Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time – to learn something new. Let me set the stage. It was a Sunday morning, and our small quilt group was meeting at my friend Cindy’s house. As usual, I was early so Cindy showed me something she had found a few days earlier while cleaning out a back bedroom at her father’s house in Grants Pass.
She handed me a stack of rectangular pieces of printed fabric – unlike anything I had ever seen before. They looked like felt and each was printed with a different image of a flag – flags from all over the world. Clearly, they were very old and there were around 120 of them – but beyond that – we had no idea what they were.
What Cindy did know – was that they had belonged to her great-grandmother Alice. Her family had homesteaded in Nebraska when Alice was a child. As an adult, Alice married and had several children – 3 of whom survived to adulthood. At some point – the extended family migrated to Oregon due to the dust bowl, the grasshopper plight, and the Great Depression.
As it turned out, Alice hated Oregon and returned by herself to Nebraska. Her train trip home only allowed her one suitcase, so many precious items were left behind in Oregon. Among those items left behind – was a large collection of printed felt rectangles.
Curiosity won out and we did what anyone with a question would do these days – we googled it. Not sure what they were called – it took a minute – but we found they were referred to as Tobacco Felts or Tobacco Silks.
HERE’S WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT THEM
The small rectangles of tobacco felt with images of flags from many different countries are known as cigarette silks or tobacco silks. These were small pieces of fabric or felt, often measuring around 2.5 inches by 3.5 inches, that were included in cigarette packs as a form of collectible or promotional item. The tobacco silks Alice collected are a little larger – about 4 inches by 6 inches.
Tobacco silks were popular in the early to mid-20th century and were produced by various tobacco companies as a way to encourage brand loyalty and increase sales. Each tobacco silk featured the image of a different flag from around the world, and collectors could try to collect a complete set of all the different flags. We also found that there were other series of images used at the time as well – some featured different universities.
Some cigarette companies also included other types of collectibles in their packs, such as trading cards, postcards, and other small items.
These collectibles were often highly prized by collectors, and they could sometimes be sold or traded for high prices.
A LITTLE HISTORY
Tobacco felt was first used in the United States in the late 1800s, and by the early 1900s, it had become a common material in the tobacco industry. As the cigarette market grew in the early 20th century, tobacco companies began using tobacco felt in their packaging and advertising to promote their products.
One of the most famous examples of this was the Camel brand of cigarettes, which was introduced in 1913 by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The packaging for Camel cigarettes featured a camel with a saddlebag made of tobacco felt, which was designed to evoke a sense of exoticism and adventure.
Tobacco felt was also used in other marketing materials, such as posters and billboards, and was often touted as a sign of the high quality of the tobacco used in their cigarettes. However, as concerns grew about the health risks associated with smoking, tobacco companies began to phase out the use of tobacco felt in their packaging and advertising.
THE RESOURCEFULNESS OF QUILTERS
Tobacco felt quilts are a type of quilt made from the leftover scraps of tobacco felt, a byproduct of the tobacco industry. Tobacco felt is a dense, wool-like material used to wrap and protect tobacco leaves during curing.
Tobacco felt quilts were first made in the Appalachian region of the United States in the early 1900s when tobacco farming was a common occupation in the area. The quilts were often made by the wives and daughters of tobacco farmers, who used the scraps of felt to create warm and durable quilts for their families.
These quilts are typically made by sewing together small pieces of felt creating a patchwork pattern. The patches are then layered with batting and a backing fabric and quilted together to create a cozy and warm bed covering.
While tobacco felt quilts were once a common sight in rural Appalachia, they are now a rare and highly prized type of quilt, sought after by collectors and historians. They are a testament to the resourcefulness and creativity of the people who made them and provide a unique window into the history of tobacco farming in the United States.
Cindy and I were very familiar with the printed feed sacks that quilters made good use of once the sacks were emptied of their contents – but Tobacco Felts were something entirely new to us. Maybe they are new to you too?
WHAT TO MAKE OF THEM?
Cindy’s not quite sure what she’s going to do with them. We’re concerned about the colors bleeding, so a bed quilt may not be the best option. She’d still like to display them in some way in honor of her great-grandmother Alice – so perhaps a wall quilt is the best option. Once she decides and makes them up into something, I’ll share pictures of her finished tribute to Alice.
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