Women's History

A Quilt of Astronomical Proportions

The appearance of Coggia’s Comet in the spring of 1874 was international news. Though the comet was discovered by and named for a French astronomer, Americans were equally delighted by the celestial wonder. In Chicago, one amateur scientist placed a telescope on a balcony along Lake Michigan and invited citizens and visitors alike to view the comet

Among those likely visitors was Ellen Harding Baker of Lone Tree, Iowa. Inspired by the astronomical marvels she observed that evening, Baker began work on her “Solar System” quilt, borrowing the design from astronomy books of the period. At the center of her quilt is the dominant Sun. Orbiting the Sun are Mercury, Venus, the Earth with its Moon, and Mars. Beyond Mars are four clusters of asteroids, Jupiter with its four moons, Saturn and its rings, Uranus with six moons (a number which astronomers at the time could not agree upon), and Neptune with a single moon. At the top left corner is the aforementioned Coggia’s Comet. A New York Times article from 1883 stated that Baker intended to develop a lesson in astronomy using the quilt as a visual guide.

[From the exhibit Covering America: The Textile Heritage of 19th-Century Quilts]

  • History Nebraska. “Coggia’s Comet.” Publications. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://history.nebraska.gov/publications/coggias-comet
  • NMAH. “1876 Ellen Harding Baker’s ‘Solar System Quilt’.” National Quilt Collection. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_556183.

* Featured image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History