Art History, Artists, On this day...

On this day… died Harriet Powers

Hi everyone, let’s start this 2020 remembering the African American slave and folk artist Harriet Powers. She is famous for being a quilt maker who used traditional appliqué (ornamental needlework) techniques to record local legends, biblical stories or astronomical events on her quilts.

Harriet Powers in 1901
(Photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

Unfortunately, only two of her quilts are known to have survived: The Bible Quilt, 1886 and the Pictorial Quilt, 1898. Her quilts are considered as finest examples of the 19th century Southern quilting. Her works are displayed in the National Museum of American History in Washington DC and in the Museum of fine Arts in Boston.

Powers started to exhibit her quilts in 1886. Her first quilt, entitled Bible Quilt was shown at the Athens Cotton Fair, this quilt is now in the Smithsonian Institution. According to artist and art teacher Jennie Smith, from the Lucy Cobb Institute, this quilt was considered remarkable by that time, it was even asked to purchase but Powers refused to sell then. However, years later when Powers faced some financial difficulties, she agreed to sell the piece.

Bible Quilt by Harriet Powers, 1886
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The history of the second quilt is not clear. It was suggested that it was commissioned by the wives of faculty members of Atlanta University, who had seen Powers’ quilts at the Cotton States Exhibition in Atlanta in 1895.

In 2009 was founded a copy of a letter that Powers sent to a prominent Iowa woman in 1896; in this letter Powers shares her insights into her life as a slave, when she learned to write and read, as well as description of at least four quilts she had stitched.

Harriet Powers died on this day in 1910.

Pictorial Quilt by Harriet Powers, 1898
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


  • In her quilts Powers explained the themes from her own perspective and experience by using techniques from the age-old crafts of African Americans.
  • Powers was a literate woman who might have used her quilts to tell stories, as teaching tools.