“That girl with the bonnet”, Sunbonnet Sue, Dutch Doll, Bonnie Bonnet, Sun Bonnet Babies… whatever the block pattern is called, the Sunbonnet Sue block is one of the most widely recognized quilt block patterns.You’ll find the block made into nursery quilts, appliqued onto clothing and decorated with ribbons and lace. The Sue figure has been depicted working, playing, and getting into mischief. The Sue block has even given rise to Sunbonnet themed quilts. Sue is eliminated in “the Death of Sunbonnet Sue” or celebrated in “Sunbonnet Sue comes of age”.
The design of a playful girl with a big bonnet can be traced back to illustrators who worked in the late 1800s and early 20th century.
The first of these is Kate Greenaway.
Kate (Catherine) Greenaway (1846 – 1901) is credited with popularizing depictions of young children. She was a British Book editor who is best known for the sweet pictures of little children and girls in bonnets.
Click here to see some of Kate’s drawings. Kate illustrated greeting cards and Almanacs. Many embroidery designs on the patches of fine Victorian crazy quilts were copies of Greenaway illustrations. These Victorian embroidery designs were Sunbonnet Sue’s first appearance in Quilts.
An American illustrator, Bertha Corbett (later Melcher), is regarded as the “Mother of the Sunbonnet Babies”
Bertha Corbett Melcher –
Bertha Corbett Melcher is credited as a creator of the Sunbonnet designs. She illustrated children’s Primer books in the early 1900s. Her book, “The Sunbonnet Babies” was published in 1900. In this book she depicted girls with their faces hidden by their bonnets.
Her first book caught the attention of Eulalie Osgood Grover, a writer of Children’s school primers. Bertha was hired as the illustrator of Ms. Grover’s primers.
Click here to see some of the books. On the previous link, you’ll see a scan of a letter that Bertha Corbett wrote to Ms. Grover. The letter is adorned with Bertha’s logo, a sunbonnet girl carrying a shamrock.As you can see from the collection of Children’s primers, the collaboration between Ms. Grover and Bertha Corbett lasted for many years, through many different Primer books. These books were wildly popular and read by school children across the country.
In 1907, Bertha was the subject of an article in “The Housekeeper”. Click here for a reprint of that article.
Bertha Corbett’s designs were very popular, they could be found on postcards, china and other items of the day. Her designs have been a staple of quilt making ever since.
Bertha L. Corbett was born in Denver and studied art at the School of Fine Art in Minneapolis. She continued her schooling under Howard Pyle in Philadelphia and then completed her education in Chicago. Although most of her time was devoted to the sunbonnet babies, she was a recognized artist of water colors, oil portraits and miniatures upon ivory. Bertha gave chalk talks to club women, school teachers, and school children and orphans in institutions.
Below is a copy of a handbill that she sent publicizing her chalk talks.