Research Findings by Patricia L. Cummings
First posted on July 9, 2011
Photo provided by Jacki Bradham, St. Croix Countiy Historical Society
Just recently I became aware of potholders with anti-slavery (abolitionist) words, namely, “Any holder but a slaveholder.”
These seem to have made their debut in antebellum times and were later made by Union women during the American Civil
War to sell at “U.S. Sanitary Commission Fairs.” These fairs were instrumental in raising money for bandages, food and other
supplies for Union troops.
Scholar Interprets Words
The words are accompanied by a dancing couple, rendered in cross-stitch and shown dancing in a jubilant fashion. Beverly
Lemire, author of the book, The Force of Fashion in Politics and Society: Global Perspectives, observes that “the focus [of
these potholders] was on the potential of slave liberation rather than the harsh reality of slave's lives.” The potholder further
demonstrates an instance of "slaves coming together" rather than being torn apart (as was often the case when family
members were physically separated by being "sold" to other plantations.
One may read selected pages of her book by doing a Google search. Keep in mind that the number of times one can access
those pages is limited by Google.
Lemire points out that since potholders are everyday objects, they are familiar and homey. Therefore, they could convey the
agenda of abolitionism in a subtle and non-threatening manner. The exchange of words that the object suggests, namely
“potholder” for “slaveholder” is at once playful, if not charming, and seems like innocuous word play.
A published photo of two potholders of this type can be seen in the book Your Travel Guide to Civil War America by Nancy
Day (Minneapolis: Learner Publications Company, 2001). (32). The photo's caption mentions that these items shown were
sold at the Northwestern Sanitary Fair in 1865, (the last year of the war) but neglects to reveal that these particular potholders
are owned by the Chicago History Museum.
Potholders Owned by The St. Croix Historical Society
Second photo provided by Jacki Bradham, St. Croix County Historical Society
The St. Croix Historical Society in Hudson, Wisconsin owns the Octagon House Museum where two antique, locally-made
potholders (shown in this article) are displayed in the kitchen. That point is noted in the book, Off the Beaten Path: A Travel
Guide to More Than 1,000 scenic and Interesting Places Still Uncrowded and Inviting by the Editors of Reader's Digest;
published by Reader's Digest in 2003. This fact was also confirmed by Heidi Rushman, Director of the Octagon Museum. She
states that museum visitors always ask for more information about their history.
Potholder Given to Frederick Douglass
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History owns a thank you letter written to a little girl by the former slave, Frederick
Douglass. The girl sent him an “Any holder but a slaveholder” potholder after the Civil War (circa 1882), according to the
museum's online file. Douglass was an avid abolitionist who wrote two autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick
Douglass: An American Slave (1845); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881) that details his life both during the
Civil War and after it.
Art Exhibit Features Potholders
An article in the New York Times mentions an art exhibit in 2007 set by Robert Gober that featured some “worn potholders” of
Reconstruction Era “Spot Motif” Sampler Features Dancing Couple
The Benton County Museum in Eugene, Oregon
http://www.bentoncountymuseum.org/samplers/ borrowed a Sampler from the Seaside Museum & Historical Society for an
exhibit. Titled “We's Free,” the Sampler features spaced motifs including the head of a stag and that of a horse, a black child,
a cat, a rooster, a cross, a house, baskets of flowers, and other designs. Placed sideways, the dancing couple motif is
included. This sampler was made circa 1880 by Cordelia Evans Whited in petit point. Created by stitching wool on canvas, the
framed piece measures 24.25" H x 25.5" W.
More to Discover
This is only a preliminary file about these unique textile items. Many thanks to Jacki Bradham, volunteer and photographer for
the Octagon House Museum/St. Croix Historical Society, for providing the images shared in this file. The photos are the
artistic property of the photographer and the intellectual property of the museum. Please ask permission if you wish to use
them in online posts or in your own printed materials.
It is our sincere hope that if your museum or family owns a potholder of this type that you will contact us. It would be fun to
see how many of these still exist in collections and to see additional photos. If you can shed any light on this subject, please
contact me at email@example.com
Copyright 2011. Updated 2013. Patricia L. Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, New Hampshire. Please respect
the copyright law by NOT copying this unique research file of compiled resources to any other website or printing it
elsewhere without asking permission. Thank you!
Hope you've enjoyed this research effort.