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Ellen Harding Baker's "Solar System" Quilt

Teaching the solar system

To create this remarkable quilt, Ellen Harding Baker (1847–1886) combined three acceptable activities for women in the 19th century: quilt making, the study of astronomy, and teaching. Baker started the wool-appliqué quilt in 1876, but it took her seven years to complete it. Her inspiration for this quilt may have come from illustrations of the solar system found in several astronomy textbooks from the 1860s, as well as from her own viewing of the skies at the original Dearborn Observatory in Chicago. Baker used the quilt as a visual aid for lectures she gave on astronomy in the Iowa towns of West Branch, Moscow, and Lone Tree.

1876 Ellen Harding Baker's "Solar System" Quilt

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Ellen Harding Baker
Date made
Baker, Ellen Harding
Baker, Ellen Harding
This intriguing quilt, “Solar System,” was made by Ellen Harding Baker (1847-1886), an intellectually ambitious Iowa wife and mother. It came to the National Museum of American History in 1983, a gift from her granddaughters.
The maker, Sarah Ellen Harding, was born in Ohio or Indiana, in 1847, and married Marion Baker of Cedar County, Iowa, on October 10, 1867. In the 1870s they moved to Johnson County, where Marion had a general merchandise business in Lone Tree. Ellen had seven children before she died of tuberculosis on March 30, 1886.
The wool top of this applique quilt is embellished with wool-fabric applique, wool braid, and wool and silk embroidery. The lining is a red cotton-and-wool fabric and the filling is of cotton fiber. The design of this striking and unusual quilt resembles illustrations in astronomy books of the period. Included in the design is the appliqued inscription, “Solar System,” and the embroidered inscription, “E.H. Baker.” Mrs. Baker probably began this project in 1876, as per the “A.D.1876” in the lower right corner.
The “Solar System” quilt was probably completed in 1883 when an Iowa newspaper reported that “Mrs. M. Baker, of Lone Tree, has just finished a silk quilt which she has been seven years in making.” The article went on to say that the quilt “has the solar system worked in completely and accurately. The lady went to Chicago to view the comet and sun spots through the telescope that she might be very accurate. Then she devised a lecture in astronomy from it.” This information was picked up the by the New York Times (September 22, 1883).
The large object in the center of the quilt is clearly the Sun, and the fixed Stars are at the outer edges. Around the Sun are the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Moon, and Mars. Not shown are the two moons of Mars that were first seen, at the U.S. Naval Observatory in 1877. The four curious clumps beyond Mars represent the asteroids. The first asteroid (Ceres) had been found in 1801, and with the proliferation of ever more powerful telescopes, ever more objects came into view. Then there is Jupiter with its four moons first seen by Galileo, and Saturn with its rings. The six moons orbiting Uranus are somewhat confusing, as astronomers did not agree on the actual number. Neptune has the one moon discovered by an English astronomer in 1846, shortly after the planet itself was seen.
The large item in the upper left of the quilt is surely the naked-eye comet that blazed into view in the spring of 1874, and that was named for Jerome Eugene Coggia, an astronomer at the Observatory in Marseilles. Americans too took note. Indeed, an amateur astronomer in Chicago put a powerful telescope on the balcony of the Interstate Industrial Exposition Building (1872-1892), a large glass structure recently erected along the shore of Lake Michigan, and offered to show Coggia’s Comet to citizens of and visitors to the Windy City.
The New York Times described Mrs. Baker’s intention to use her quilt for pedagogical purposes as “somewhat comical”---but it was clearly behind the times. Most Americans knew that women were teaching astronomy and other sciences in grammar schools, high schools and colleges, in communities across the country. Mrs. Baker, for her part, may have been inspired by the fact that the famed Maria Mitchell, professor at Vassar College, had brought four students and piles of apparatus, to Burlington, Iowa, to observe a solar eclipse in August 1869.
place made
United States: Iowa
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Home and Community Life: Textiles
Science & Mathematics
Discovery and Revelation
Exhibition Location
National Museum of American History
Credit Line
Gift of Patricia Hill McCloy and Kathryn Hill Meardon
Data Source
National Museum of American History
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Object Name
Object Type
Physical Description
fabric, wool, cotton/wool (overall material)
thread cotton, silk, wool (overall material)
filling, cotton (overall material)
overall: 89 in x 106 in; 225 cm x 269 cm
Record ID
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