Rose Marie Philips Thomas, Lazy Man, 1934. Quilt designed by Ruth Clement Bond, from Michigan State University Museum, East Lansing, Michigan. Photograph by Pearl Yee Wong.
Ruth Bond’s design for Lazy Man speaks to the dual purposes of New Deal programs—reliance on government and self-reliance, with the African American man torn between taking government assistance and enjoying his leisure. Her figurative motifs conveyed those qualities by symbolically representing the two meanings of power: the empowerment of a community acting with agency and the actual power provided by the federal dams. Quilts already had a clear connection to self-reliance, widely celebrated in popular culture as exemplars of creative reuse and thrift. Both the government and American quiltmakers symbolically drew on myths of colonial-era fortitude and self-sufficiency as a means of overcoming poverty. Quilts and quiltmaking were having a heyday in the 1930s, due in part to a nostalgia-fueled colonial revival spurring thousands of commercially available patterns, quilting columns published in local newspapers and ladies’ magazines, and widespread fascination with mythologized quiltmaking practices of previous generations. The colonial revival, sparked in part by the American Centennial in 1876, and its subset quilt revival, may have originated with white middle-upper class interest in colonial America, but by the time of the Depression, quiltmaking had become democratized and accessible, with widespread availability of patterns and creative scrap quiltmaking out of necessity. With the economic conditions of the Great Depression, many women ingeniously repurposed cloth from their scrap bags, combining bits of old clothes with recycled cotton sacks that packaged sugar, flour, or feed into bedcovers. American quiltmakers—whether educated women like Ruth Bond who drew on modernist design, makers who created quilts based on patterns featured in syndicated newspaper columns, or grassroots quilters who turned to their scrap bags to piece together innovative bedcovers to keep their family members warm—imagined in the quilts and quiltmakers of early America an ingenuity of making do to create something beautiful and functional. Quiltmaking became a popular Depression-era hobby as it kept hands busy while drawing on the mythology of colonial America and acting out 1930s values of thrift and perseverance.4
These clear symbolic connections between quiltmaking and the values the federal government promoted as part of its agenda resulted in recurring uses of quilts in New Deal initiatives. Some Works Progress Administration (WPA) sewing rooms employed women to make quilts. Hundreds of Farm Security Administration photographs, which the government used to cultivate empathy for its programs, feature women posed making quilts or quilts in use in domestic spaces. Women created blue eagle–themed National Recovery Act quilts in support of these laws protecting workers. And projects under the umbrella of the larger Federal Art Project—the Index of American Design, the Museum Extension Project, and various Federal Writers Project endeavors—documented historical quilts and quiltmaking practices. It is no coincidence that quilts’ popularity increased during the economic downturn and the federal response to it. In an era of scrimping and saving, American culture’s nostalgia for the craft of quiltmaking made sense, and New Deal programs capitalized on this as well.5
Ruth Bond’s quilt designs, however, shared little in common with the cheery scrap quilts in patterns such as Double Wedding Ring and Grandmother’s Flower Garden that were popular among Depression Era quiltmakers. Bond recalled that her first design—sadly with no known examples—featured a full-length Black worker holding a lightning bolt in his hands. Another of the quilts similarly portrayed the symbolic power of electricity through a lightning bolt, this one with a fist reaching out of the ground, similar to the TVA‘s early logo, which appeared with the motto, “Electricity for All.” Supposedly, some of the quiltmakers as well as college interns working for the TVA called it the “Black Power Quilt,” with late twentieth-century observers speculating that these quilts introduced the phrase “Black power” to the American lexicon. The final design of the series depicted a man working with a crane overhead, representing African American workers building a dam. Bond gave women in the TVA‘s “Negro Villages” the pattern, drawn on brown paper, and suggested the colors for the design. It’s unknown how many women made how many quilts, but a few now reside in museum collections and have identified makers.6
According to the TVA, in 1935 Max Bond presented one of these quilts to TVA chairman Arthur Morgan, one of the three white male members of the board of directors. This was one of two TVA quilts that African American administrators in the TVA gave to their white federal TVA superiors, with a Black women’s group presenting a third quilt. The gift of these modernist quilts with clear African American motifs to white federal TVA administrators was a symbolic gesture intended to evoke the empowerment and economic potential of the Black residents in the South, in order to encourage executives to support efforts of integration and equality. TVA records state that in presenting the quilt to Morgan, Bond wrote:
As you know, the wives of the workers in the Muscle Shoals area are organized into clubs, into what we call TVA clubs, seven in number. One of their projects is an attempt to revive the arts and crafts that were known to [African Americans] during slavery. They further are attempting to use their handicraft to express the part that [Black people are] playing in changing the South.7