An Illustrated History of Sunbonnet Sue

The following timeline is by no means comprehensive; cataloging every Sunbonnet pattern is beyond my energy. Its purpose is to mark significant events in the life of "Sunbonnet Sue" and show examples of "Sue" patterns.  Your contributions to this timeline (historical information, or pictures of dated patterns or illustrations) are greatly appreciated, and can be sent to me at hcquilts@cox.net.


While quilters of the mid-19th century loved applique - everything from flowers to horses to scissors - curiously absent from all but a handful of 19th century quilts is the human figure.  The few "people" that do appear on quilts seem to fall into two categories:  carefully detailed renderings as lifelike as the quilter's skill allowed (the 1850 Benoni Pearce Quilt or the quilt made by African-American Sarah Ann Wilson in 1854, both from the New York/New Jersey area), or pure abstractions - Matisse could have used as inspiration (former slave Harriet Powers's 1886 "Bible Quilt").  (For a scholarly look at these dazzling creations, I strongly recommend Sandi Fox's Wrapped in Glory:  Figurative Quilts & Bedcovers 1700-1900.)

1870s - Kate Greenaway

It was probably Kate Greenaway who introduced what we know as the "Sunbonnet" design - a young female figure, usually in silhouette, whose wide-brimmed hat obscures her face.  As a motif on quilts, the "sunbonnet" seems to originate from the 1878 publication of Greenaway's first book, Under the Window, in which  Greenaway dressed her figures in a romanticized version of Regency clothing popularized by the era's Aesthetic Movement, and a confluence of the redwork embroidery craze which began in the late 1870s.  Patterns for simple line embroidery in the new, colorfast Turkey red cotton floss could be found in needlework books, which published illustrations easily be traced onto plain muslin; stamped "penny squares" were also available.

Betty Hagerman suggested in her 1979 The Meeting of the Sunbonnet Children that the first "sunbonnet" redwork design appeared in the December 1887 issue of Peterson's Magazine. But an earlier source may be Eva Marie Niles's 1884 book Fancy Work Recreations: A Complete Guide - Knitting, Crochet and Home Adornment, which contained 17 pages of designs for redwork embroidery.  Many of Niles’s illustrations are flagrant knockoffs of Greenaway's originals, but since Greenaway’s works were published in England, they were not protected by US copyright law of the period.

But whatever their source, virtually all of these early "sunbonnet" redwork designs still have faces.

Early 1900s - Corbett, Dixon, and Wall

The earliest redwork images we'd recognize as "Sunbonnet" figures have another source.  In a 1902 letter to her publisher, illustrator Bertha Corbett recalled that she first drew some faceless "sunbonnet babies" when a colleague insisted that it was facial features that gave a figure life.  The "babies" were an instant hit; Corbett self-published her first book in 1900, and in 1902 collaborated with Eulalie Osgood Grover on The Sunbonnet Babies Primer. The series continued for decades.  In 1905 the pair introduced The Overall Boys.  Sunbonnet figures seemed to be everywhere - on postcards, calendars, even on fine china. It was only natural that illustrators like Dorothy Dixon and Bernhardt Wall would jump on the bandwagon (in later years, Wall would claim he was first) and produce knockoffs, including Wall's 1906 postcards and his 1907 books Bennie and Jennie, The Sunbonnet Twins, and Little Suzie Sunbonnet. and his "Days of the Week" and "Seasons" series  made their way to the Ladies Art quilt pattern company as redwork designs in catalogs from 1906-28.    

Catalogs after 1906 also contain designs clearly taken directly from Corbett's Overall Boys and Sunbonnet Babies (patterns #5593, 5602-3, 5612-16, and 5629), but these designs seem to be  short-lived, as they do not appear in 1922 and later catalogs.

Some redwork quilts positively dated before 1922 contain other blocks clearly adapted from Wall's books and postcards (see example at right, from 1907's Bennie and Jennie - click to enlarge it), including designs apparently not offered by Ladies Art. Quilters may have traced the pictures from the books and postcards - or perhaps they were offered as stamped "penny squares" by another company. 

 Scroll past the photos for more Sunbonnet history!

Bertha Corbett
Left, Baking Day, 1905; center, The Bogie Man, 1906; right, 1904 calendar
Dorothy Dixon

Left to right: The Last of Summer; Saying Grace; Peek-a-Boo, postcards, 1905.
Bernhardt Wall

Wednesday, postcard, 1905.

Summer, Winter, postcards, 1906.

Postcard circa 1913.

Left:  Cover from Bennie and Jennie; right, page from The Sunbonnet Twins, books copyright 1907, postcards copyright 1906.

Early applique, and Ladies Art confusion

One source often cited as producing the first Sunbonnet applique pattern is Ladies Art Company ("LAC"), the oldest quilt pattern company in America.  But the company kept poor records; nobody even knows for sure when it was founded, or when its first catalog was published.  (We are fortunate that in the 1990s, historians Merikay Waldvogel, Cuesta Benberry and Wilene Smith published their extensive research on LAC, which now permits us to date these catalogs and patterns with reasonable accuracy.) 

In her 1979 book A Meeting of the Sunbonnet Children, Betty Hagerman quotes Clifford Burns, then LAC's owner, as saying that applique pattern #7023 for "Sunbonnet Sue and Overall Bill" was "probably" introduced between 1900-15 and was discontinued by 1923. But #7023 does not seem to appear in any LAC catalog before its 1933 Catalog of Quilts and Quilting: Cut, Ready-to-Sew Quilt Tops.

Burns may instead have been referring to pattern #6009, which Hagerman says was available as "a stamped spread 36"x63" or as a paper pattern for the center design." Hagerman says this was offered "about 1911 and again in 1920" in "supplementary" catalogs, but to date, quilter Louise Tiemann has found no pattern #6009 in any of the LAC catalogs and supplements in her extensive collection. The pattern number suggests it was probably issued in the early 1920s - clearly more research is in order! (Many thanks to Louise for all her help!)

The first applique Sunbonnet pattern we can date with certainty is innnovator Marie Webster's "Keepsake" quilt, which debuted in the January 1911 Ladies Home Journal. The pattern was published there in August 1912 and was reprinted in her 1915 book Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them.  But the pattern was complicated, and frankly the tendency of that era's fabrics to bleed didn't exactly encourage quilters to invest time and energy in complicated applique.   

The January 1921 issue of Woman's World magazine featured a truly unusual "Sunbonnet Babies" quilt made of 30 blocks set with plain sashing.  Each block featured a different Sunbonnet figure (apparently adapted from Corbett's Sunbonnet Babies At Work and At Play) appliqued in solid colors on a solid green background, anticipating by more than 50 years Jean Ray Laury's designs.  The magazine credits John Then with the design; the pattern cost $1.50.  It was even fussier work than Webster's early design - that may account for the rarity of the actual, made-up quilt!    

As the 1930s approached, changes in dye technology made cheerful - and colorfast - pastel prints possible.  Quilters went crazy mixing these charming fabrics in their quilts in Dresden Plates and Double Wedding Rings - and in the sweet dresses and hats of Sunbonnet girls.  One of the earliest applique patterns - and as far as I've been able to tell, the first time "Sue" is mentioned in connection with the design - is Eveline Foland's "Springtime Molly" pattern, published in the Kansas City Star in August 1930 with the caption "The Little Girl Claims 'Sunbonnet Sue' for a Quilt for Her Own".  It was still a pretty complicated design, however, and within a year simpler patterns appeared on the market in both kit and pattern form.   Among them were Ruby Short McKim's "Mother Goose Folk" (Household Magazine, 5/31), with figures of "Bo Peep and Boy Blue"; "Sun Bonnet Babies" patterns #31-32 in Grandmother Clark's Old Fashioned Quilt Designs, Book #21, published in 1931 by W.L.M. Clark Company; Pierre, Inc.'s Ideal "Sunbonnet Girl" kit (1932), which is nearly identical to Ladies Art #7023; Grandma Dexter's Applique and Patchwork Designs books (36A, patterns #2480-2485, and 36B, patterns #2366-2371 and #2860-2865 for "Sunbonnet Girls" and "Overall Boys"), published in 1932-33 by Collingbourne Mills; and Nancy Cabot's "Sunbonnet Baby and Sunny Jim" patterns, published in the Chicago Tribune in 1933. Carrie Hall's 1935 book The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America also pictured a "Sun-Bonnet Baby" quilt similar to the Foland design.  All these patterns consisted of blocks repeated over the whole quilt top, each of which contained an identical appliqued figure in profile, sometimes embellished with embroidery. 

A name at last!

Although the phrase "Sunbonnet Sue" dates to at least 1908 (when a song by that title appeared in that year's Zigfeld Follies), quilters - or at least the publishers of quilt patterns - didn't refer to the block by that name before the early Depression.  By the end of World War II, when Work Basket magazine issued a pattern for the pair (November 1945), the name had stuck for good - at least in the Northeast and Midwest.  In southern Indiana and in states from Kentucky southward, "Sue" was called "Dutch Doll" - a name that persisted until the publication of national quilt magazines in the 1970s began to eliminate regional quilt pattern names.

Sue's "big sister"

From the 1920s onward, the "sunbonnet baby" also had a big sister.  Known variously as Colonial Lady, Southern Belle or Umbrella Girl, she first appeared in the 1920s as embroidery on dresser scarves and as a center medallion on unquilted bedspreads, which coordinated with home decor items ranging from silhouette pictures to lamps to dinnerware.  An early Colonial Lady pattern appeared in the "Grandma Dexter" series of quilt pattern books (36B, #2900-2905) in 1932-33.

The postwar years and after

Both the Colonial Lady and the Sunbonnet applique designs remained popular throughout the mid-20th century, but the Sunbonnet girl got a boost in 1967 when American Greetings first published its "Holly Hobbie" series of cards.  History repeated itself:  greeting card designs once again made their way to quilts.  Unlike the earlier Sunbonnets, however, Holly Hobbie usually appeared as a central medallion rather than a repeated block, and was heavily embellished with not only embroidery but lace and eyelet.  But traditional "Sue" quilts remained popular, and quilt magazines continued to publish patterns similar to the 1933 Nancy Cabot design. 

Holly Hobbie

By the mid-1980s, quilters began to look to traditional designs for inspiration, reinterpreting classic blocks in new ways.  Detailed applique again became popular, and "Sue" quilts began to appear with elaborate designs - and Sue in often surprising vignettes.  Jean Ray Laury published a series of "Sunbonnet Sue" books in 1987 picturing Sue on a series of adventures (recalling the WWI-era Ladies Art Company pattern).  Quilters loved them, and competitions for the funniest Sue block became popular.

The redwork craze was revived around 2000, and quilters rediscovered the Sunbonnet girl's roots; books are now available with Bertha Corbett and Bernhardt Wall's original designs.  And in 2005, perhaps capitalizing on current (if inexplicable) nostalgia for the early 1970s, Knickerbocker revived the Holly Hobbbie doll.

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