The first reported cases of AIDS began in the early 1980s in Los Angeles and New York. What initially seemed like an isolated illness was really just the tip of a devastating iceberg. Since the AIDS Epidemic began, approximately 36 million people from all over the world have succumbed to the disease.
But the AIDS Epidemic wasn’t just an epidemic of illness; it was one of ignorance, fear, and homophobia. The ostracization surrounding the disease led, in part, to the creation of the AIDS Quilt, a quilt that would become one of the most iconic symbols of the 1980s and a testament to loss, compassion, and love. Weighing in at 54 tons (108,000 pounds), it’s the largest piece of community folk art on the planet. And it’s getting bigger.
The History of the AIDS Quilt
The idea for the AIDS Quilt began with Cleve Jones, a long-time human rights and gay rights activist. While organizing a march honoring Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone (who had both been assassinated in 1978), he asked marchers to march with cards containing the names of those who had died of AIDS. Upon the march’s conclusion, the cards were taped to the San Francisco Federal Building, resembling patchwork and inspiring a larger memorial.
This led to the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, an initiative the public immediately responded to. People began sending panels to the quilt, with many contributions coming from New York City, LA, San Francisco, and Atlanta; these were among the cities most impacted by the virus. Some volunteers sewed the panels; others donated sewing machines, cloth, thread, and other supplies.
The AIDS Quilt first went on display at the National Mall in Washington DC in 1987. At the time, it was larger than a football field and included 1,920 names. The public response continued and the quilt went on tour to raise money for AIDS organizations. Along the way, more panels were added. In 1988, the quilt surpassed 8,000 names; in 1989, it was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
By 1992, the AIDS Quilt included panels from every US state and 28 countries. It went on display in 1996 again; this time, it covered the entire National Mall, and over a million people came to see it. By 2012, the quilt was too big for the National Mall, so various panels were displayed each day over a two-week period.
The National AIDS Memorial became the caretaker of the quilt in 2019. Bringing it full circle, the organization brought it back to San Francisco.
Digitizing the Quilt
The size of the AIDS Quilt makes putting it on display a monumental (and sometimes impossible) task; it now has 50,000 panels and nearly 110,000 names. Because of this, and due to the increasingly-digital nature of our world, efforts to digitize the quilt began, giving even more people a chance to see it.
The National AIDS Memorial partnered with the AIDS Quilt Touch team to provide an interactive experience that allows people to explore the AIDS quilt from their living rooms. Website visitors can search for names of loved ones, learn how to make a panel, find out where they can see the quilt in person, donate to the organization, and learn more about the quilt’s history.