Civil-War history unfolds

Family’s heirloom quilt to go on display in Half Moon Bay

Originally published by the Chronicle in early 2002

Emma Safford (in photo), created a quilt during the Civil… Kris Mason shows the family quilt that will be displayed …

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Turns out one sister’s old quilt is another sister’s window to history, prized display piece and potential ticket to family fame and fortune.

The sisters? They’re Karen Swain of Napa who kept the quilt folded in her dresser drawer for 30 years, and Kris Mason of Half Moon Bay who unearthed it a couple months ago in preparation for a local quilt show.
The quilt? The red, white and blue masterpiece was sewn by the sisters’ great-great-grandmother, Emma Safford, during the Civil War.

The potential ticket to family fame and fortune? Well, the Smithsonian has expressed interest in displaying it and Sotheby’s auction house is sending someone to estimate its worth. Initial estimates have varied from $20,000 to a whopping quarter-of-a-million dollars.

“I thought it was just a family blanket,” said Mason, 52. “We’ve had this in a drawer for so long, I don’t think anybody really thought that it was quite what it is.”

The quilt will be on display Thursday at Half Moon Bay’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel,

where Mason runs the employee dining room. She said she opted to show the quilt during Independence Day Weekend in hopes it will inspire “a feeling of patriotism” among those who see it.

“I want them to feel good about the United States,” she said. “It’s a great place to live. It kind of shows you that the history of the world goes over and over. There’s always conflict, but we always work it out.”

The quilt was passed down through the generations, with the sisters’ grandmother bequeathing the quilt to Swain, a history buff, and jewelry to Mason, who’s never much liked studying history. Nobody quite knew the significance of the quilt until Mason, a seamstress in her own right, borrowed it from her sister to display it at a recent show at the Johnson House in Half Moon Bay. There, quilters-in-the-know told her it could fetch quite a pretty penny.

But Swain said she’ll never sell it and has stated in her will that she wants the treasure to stay in the family.

“Whatever people think it’s worth money-wise, I have no interest in,” said Swain, 50. “Somebody in my family made it at a time when something bad was happening. For me, the quilt has more emotional value than any monetary value it could have at all.”

Still, she’s glad the quilt is finally seeing more than the inside of a drawer.

“The difference between me and my sister is she’s very outgoing — she’s the type who will take it out to the public,” she said. “It’s nice it’s going to be shared.”

Mason said she hopes others sense the quilt’s aura.

“You look at this, and you know it’s over 100 years old,” she said. “It’s just really special. It has an importance to it, a feeling to it.”

It also has a lot of information to it and reads like a veritable history book. Safford carefully inscribed facts about her era with a quill pen on the quilt’s patches, recording sometimes-obscure war tidbits such as the fact that the national debt was $491,448,384 at the end of 1862.

“We’re in the trillions now,” Mason said. “I think we’ve always been in debt.”

The patches also contain sketches of the first 22 presidents — hand-drawn by Safford — along with their birthdays and dates of election.

“Or when they were assassinated — all those good kinds of things,” Mason said with a laugh.

Despite its fount of information, the quilt also contains some mystery. The middle square gives important information about the quilt’s beginnings with patches reading, “Commenced March 22, 1862 — Emma S. Safford,” “Abraham Lincoln — President of the United States” and “Hanibal Hamlin — Vice President.” An adjacent square leaves space for the date of the quilt’s completion and that year’s administration. But those parts are blank.

“I don’t know if she died before she finished it or just forgot to fill that out,” Mason said. “There’s a lot of things we haven’t filled in yet.”

Another mystery lies in just how the script and presidential portraits have stayed so perfectly crisp all these decades later.

“I’m still trying to figure out how she got the ink on the material without it blurring,” Swain said. “I’ve tried doing that before, and it always smears.”

The sisters don’t know much about Safford either. They don’t even know where she lived or what side of the war she supported. But Mason thinks she knows a bit about her ancestor.

“I think she was very involved — like every woman in our family, we’re involved in our community,” she said. “I think she was too. I think she cared a lot about what was happening and she wanted to have a keepsake to let her future family know what was going on.”

The sisters do know one thing. As a child, their mother took the quilt to her elementary school for show-and-tell. Asked whether future generations of kids will be allowed to drag it to history class, Mason shook her head emphatically.