Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Redwork Cartoon Characters

Redwork Figures Straight from the “Funny Papers”

by Patricia L. Cummings
photo by James Cummings

A unique Redwork quilt reveals a quilter's sense of humor, love of country life
and penchant for fanciful designs!

Recently, an irresistible quilt surfaced at an estate sale held at the former home of Bernice Berkheiser Reeder (1917-2011), Emmaus, (in Berk's County), Pennsylvania. This particular Redwork quilt includes a number of prominent comic strip characters of the twentieth century. Other designs in the quilt call to mind a possible association with fairy tales such as “the Tortoise and the Hare” and “The Ugly Duckling.”At least one nursery rhyme is represented and other blocks demonstrate the quilt maker's love of farm animals. Evidently made to be enjoyed by a young person during the 1930s/1940s, this charming twin size bed quilt measures 75 inches x 64 inches.

Redwork Cartoon Characters Quilt 

Mrs. Reeder, a former silk mill employee who worked in the Allentown, Pennsylvania area, attached little notes to other objects found in her home after her death. For example, the hat she wore in 1935 on New Year's Eve has a paper attached to it that delineates all of her activities that evening. A set of bisque bride and groom figures are identified as having graced her wedding cake. Unfortunately, she left no written provenance to indicate who embroidered and hand-quilted this quilt. Since the lucky acquisition of this special vintage textile, we have been busy trying to identify some sources of its designs.

Li'l Abner”
“Li'l Abner” (Yokum), the main character of a syndicated comic strip that ran from 1934 to 1977, is depicted on a quilt block in the top row. A product of the imagination of cartoonist Al Capp, Li'l Abner lives in the hillbilly haven of Dogpatch, Kentucky. Although handsome, one of Li'l Abner's goals is to avoid marriage even though he is pursued by willing young ladies. He continues to live at the home of his parents, Mammy and Pappy Yokum. Other characters featured in a film that I viewed include “Daisy Mae,” “Hairless Joe” and “Earthquake McGoo,” all very amusing!

Maggie” and “Jiggs”
My husband, Jim, recognizes two side by side figures in the fourth row down as “Maggie” and “Jiggs” from the comic strip titled “Bringing Up Father.” These characters were first introduced by cartoonist George McManus circa 1911 and were firmly established in their own comic strip in 1913. Both the conflict and humor of the series centers on the million dollars that “Jiggs” won in a lottery. He was suddenly catapulted from the status of “shanty Irish” to “lace curtain Irish,” terms common in the twentieth century that amuse me as my paternal grandmother of Irish ancestry was fond of using them! In stereotypical fashion, Jiggs' social-climbing wife is unwillingly to allow him to continue hanging around with his Irish friends who frequent the local tavern and favor eating corned beef and cabbage (an Irish-American dish, not of Irish origin!).

At the far right side of the fourth row down is a figure that looks like “Blondie,” often described as a “carefree flapper.” The popular slang word “flapper” is reserved for young ladies of the 1920s whose morality was sometimes questioned because of their short dresses, intake of alcohol, and performance of dances new at the time.” First drawn by Chick Young and first published in 1930, the “Blondie” comic strip features “Blondie Boopadoop.” According to wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, the name “Boopadoop” stems from a song popularized by singer Helen Kane in 1928. Blondie is later featured as Mrs. Bumstead, appearing in the series “Dagwood Bumstead,” as a married woman with two children, Alexander and Cookie, and a dog named “Daisy” with her pups.

Popeye” and “Wimpy”
Some of the comic strip figures, such as “Popeye,” are readily recognizable. On a quilt block, his muscular arm seems to be at-the-ready to hit someone (perhaps the bully, Bluto, who was always trying to win over the affection of Olive Oil, Popeye's girlfriend. Those familiar with this character will remember his favorite song, a defining statement: “I'm Popeye the Sailor Man, I'm Popeye the Sailor Man, I'm strong to the finish cuz I eats me spinach, I'm Popeye the Sailor Man!”

On another block, an image of Popeye's friend “J. Wellington Wimpy,” is embroidered. He is better known as “The Moocher” whose main quest in life is to eat hamburgers, especially ones he can attain by trickery. His memorable line is “I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today!”

Mickey Mouse,” “Minnie Mouse” and “Dagwood”
Two Walt Disney stars who are “mouse” figures are featured in the sixth row down and need no introduction. One block over is “Dagwood Bumstead,” appears to be running. He made his debut in Chic Young's “Blondie” comic strip circa 1933. Dagwood is perhaps most remembered for his elaborate “Dagwood sandwich,” a specialty that he concocted that was stacked high with lunch meat and other ingredients. He is constantly tries to manage daily challenges like trying to get to work on time and having run-ins with other characters. He is especially protective of the virtue of his popular daughter, “Cookie,” who has many suitors.

Farm Animal Blocks
Variety of blocks is the name of the game for this unusual quilt. Included are many examples of farm animals. A calf with his head in a bucket, a cowboy on horseback wielding a lasso, a horse jumping a fence, a boy holding a watering can accompanied by his faithful canine companion, a pig with piglets, a goose and her goslings, a sheep and lambs, as well as a rooster, all call to mind life in the country. The former owner of this quilt appears to have loved farm animals. Both plastic and carved wood figurines of horses and cows were found as part of her collected items.

Animals: a Constant Theme
Several large dog designs remind me of “Lassie” but it is difficult to know whether or not that particular fictional dog inspired the blocks. “Lassie” was first introduced in the novel Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight in 1940. Three years later, the first Lassie movie was produced by MGM studios.

A dressed-up pig and a fish in a tuxedo are a couple of the more whimsical blocks. In Red & White: American Redwork Quilts, Deborah Harding identifies a similar image of a bunny holding a shovel as “Peter Rabbit.” The character is featured in the famous book “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” by Beatrix Potter, first created in 1893 and first published in 1901. According to Harding, the inclusion of this particular figure would date the quilt to sometime after 1910.

Various profiles of girls are present, some of which resemble figures seen on other nineteenth century quilts and some of which look like Sunbonnet Sue figures. A nursery rhyme block with the words, “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” is the same design that appears on a vintage Bluework child's quilt in my collection.

Public Records
In attempting to learn more about the woman who loved this quilt, the only tangible information came from public records. The obituary of Bernice E. (Berkheiser) Reeder (1917-2011) states that she was active in the Veteran's of Foreign Wars. She was married for 57 years to Bland W. Reeder (1916-1999), foreman in the slag plant of Bethlehem Steel Corporation. He retired in 1978. The couple is buried at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery (for veterans) in Annville, (Lebanon County) Pennsylvania.

The edges of the Redwork quilt show signs of being “well-used and well-loved.” Nonetheless, we are so happy that this precious quilt was saved! Its images are a window to the twentieth century life, a time of turbulence when keeping a sense of humor was crucial to one's sense of well-being. Newspapers at that time were an even more vital means of communication than today and readers could always find a chuckle in the slice-of-life comics section. One point is clear: the person who made this quilt enjoyed choosing these designs!

A Buy for the Soul
All things considered, at the present time this quilt is a favorite! After many washings, the quilt feels very soft to the touch. The batting has migrated, obscuring the lines of quilting from the front. However, in turning the quilt to the reverse side, it is apparent that the quilter drew designs that resemble flower petals as a guide for hand quilting each block from that side. I will enlist the help of readers to discover about this quilt. If anyone knows the origin of any of the other blocks, please feel free to contact me by writing to Studying this quilt and trying to decipher its “mysteries” is certainly a lot of fun!

Copyright 2014. Patricia L. Cummings, Concord, NH. All rights reserved.

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