Few history myths have origins so recent or so clear as the quilt code myth. We know who started it, who publicized it, and who is profiting from it. We also know the overwhelming body of evidence against it. This myth caught on quickly, thanks in part to teachers and librarians looking for an imaginative way to teach children about slavery, especially during Black History Month.
If you haven’t heard this humdinger, it focuses on quilt patterns that supposedly contained a secret message that would guide slaves along the Underground Railroad route. For instance, the Monkey Wrench pattern, when displayed on a line in the slave quarters, supposedly meant “Gather up tools and prepare to flee.” Quilt experts, academic historians, and museum curators all over the country have exposed this myth as a hoax. None of the various claims have been substantiated, and all are contradicted by facts, for instance, several of the quilt patterns that are supposed to have had hidden meanings didn’t even exist before the Civil War. (The Dresden Plate design is late 19th century; the Wedding Ring, pictured above, dates from 1920.) The examples of slave-made quilts with the secret code are all recently made; no independently-documented example has ever been found. Firsthand accounts from people like Harriet Tubman and other slaves (some of which were collected in the 1930s by WPA writers), do not mention anything resembling this quilt code, even when referencing quilts, as Tubman did.
Kate Clifford Larson, a historian and expert on Harriet Tubman, the former slave who returned to Maryland again and again to help friends and relatives escape, wrote, “She (Tubman) never used the quilt code. The quilt code is another myth created in the last 20 years. It is not true and everyone should know that. The truth is people who ran away used their great intelligence and took great risks to flee, and they used networks of people who were willing to help. Some people did not get any help; they just ran away and got to freedom on their own.”
This persistent fairy tale is too profitable to kill off. It has spawned several children’s books, a money-making lecture circuit, sales of quilt code designs to quilt-makers, and sales of quilts to tourists. It is even—horror of horrors—morphing into other cultures. Someone has claimed that Native Americans made coded quilts, another that German Jews made coded quilts to warn others about Nazis. All such stories have been debunked by reputable experts who have, on occasion, been accused of racism when they didn’t agree.
There is a lesson here—If you want to start a history myth, be sure to include the word “code” or “secret” in it. This is guaranteed to get you lots of attention, as we are all suckers for secret messages, conspiracies, codes, and plots.
Over the years, Leigh Fellner has researched and written an exhaustive, impressive rebuttal of the quilt code myths that you can read in its very interesting entirety at www.ugrrquilt.hartcottagequilts.com.