ILLINOIS STATE MUSEUM
A Cut and Stitch Above
Quilts by Bertha Stenge
| by Merikay Waldvogel, Quilt Historian, and |
Janice Tauer Wass, ISM Curator of Decorative Arts
QUILTMAKING in the early twentieth century reached new heights of artistic endeavor. National contests and pictures of exceptional quilts in newspapers and magazines influenced quilters to become more creative and to apply artistic principles to their handiwork. Bertha Stenge of Chicago, Illinois, was one of a handful of quilters that inspired and led this artistic revolution in the quilt world during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.
Bertha Sheramsky Stenge (1891-1957) was born and raised in Alameda, California. She attended San Francisco College of Art and according to family members actually had a small studio about 1910. She moved to Chicago in 1912 where she married attorney Bernhard Stenge and raised three daughters: Frances, Ruth and Prudence. When they were grown, Bertha re-entered the art world through the medium of quiltmaking.
In 1929, the Chicago Evening American held a contest for quilts made from a set of syndicated quilt patterns titled "The Nancy Page Club." Bertha Stenge entered the contest and won only an Honorable Mention, but her competitive drive and artistic instincts were fueled by this first experience.
For the next thirty years, Bertha Stenge made at least one quilt per year--entering many contests and expositions in the United States and Canada. In 1933, she designed a Century of Progress commemorative quilt for the Chicago World's Fair Sears National Quilt Contest but did not win. However, her Palm Leaf quilt won prizes totaling $725 seven years later in the New York World's Fair contest sponsored by Macy's Department Store.
The award that made her famous was the $1000 grand prize for her patriotic theme quilt Victory entered in the 1942 Woman's Day National Needlework Contest. Bertha Stenge traveled to New York City for the award presentation at Madison Square Garden which was broadcast nationally by radio.
With each contest success, she attracted even greater publicity in newspapers, women's magazines, and radio programs. American Home, Ladies' Home Journal, Successful Farming, and Woman's Day carried color photographs of Stenge's quilts along with patterns and instructions.
Following the New York World's Fair contest, Eugen Neuhaus, Stenge's former art professor in San Francisco, organized a solo exhibition in 1941 of eighteen quilts at the Art Gallery at the University of California in Berkeley. This was the first of three major exhibitions of Stenge's work held in her life time.
Following the 1942 National Needlework Contest, The Art Institute of Chicago arranged to show twenty Stenge quilts in the summer of 1943. Newsweek, in reviewing the Chicago exhibition, called Stenge's quilts "Art Quilts." Stenge's scrapbook of news articles, photographs, and mementos of her rich quilt career grew thicker by the month. Her name became synonymous with the best of contemporary quilting and design.
QUILT ENTHUSIASTS throughout the nation sought out Bertha Stenge for advice and friendship. Florence Peto, an East Coast antique authority, began writing to Stenge in 1947. Peto needed help dealing with magazine editors, and Bertha Stenge seemed to have developed a good working relationship with several well-known women's magazines. Bertha also introduced Florence to state fair quilt contests in Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee. The two women may have competed for prizes in the same categories, but prizewinning was not their goal-sharing their quilts with a wider audience was.
Florence also encouraged Bertha to make quilts in the center-medallion style and to use fabrics from the early 1800s. Bertha's masterpiece,The Quilting Party, is strongly influenced by design suggestions provided by Florence, who also supplied, from her own collection, the antique fabrics used in the quilt. In 1954, the 31st Annual Women's International Exposition in New York City featured a special exhibition of thirty Bertha Stenge quilts. The Quilting Party held a place of honor.
In 1955, The Chicago Daily News called Bertha Stenge "Chicago's Quilting Queen." After a brief illness, Bertha Stenge died in June 1957. Earlier that year, she presented her quilt The Chicago Fair to the Chicago Historical Society. At her death, Stenge's remaining thirty-nine quilts were divided equally among her three daughters and her vintage fabric collection was given to The Art Institute of Chicago. Recently, the Illinois State Museum acquired seven of Bertha Stenge's quilts, founding the largest public collection of Stenge's work.
Paraphrasing the words of a judge, "Bertha Stenge had eyes which saw the beauty of the world around her, and a heart moved with longing to catch and mold some of that beauty as her own. She was an artist--an artist working with scraps of material, a needle, imagination, and a great feeling of enjoyment in what she was doing."
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© Illinois State Museum -- 30-December-98