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Looking Back: Sarah Posey’s Quilt

Victoria McCargar, University archivist

January 27, 2021

Sarah Ellen Van Giesen Posey has been called a “force of nature”— an accomplished painter, published composer and musician, a real estate agent and building designer, popular socialite and church volunteer in 1890s Los Angeles.

Quilt photos by Bill Volckening
Quilt photos by Bill Volckening

One exquisite landmark she bestowed on the city is the Doheny Mansion at Mount Saint Mary’s. Through a generous donation, the Mount now owns another Posey creation, the fabulous crazy quilt she stitched more than 130 years ago. 

Crazy quilts were popular in late 19th century America, fascinating for their irregular shapes, vibrant colors and lavish embroidery. Museum-quality quilts like Sarah Posey’s are constructed from bits of expensive silks, satins and velvets and delicately embellished using silk floss or thin ribbon. According to the experts, only wealthy women could afford to cut such rich fabrics into tiny pieces.

In 1893, with a new fortune from gold and copper mining, Sarah, her Civil War veteran husband, Oliver, and their two sons moved from Wisconsin to Los Angeles. In 1899, Sarah purchased two parcels of the recently subdivided Chester Place and hired a leading architectural firm to carry out her unique ideas for a home. The mansion was completed in 1900, a mix of architectural styles Sarah had admired on her European travels. 

But the Poseys occupied the house for less than a year. Oliver traveled constantly, the boys were away at college, and Sarah was lonely in the big house. In 1901, she sold No. 8 to newlyweds Edward L. and Estelle Doheny. The quilt, meanwhile, passed from generation to generation. In the early 1980s, two of Sarah’s greatgranddaughters in Portland, Oregon, decided to sell the quilt at a church auction. A newspaper columnist for the Oregonian, Beverly Butterworth, bid a couple hundred dollars. A later appraisal revealed it was worth many times her bid.

Now retired, Butterworth shared photos of the quilt with Archives and Special Collections back in 2012, wanting to know more about Sarah Posey, 8 Chester Place, and the connection to the Dohenys. This year, she decided the quilt belonged back in Sarah’s mansion, “where she had been at her very best.”

Butterworth is proud to be part of Sarah’s life, a woman she believes was ahead of her time. “She was creative, inquisitive, interesting, and thought like women of the next generation,” she says. “Sarah was a Victorian lady on
the cusp of the 20th century. The stitches symbolize the brilliance of this woman, and the quilt has great meaning for me.”

In those “miles of stitches,” to use Butterworth’s phrase, we can see an unstoppable woman.