Flashback: In Samplers, Little Girls Expressed Themselves

March 20th, 2009

This article discusses the history of samplers, which young girls were often required to work on daily in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It notes the evolution of the sampler from pieces of cloth with samples of various patterns to an elaborate expression of the sewer’s skill with a needle. It originally appeared in the April 1942 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

In one of those drippingly sentimental historical novels which were so numerous a generation or so ago, the woes of a little girl, unfortunate to have been born in the late 18th Century, were movingly depicted.

Illustration I: American Sampler, Dated 1797: The lower part is a representation of Adam and Eve in needle stitch. At the lower left and right it is signed: "Ann Alker her work. Aged 12 Anno domini 1797."

Illustration I: American Sampler, Dated 1797: The lower part is a representation of Adam and Eve in needle stitch. At the lower left and right it is signed: "Ann Alker her work. Aged 12 Anno domini 1797."

According to the author, little Martha had a horrible childhood. She was expected to obey her parents, respect her elders, and be content to be seen rather than heard when in their company. She had to learn to walk properly and to sit upright without benefit of chair back. Worst of all there was a sampler on which she was forced daily to take neat small stitches until a given portion of it was completed. Over this cruelty the author worked herself into quite a dither.

“With what tears were the painfully wrought letters of the alphabet watered,” she wrote. “How weary were the little fingers that held these useless pieces of work and patiently set the needle for each tiny stitch; how cramped the childish frame and how meekly the little feet, which should have been free to run and play through the golden hours of childhood, rested on the sanded floor.”

This sounds more than a little absurd now and we have since come to realize that parental affection was just as strong in the 18th Century as it is today. Also the result of all play and no work is effectively though crudely shown in Illustration I. Further, little Martha had no idea that she was being harshly treated. She lived in a day when the Fifth Commandment was kept as a matter of course. And while neither she nor her parents had ever heard of self-expression, her sampler, with its neat border, its alphabet, scriptural verse and pictorial representation, was as true a form of it as are the art efforts in water color and clay modeling of the modern child.

Also, at the very time this novel was written small girls all over the land were not only stitching pink roses and purple violets on circular pieces of linen known as doilies, but at least one out of eight, irrespective of natural bent or inclination, was required to spend two “golden hours” daily in a gloomy, black walnut furnished parlor, thumping out scales and five-finger exercises on the square piano that was part of the well appointed home then. It was hard, monotonous work, too, but made bearable by anticipation of a “piece,” which, when mastered, would be a source of pride and accomplishment to the performer.

In a similar spirit most little girls of various countries sat down during the 18th and early 19th Centuries to their daily “stint” of work on their samplers. Completed, each was a “piece,” a sample of skill with the needle. Certainly not more than a normal amount of tears and self-pity would be expended over its making. Also, as the pictorial design grew slowly under their neat stitchery, they were unconsciously using much the same technique as that employed by Queen Matilda and her attendants in fashioning her famous tapestry.

Illustration II: Needlework Map of England: Done in 1822 by a little girl who was too modest to include her name and age, this accents the boundaries of the shires. At the right is lettered: "River Thames." A year ago, this once peaceful coast of Kent and Essex became known around the world as "Hell's Corners."

Illustration II: Needlework Map of England: Done in 1822 by a little girl who was too modest to include her name and age, this accents the boundaries of the shires. At the right is lettered: "River Thames." A year ago, this once peaceful coast of Kent and Essex became known around the world as "Hell's Corners."

Indeed, from the Bayeux tapestry right down to the decadent raised wool roses on canvas of the Victorian era, pictorial needlework was an art, the oldest form known to woman and for a very long time the only one. As for samplers, the earliest ones were not decorative pieces at all, but mere records of stitches and designs used in the intricate embroideries with which queen and commoner alike busied themselves. These “swatches” or samples of various patterns were each embroidered on a long narrow piece of linen which was then rolled up and put away until needed for reference.

Later, the sampler became a definite expression of pictorial needlework, but its practice sheet origin was apparent to the last. For instance, in the Adam, Eve and the Serpent example, already referred to, there is a band of decorative embroidery suitable for a border right in the middle of the work and the design running up the sides differs in pattern both from this central strip and from that below the Garden of Eden scene. The alphabet and numerals at the top also show exemplar-origin, since the practice of marking household linens which began in the early 18th Century was the prime reason for the appearance of the alphabet and numerals on samplers.

These, due to the fact that linen was now being loomed in wider pieces, now became square instead of long and narrow. Pictorial representations presently appeared along with verses that ranged from the sepulchral to the sentimental. Samplers were in favor from the 16th through the first third of the 19th Centuries. They were at their height from 1720 to about 1830 and the most varied and interesting examples date during these years. Earlier ones tend to have either a scattered arrangement or are merely a pattern sheet of decorative borders set one above the other.

Various stitches were used in fashioning the designs shown, but the usual ones were such fundamental types as the cross-stitch, needlepoint, satin stitch, and stem or outline stitch. The colors, which time has softened to a mellow tone, and which modern ones must forever lack, were simple shades of blue, green, yellow, rose, red, and brown.

Designs for borders, letters of the alphabet, and numerals were mostly taken from pattern books published in Europe as early as 1591. Many of the pictorial subjects also derived their inspiration from these and similar books. The design depicting the Fall of Man originated in Boston and was very popular in America. It is found in three versions, all similar.

Illustration III: Rulers of France in Needlework: This sampler of royal Gallic genealogy, done in 1817, stops abruptly with Louis XVIII without dates. The house of Bonaparte is totally ignored. By the time this was worked, the Corsican was safely confined on the island of St. Helena and his dynastic desires and dreams of conquest were ended.

Illustration III: Rulers of France in Needlework: This sampler of royal Gallic genealogy, done in 1817, stops abruptly with Louis XVIII without dates. The house of Bonaparte is totally ignored. By the time this was worked, the Corsican was safely confined on the island of St. Helena and his dynastic desires and dreams of conquest were ended.

The one shown here is from the collection of Mrs. Samuel Joseph who, over a period of years, has assembled some fifty examples gathered from England, France, Italy, Vienna, Germany, Scotland, Mexico, and the United States. In this illustration are all the elements that make up a sampler. At the top the alphabet and numerals; then a line of scrollwork, followed by a straight line of animal life. Then comes a geometric border and below it the verse:

“Tis Education forms the youthful Mind; Just as the Twig is bent the Tree’s inclined.”

A good-sized horse at the right unblinkingly inspects this. Another geometric border and we have the Tree of Knowledge with cherubs, a bird and a butterfly floating above the heads of the principal actors in the drama. No space being left for a signature, the young needlewoman tucks her name to the left of Eve and her age to the right of Adam, with a final period to the whole in the shape of a cat. The date of this sampler is 1797.

Another pictorial example in this collection is a sampler made by Alley Freeman and, according to the signature, was finished in her eleventh year, June 19, 1817. It is headed by a motto which reads:

“There is a path that leads to God. And all others go astray. Narrow but pleasant is the road, and Christians love the way. It leads straight through this world of sin. And dangers must be past. But those who boldly walk therein will come to heaven at last.”

The scene below is quite impressionistic with the house as the central theme and flanked on right and left by representations of everyday life, such as barns, grazing sheep, ducks floating on a pond, a horse drinking from a trough, barnyard fowl and other animals, a church, neighboring houses and other buildings, trees and ether familiar objects. In fact, so great is the variety that one wonders if this is not one of the few samplers in which the young worker attempted to recreate her home scene or at least her impression of it.

Illustration IV: An American Sampler of 1771: This is typical of the needlework of little girls of America in the last quarter of the 18th Century. It has letters, numerals, and stylized forms. From the scepter and crown in the upper part, one may infer that "Jane Rutter, aged 12," was loyal to the English crown.

Illustration IV: An American Sampler of 1771: This is typical of the needlework of little girls of America in the last quarter of the 18th Century. It has letters, numerals, and stylized forms. From the scepter and crown in the upper part, one may infer that "Jane Rutter, aged 12," was loyal to the English crown.

On the practice sheet order is the English sampler made by Jane Rutter (Illustration IV) in the year 1771 at the age of twelve. It is beautifully done, from the alphabet at the top to the signature at the bottom. In addition to geometric figures there are two representations of the crown and one of the royal mace. The map of England portrayed in Illustration II was done in 1822 and was apparently intended not only as a trial of skill but as a lesson in geography. The border of Powers surrounding it is exquisitely done. As for the map, although the prominence of the numerous shires somewhat obscures the general outline, it is evident that the young worker knew her local geography.

Another sampler involving much detail and done in cross-stitch is a French one designed like the Hall of Fame (Illustration III). It depicts the chronologie of the house of France from Pharamona, who died in 420, through Louis XVIII. It was made in 1817 by Enna Jovin.

Mrs. Joseph also owns a similar one of American provenance which shows the history of a family by the name of Lewis, with names, births, and deaths in columns. The first Lewis recorded was born September 22, 1803; the last death recorded was January 30, 1847. This registry, as it is called, is worked in tablet form under a spread eagle with the figures Faith, Hope, Charity, and Peace, as well as two turtle doves topped by the inscription: “Keep Sacred The Memory Of Your Ancestors.”

A second French sampler (Illustration V) has a true folk-art quality about its arrangement and detail. Save for the cross, many of the emblems shown could well have appeared on a Pennsylvania-Dutch sampler or door panel. The signature at the bottom reads: “Fait Par Antoinette Le Haribel Agee de 12 ans année 1820.”

Although these interesting little pieces of needlework seem to have been made largely by girls under the age of twelve and the inference is that the simple stitches that went into them were taught at home, a study of advertisements in 18th-Century newspapers discloses that there were schools, in the large Colonial centers at least, where along with a smattering of reading and writing, “Young ladies might learn plain work, Samplers, French Quilting, Dresden flowering on cat gut, shading with silk or worsted, on Cambrick, lawn or Holland.”

Illustration V: French, but Kin to Pennsylvania Dutch: Although this sampler is signed: "Fait Par Antoinette Le Haribel Age de 12 ans anee 1820," the formalized decorations of it are much like those worked in America by the Pennsylvania Dutch. This shows that sometimes folk art and homecraft forms disregarded race or political sovereignty.

Illustration V: French, but Kin to Pennsylvania Dutch: Although this sampler is signed: "Fait Par Antoinette Le Haribel Age de 12 ans anee 1820," the formalized decorations of it are much like those worked in America by the Pennsylvania Dutch. This shows that sometimes folk art and homecraft forms disregarded race or political sovereignty.

Along with these advertisements is a querulous protest from the head of a household who feels that this needlework business is being carried too far. In a letter to the printer in The New York Mercury, October 16, 1758, he writes: “My Wife’s notion of edication differs widely from mine. She considers every State of life as Idleness, in which the hands are not employed. In pursuance of this principle, she calls up her Daughters at a certain hour, and appoints them a task of needle work to be performed before breakfast…By this continual exercise of their diligence, we have twice as many firescreens as chimneys and half the rooms are adorned with a kind of futile pictures which imitate tapestry…About a month ago Tent and Turkey-stitch seemed at a sand; my Wife knew not what new Work to introduce; I ventured to propose that the Girls should now learn to read and write, and mentioned the necessity of a little arthmetick; but unhappily my Wife has discovered that linene wears out and has bought the Girls three little wheels, that they may spin hukkaback for the servants table.”

Obviously, the distaff side ruled the home, even in what was reputed to be a man’s world. Undoubtedly at least three of the “futile pictures” were samplers and it is safe to predict that their number increased as time went on.

This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.


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