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THE QUILT CHANGES HANDS:
THE JENNY SMITH CONNECTION

The Harriet Powers story, as the world knows it, began on one remarkable day in 1891, when Powers and her husband, Armistead, made their way by oxcart from their Clarke County, Georgia, farm to the university town of Athens. With them, carried in a crocus sack, was Powers's first quilt, which she intended to sell to Jenny Smith, a teacher at Athens's Lucy Cobb Institute, a school for girls. When after a period of increasing prosperity for the Powers family times had suddenly grown hard, Powers remembered an offer she had had from Smith to buy the quilt, which Smith had seen in 1886 at an agricultural fair. According to Jenny Smith's written record, she purchased the quilt for five dollars, though the asking price was ten—an indication of how desperate the Powerses must have been for money. That it was difficult for Powers to part with the quilt is evident, for she returned to the Smith residence on several occasions to see it. In the course of these visits she explained something of the panels' meaning to Smith, who, luckily for future art historians and folklorists, recorded those explanations.[2]

In 1895, Smith exhibited the quilt at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, where it attracted the attention of faculty


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wives at Atlanta University. Several of these women, struck by the originality and beauty of the quilt, commissioned Powers to make a second. That second work eventually came into the possession of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, its current owner. The one bought by Smith, now housed in the Textiles Division of the Smithsonian Institution, represents the only other surviving work from the artist's hand.

Smith was curiously negligent about the quilt she had gone to such trouble to buy. Her meticulous will made no mention of it. According to her executor, Hal Heckland, the quilt was included among the “odds and ends” of her estate. It was Heckland who eventually donated the quilt to the Smithsonian Institution, along with a sixteen-page letter by Smith describing the quilt and the Outlook article by Lucine Finch.


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