Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2011

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

American Studies

First Advisor

Raeburn, John

First Committee Member

Adams, Bluford

Second Committee Member

Kinsey, Joni L

Third Committee Member

Rabinovitz, Lauren

Fourth Committee Member

White, Pamela J


Quilts are a unique medium that is deeply layered with meaning, highly gendered, intimately tied to social and cultural communities, and richly interdisciplinary. Though quilts are utilitarian in origin, their circulation and display take them far beyond the home--to art galleries, history museums, state fairs, quilt shows, and philanthropic auctions. As they move, individuals and institutions make significant intellectual and emotional investments in how quilts are classified, judged, and valued. In this highly politicized work, individuals and institutions shape public culture through debates about quilts' utility, workmanship, and aesthetics; they create and display quilts to further their cultural heritage, manifest their faith, delineate aesthetic values, reinforce disciplinary boundaries, and elevate their artistic status.

This project uses four representative case studies to demonstrate the cultural work that women and institutions conduct using quilts and to explore what is at stake in that work. Through research into the Iowa State Fair quilt competition and the Michiana Mennonite Relief Sale Quilt Auction, I reveal how women employ their quilts and quilt displays to promulgate their values and shape their communities. In case studies of larger institutions--the Smithsonian Institution and the American Quilter's Society--I investigate how quilts intersect with other artistic and historic objects in their creation, interpretation, and display. Each chapter includes historical research, observations from site visits, and evidence from qualitative interviews--research that provides a historical view of each institution and an analysis of how they currently categorize, judge, and display quilts. Together, these case studies reveal that individual efforts at quilt display intersect in broader public culture, where conversations about how to value and interpret quilts are also essential conversations about aesthetics, community values, disciplinarity, and the value of women's work.


Iowa, Mennonite, Museums, Quilts, Smithsonian, Women


vii, 200 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 192-200).


Copyright 2011 Karen E Smith