Cosmic Threads: A Solar System Quilt from 1876

In October of 1883, a paper in the nation’s capital reported under the heading “Current Gossip” that “an Iowa woman has spent seven years embroidering the solar system on a quilt” — a news item originally printed in Iowa and syndicated widely in newspapers across the country that autumn and winter. The New York Times reprinted the report as it appeared in the Iowa paper, dismissively qualifying it as a “somewhat comical statement.”

Ellen Harding Baker’s Solar System quilt, completed in 1876 (Smithsonian)

The woman in question, Ellen Harding Baker (June 8, 1847–March 30, 1886), was not a person to be dismissed with a patronizing chuckle. Baker taught science in rural Iowa, in an era when most institutions of higher education were still closed to women, all the whilst raising her five surviving children. She used her Solar System quilt to illustrate her astronomy lectures. To ensure the accuracy of her embroidered depiction, Baker traveled to the Chicago Observatory to view sunspots and a comet — most likely the Great Comet of 1882, which had become a national attraction — through the professional telescope there.

Ellen Harding Baker (Smithsonian)

Baker was born in the year Maria Mitchell — the figure who sparked the initial inspiration for my book Figuring — made the landmark comet discovery that earned her worldwide acclaim…

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