Friday, April 15, 2016

Concerning Samplers

Sampler made by Margaret Platt,
1736. Margaret was a cousin of the
Platt brothers who founded Plattsburgh
and the great-grandmother of Lucretia
Maria and Margaret Davidson.
As we prepare to reopen the museum in May, I have been working on some new labels for the samplers in the Weaving Room. I’ve tried to find biographical information about the girls who made the samplers and other needlework pieces in the collection—a difficult task. Like most women who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries, they left little mark on the official historical record. However, their samplers were treasured and handed down in their families until they were “discovered” by collectors in the early 20th century. In the age of the suffragette and the flapper, samplers became powerful symbols of the industry, piety, and domesticity of early American women.

Until relatively recently, needlework skills were an essential part of female education. All girls learned basic sewing skills, and some pursued more advanced embroidery. The sampler emerged sometime in the 16th century and was originally a pattern record of stitches and techniques (the term sampler comes from the Latin exemplum, or example). Colonists brought this tradition of sampler-making to North America in the 17th century, though very few examples have survived from that period. By the 18th century, distinctive sampler styles were beginning to develop, identified with specific regions and often with particular schools or teachers. However, American samplers shared common elements: alphabets and numbers, religious or moral verses, names and dates (often in the form of a family record), floral motifs, landscape scenes including people, houses, and animals, and geometric patterns.

Scenes from a Seminary for Young Ladies,
ca. 1810-20
Saint Louis Art Museum
In the years after the American Revolution, educational opportunities for girls expanded dramatically. Historians have identified this push for female education as part of an ideology they call republican motherhood. If the new nation was to survive, its citizens must be virtuous, and children’s first lessons in virtue came from their mothers. Therefore, women had to be educated in order to transmit republican values to future generations. Although the emphasis of republican motherhood was on women’s roles in the home, it opened the door for arguments in favor of broadening education for girls. As author Judith Sargent Murray wrote in 1798, “Female academies are everywhere establishing and right pleasant is the appellation to my ear.”

These new academies offered girls the chance to learn the same subjects as boys did: not just reading and writing but mathematics, geography, philosophy, and Latin. However, there was still a great emphasis on fashionable accomplishments or what were called “ornamentals”—embroidery, painting, drawing, and music. Most of the samplers that are in museum collections today were made during this post-Revolutionary period, and almost all of them were produced in schools, under the direction of a teacher.
“Miss Godchild's First Sampler,”
English print, 1793

A girl generally made her first sampler between the ages of five and nine. This would usually be a marking sampler, intended to teach basic sewing and literacy skills through the stitching of letters and numbers. In a time when household linens were extremely valuable, every sheet, napkin, pillowcase, and towel had to be marked with initials to ensure that it was returned safely from being sent out for laundering, and with numbers so that items could be rotated for even wear. If her education continued at a female academy, the young lady might then make a more decorative sampler or needlework picture. This piece might be part of an exhibition at the school, demonstrating her skill to family, friends, and local dignitaries, and would serve as an advertisement for the school. She would then bring the framed needlework home to be displayed as a sort of “diploma,” testifying to her educational and artistic accomplishments.

Colonial Revival sampler, 1917
Samplers began to fall out of the school curriculum in the late 1830s, as educational reformers argued that girls should receive the same education as boys. By the mid-19th century, they were generally found only in Catholic schools and in some frontier areas. In the 20th century, colonial-style needlework enjoyed a revival among middle-class women, who could purchase commercial patterns and kits to make their own “heirlooms.” It was at this time that collectors began to take a second look at the productions of 18th and early 19th century needlewomen. Virginia Robie, writing in House Beautiful in 1902, noted that the sampler had “not yet become a fad”; it was still lumped in with the fancywork of the Victorians and “mildly ridiculed or completely ignored.” But within a decade, the first scholarly works on samplers would appear, and they would be eagerly sought out by collectors like Alice T. Miner.


Early works on samplers include Marcus B. Huish, Samplers and Tapestry Embroideries (1913) and American Samplers, published by the Massachusetts Society of the Colonial Dames of America in 1921. For recent scholarship, the works of Betty Ring, particularly Girlhood Embroidery and American Needlework Treasures, are invaluable.

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