I have been mulling this post over for the past few weeks since seeing a comment on a blog (I forget who made comment & where I saw it). After I read the comment, I scrolled back up the page and had a look at the block, and immediately I thought ’54-40 or Fight’. I pulled out my copy of 5500 Quilt Block Designs by Maggie Malone and looked 54-40 or Fight up… I had guessed correctly, and I started thinking about the history of the block design & especially the name.
Picture courtsey of My Quilt Genie blog
Firstly, the name. Why choose 54-40 or Fight?
The name was originally a slogan from the 1840s, and in particular from the turmoil of the Oregon boundary dispute (or the Oregon question), which arose as a result of competing British & American claims to the Pacific Northwest of North American. It appeared by January 1846, driven in part by the Democratic press, and is often misidentified with the 1844 presidential election campaign.
The British knew the region as the Columbia District, a fur-trading division of the Hudson’s Bay Company, while Americans referred to it as the Oregon Country. The broadest definition of the disputed region was defined by the following: west of the Continental Divide of the Americas, north of the 42nd parallel north (the northern border of New Spain and after 1821 of Mexico), and south of the parallel 54°40′ north (the southern border of Russian America after 1825).
In 1844 the U.S. Democratic Party, appealing to expansionist sentiment and the popular theme of manifest destiny, asserted that the U.S. had a valid claim to the entire Oregon Country up to Russian America at parallel 54°40′ north. Democratic presidential candidate James K. Polk won the 1844 election, but then sought a compromise boundary along the 49th parallel, the same boundary proposed by previous U.S. administrations. Negotiations between the U.S. and the British broke down. However, in 1846 the Oregon Treaty was signed, setting the boundary at the 49th parallel.
Secondly, the design.
The block was already known at the time and was published in women’s magazines of the time under various names, including ’54-40 or Fight’ in later publications. One of the later publications of this block was in the Kansas City Star newspaper (which was founded in 1880).