by Sherry Massey, Senior Registrar
The Von Keller Coverlet, as it is lovingly referred to by the donor, Ellen Jonsson, came to her in a family lottery. She “drew the long straw” and the quilt became hers.
The story goes something like this: Dr. Frederick Von Keller moved to Ardmore, Indian Territory, from Vernon, Texas, in 1894. There he opened the community’s first hospital, the Ardmore Sanitarium, in 1901. After that building was destroyed in an explosion, he opened the new Von Keller Hospital in 1917. The Von Kellers had two children and one of the daughters, Beatrice, was one of the earliest female graduates of OU. Beatrice married and had children. At some point, family legend says, Dr. Von Keller accepted the quilt in payment of medical services.
Ms. Jonsson married one of Beatrice’s sons. She tells us, “About 30 years ago, Elaine, Katherine and I were at Grandmother Bea’s home. She was in her seventies at the time. She told us that we were going to have a lottery. We wondered what on earth she had in mind. She came back from the kitchen with three straws concealed in her hand. She said the person drawing the longest straw was going to get something. I drew the longest straw and the ‘something’ was the coverlet. I have always thought that she manipulated the outcome because she knew that I would take care of it and ensure that moths didn’t get to it, that it wasn’t left out or carelessly handled.” We’re so glad Grandmother Bea rigged the lottery!
As you can see from the photos, the quilt is a combination fan block/crazy quilt design. The fans alternate direction every other block and are constructed in typical crazy quilt fashion with the pieces appliquéd to a base block. Floral crewel embroidery embellishes the background above each fan with the exception of a swan on one block and the words “Fancy Work” on another. The embroidery is excellent with even stitching and texture. The foundation squares are of striped shirting. The fan blades are made from fabric typically used in suits, dresses and shirts with some satins and wools. Each fan point is velvet. There is no batting or backing; however, there is a binding made from one of the suiting fabrics. Because there is no batting or traditional backing, ‘coverlet’ may be the more appropriate term, after all. The maker did not sign or date the piece. An appraisal has dated it at 1885-1899. It is in remarkably good condition, with no major damage.
This is just one of the many fine quilts entrusted to the care of the Oklahoma Historical Society. We will continue to highlight them in future blogs, so check back often!