a Christmas tree festival, circa 1800
By Patricia Belyea
LA CONNER WA This week I was charmed to tour La Conner Quilt & Textile Museum with curator Kathleen Kox. Kathleen showed me a century of holiday trees that she decorated with a team of volunteers.
Early 1800s German immigrants brought the evergreen tree, symbol of everlasting life, to the Republic of the United States of America. The Museum’s Pennsylvania Dutch tree is decorated with pine cones, sliced oranges, apples and marzipan cookies. Beside this tree, Kathleen hung a medallion quilt, Bethlehem Star, to showcase the most popular design of the time.
1850s Godey’s Lady’s Book published an etching of Queen Victoria and the royal family around a Christmas tree. This advanced the popularity of Christmas trees with Americans. Trees at this time were small and often fit on a table top. To match the fashion of the day, Kathleen’s team decked the 1850’s tree with fruit and other edibles, pine cones, wax candles, dolls and other toys.
The sewing machine was just invented. Applique patterns were the rage in quilting, as well as large four-block and nine-block patterns. Kathleen chose a red, green and white quilt made with Turkey Red, a new colorfast dye, to present an example from this decade.
1860s The 1860s was a time of huge devastation and loss with the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln. Americans who could afford to celebrate Christmas chose a patriotic theme. The Museum’s tree, in the first-floor hall, is filled with 34-star flags, colorful paper chains made by volunteers, exotic fruits, pine cones, wax candles and gingerbread.
1870’s In 1870, Congress declared Christmas a national holiday. Three years later, Mark Twain, deemed the times the “Gilded Age” due to the growth of vast fortunes with post-war reconstruction. Christmas trees were then floor-to-ceiling, and the Museum’s representation is laden with hand-blown glass ornaments, gifts and wax candles. The Log Cabin quilt, made with wool or silk, was wildly popular. A particularly fine sample, with pencil-wide piecing, is hung nearby.
1880-90s Goose feather trees became in vogue after laws were passed to ban the topping of trees for Christmas trees. With mass manufacturing, store-bought ornaments became available. Kathleen added glass and tinseled scrap ornaments to this petite tree in the Museum’s dining room. A Crazy Quilt with embroidery embellishments, is hung across the room to show the latest style of the day.
In the tower room of Gaches Mansion is perched another tree, this one complete with folk decorations in the style of Jim Shore. It’s absolutely stunning under the hand-painted ceiling, with windows overlooking the town of La Conner.
Before I left the Museum, I stopped by Kathleen’s office(l) and executive director Amy Green’s office (r), and discovered two more decorated Christmas trees. Adding the tree in The Museum Store, there are nine festive trees throughout the Museum!
Kathleen dedicated a tremendous amount of time to researching and preparing the decorations for this year’s holiday display. If you have antique glass or paper ornaments that you can donate to the Museum, Kathleen would appreciate getting more authentic decorations. You can contact her at: email@example.com