New Brunswick

Victory quilt brings back faded memories of wartime

For those waiting on the home front during wartime, victory quilts were an important symbol of the ultimate goal — winning the war and welcoming their loved ones home

75-year-old victory quilt hanging on by a thread is a reminder of the sacrifice of veterans and their families

Laura Henderson outside her home in Hatfield Point with a victory quilt featuring the Morse code for the letter V. (Submitted by David Henderson)

For those waiting on the home front during wartime, victory quilts were an important symbol of the ultimate goal — winning the war and welcoming the men and women who fought overseas back home.

Lorelei Henderson has the victory quilt handed down to her from her grandmother, Laura Henderson, who had sons overseas during and after the Second World War.

The quilt is faded now, with half the red Vs worn off, but for Henderson, it still brings back important memories.

"It's a symbol of Remembrance Day, the war vets," she said. "It was special to my grandmother for that reason and it is special to me."

Lorelei Henderson with the victory quilt handed down to her from her grandmother. (Angela Bosse/CBC)

The tradition of victory quilts began in Canada during the First World War, but it wasn't until the Second World War that the practice became widespread.

Sue Reich is a quilter and quilt historian based in Connecticut who wrote the book on First and Second World War-era quilts, including victory quilts. 

Reich said the first victory quilts would have been primarily red work quilts, which feature stitched outlines of images or symbols in red thread. Most victory quilts feature either the letter V or sometimes the whole word "victory."

A World War I victory quilt found in Charlotte County, gifted to the New Brunswick Museum in 2007. (2007.29, New Brunswick Museum – Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick, www.nbm-mnb.ca)

Appliquéd Vs became a common part of victory quilt patterns during the Second World War.

"Victory quilts were generally made individually, usually by women who had a son or a daughter that was fighting in the war, but there are some that were made by groups," Reich said.

Reich has about 20 victory quilts in her own collection, including one made by a Canadian woman named Françoise Millette, whose husband fought in the war and returned home. Reich purchased the quilt a few years ago from the couple's son.

Quilt historian Sue Reich said victory quilts originated in Canada during the First World War, then spread to the United States during the Second World War. (Submitted by Sue Reich)

"It's a wonderful quilt, it has victory spelled out on the diagonal … and it is done in red, white and blue, which were the colours of the Canadian flag then."

Reich said victory quilts even brought together people with deep feuds.

"I have a photograph of a victory quilt that appeared in Life magazine, and it is a victory quilt being made by the Hatfield and McCoy families of West Virginia and Kentucky," she said. "And they sat down peaceably to make this quilt … in honour of their sons who were fighting in World War II."

Lorelei Henderson still has her grandmother's victory quilt from the Second World War. She keeps it wrapped in plastic and stored in a box to preserve it. 0:59

Part of the war effort

Victory quilts were a significant part of the war effort. They were often used to raise money or were sent oversees to troops and refugees. Over the course of one month during the Second World War, Canadians sent 16,000 quilts to Britain and the rest of Allied Europe for people who were experiencing bombing, Reich said.

The quilts were also a morale booster.

Ronald Henderson, one of Laura's sons, was stationed overseas in Belgium, Holland and Germany. (Submitted by David Henderson)

"Victory quilts were used mainly to just do that, express victory," she said. "A number of them were were exhibited in town halls, in libraries, in churches, because people really wanted to win the war.

"World War Two is recognized in the United States as being a people's war. In other words, everybody took part in the war. Children took part in the war, collecting scrap that was recycled. Women were working in the defence industries. They were planting victory gardens. They were keeping the home fires burning, and they were making quilts."

Henderson remembers the pride her grandmother had in her victory quilt, even though she kept it stored away out of sight.

"She was one of these patriotic ladies that her sons were off to war. That was very special to her, that quilt."

She remembers hearing how her Uncle Ronald, who was reported missing in action, showed up at home on the doorstep.

"It was quite a dramatic scene at the time. Nobody thought he was even alive."

Faded fabrics, faded memories

Not many more war stories were shared with the younger generation though.

"Uncle Ronald didn't have much to say about the war," Henderson said. "It wasn't a very pleasant thing to talk about.

"That was a subject that we didn't talk about much, especially with the … boys that did go and come back."

Reich said that after the war ended and those overseas came home, they packed away war memories, along with the quilts.

Roy and Laura Henderson with their whole family. (Submitted by David Henderson)

"They packed it in the trunks and the attics, and they moved on with their lives and they built Canada to be the great country it is today," Reich said.

Now that the greatest generation is almost gone, Reich said, their children are rediscovering the victory quilts.

"The baby boomers find these quilts in the trunks and the attics of their parents. And they often don't recognize what their historic importance is."

Henderson still treasures her grandmother's victory quilt, worn as it is, and keeps it stored away safe wrapped in plastic and placed in a box. She hopes after she is gone the quilt, and the faded memories that go with it, will be kept by her daughter.

"But it's like most stories, after so many years they don't think about it as much. Which is a shame."

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      About the Author

      Angela Bosse

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      Angela Bosse is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick. Story tip? angela.bosse@cbc.ca

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