter to misname someone and that mistake is likely going to be carried forward. I am happy to have set straight the name of the quilt chart maker.

My book is a tribute to Ellen Webster and all that she accomplished. I learned that Ellen liked to draw humorous little sketches on letters she wrote to serve as illustrations. She was a hiker and a bird-lover, and was a very religious person who became a professor of Biblical studies after her husband died in 1918.

She was a scientist at heart, as well, and wrote a paper about luminous moss that is now archived at Dartmouth College. One location where the rare moss had grown is now lost. The moss had been growing under a barn but after the barn roof fell in, the new owners decided to demolish the old barn depriving the moss of a perfect habitat. Photos of the moss can be viewed in my e-book!

The book tells the story of her entire life via such things as her diary entries, a study of her family geneaology, and many other documents, including her lecture brochure. The scope of her work will amaze anyone who takes the time to read the book, offered as an e-book and still available from Quilter’s Muse Publications ( The e-book can be read on any computer/ no special device needed. $24.95. Free shipping offer until the last day in June 2014. Contact for more information.

I love Ellen E. Webster inasmuch as she was intelligent, generous with her knowledge and like me, loved history. Her writings, much of which are shared in my e-book, tell the past of just life used to be in rural New England in a rural community. I love her sense of humor and her zest for life and that was an example for others. I can think of many reasons as to why I love Mrs. Webster. If you read my book, perhaps you will begin to see her fine points.

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