By Cyndi Sommers, Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts
In the wonderful world of textiles, it is very unusual to see a quilt with as much documented history as the Appliquéd Tree of Life Quilt, which is why it is my favorite quilt in Telfair Museums’ collection and why I love to talk about it. The oldest documented quilt in the museum’s collection, this quilt is made in an appliqué style called Broderie Perse(Persian embroidery). Floral designs were carefully cut out and reapplied in intricate patterns to a plain muslin foundation. Broderie Perse became popular in America in the late 18th century when the only cotton fabric available was imported from India, and very expensive.
Mary Elizabeth Clayton Miller, the creator of this quilt, was born in Halifax, North Carolina in 1774. Her father, Andrew Miller, was a Scottish immigrant with loyalist leanings during the American Revolution. After the war, the U.S. government seized his property, but her widowed mother Elizabeth Blount Miller sued to regain it. In 1799, Mary Elizabeth married William Taylor and the newlyweds moved to Savannah.
Mr. Taylor owned considerable property in Savannah, including a wharf. He was a merchant whose name appears frequently in midcentury Savannah newspapers. The family owned enslaved people, and it can be assumed they were quite affluent. Mary Elizabeth was active in charity work, including the Bethesda Orphan House (for boys), and in 1801 founded the Savannah Female Orphan Asylum. She also had the leisure time to create beautiful quilts from imported fabrics purchased solely for that purpose.
In her version of the Tree of Life design, Mary Elizabeth Taylor chose a clump of hollyhocks as the central motif. She used tiny buttonhole stitches to sew her glazed chintz pieces onto the background. The cross-stitched inscription below the hollyhocks reads
“William Taylor From his Grand Mother 1824.”
Mary and William had two children, Alexander Miller Taylor and Elizabeth Ann Taylor Goodwin. Alexander married Julia Clark and their two sons, William Taylor and Alexander Clark Taylor, were both born in Newark, New Jersey. This quilt was made for the first grandson, William, and is dated two years after his birth. After the death of her husband, Mary Elizabeth lived with her daughter at the corner of Montgomery and Broughton streets in Savannah. She died in 1846 and is buried in Savannah’s Laurel Grove Cemetery.
Two similar chintz quilts made by Mary Elizabeth Taylor survive, one made for her son Alexander, and another for her second grandson Alexander. They are both in the collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Read more about this topic in Georgia Quilts, Piecing Together a History, edited by Anita Zaleski Weinraub for the Georgia Quilt Project; 2006 by University of Georgia Press.