Although girls stitched samplers in America as early as the mid-seventeenth century (the oldest surviving example is by Myles Standish’s daughter, Loara, ca. 1653, now in the Pilgrim Hall Museum; reproduction kit by the Examplarery here), I associate them with the early Republic era, roughly 1790 to 1811. By that time, Nantucket was firmly established as a major commercial center, a situation the robust Quaker community on the island was largely responsible for bringing about. (Right: Polly Coffin’s sampler, Nantucket Historical Association, 1797)
Today, Nantucket Island is known as a vacation destination for the wealthy, where exquisite baskets are made and sold for very respectable sums. Herman Melville helped enshrine the island as the control center for a global whaling empire through Moby Dick. Melville’s first mate was Starbuck, and although his name is immortalized on coffee shop signs around the world, it was also a prominent Nantucket Quaker name. (At left: Sally Starbuck’s sampler, 1808, Nantucket Historical Association)
Although I tend to think of samplers as American, they are not, of course. Samplers were made all over Europe —particularly in Spain and England— for centuries before the Mayflower brought Myles Standish to this continent. Initially, needlework samplers were, like knitting samplers, containers of information— catalogs of stitches. As written messages began to appear as a standard element, it was clear that this medium had become a gentile occupation for privileged women. Only the wealthy could afford to teach girls to read and write.
From at least the time of the American Revolution, needlework samplers were an established feature of curricula in schools that accepted female students, where students generally completed their samplers between the ages of 7 and 14. Independent teachers of young women (almost always women themselves) also taught needlework to their young charges. The sampler, whether assigned in a classroom or by a tutor, was meant to teach young girls how to form letters as well as to sew. Many students found that needlework was the easier skill to master. Ornate or very plain, samplers were not meant to be canvases for artistic prowess; the format, elements, even sometimes the messages, were all carefully prescribed by instructors. The sampler—at first a demonstration of wealth and privilege—became a mark of literacy, specifically of female literacy. The finished sampler came to be regarded as a relic from a rite of passage, a mark of learning, and in later years, a family heirloom. (Above, left: Hope Mosely’s sampler, 1804. Private collection)
In addition to one or more alphabets, a sampler might also feature a poem or truism, as well as the student’s name, date and place of birth (or at least age at the time of “writing”), sometimes the names of family members, a school or teacher’s name, and a variety of motifs (including, often, school buildings, such as Harvard Yard, where ironically, female students were not welcome). I was astonished to learn that the National Archives holds a small collection of samplers. Apparently they were accepted as genealogical evidence. When widows applied for their late husbands’ military pensions, they had to prove their own birth date and name, and some had no other evidence to provide. There’s a great article by archivist Jennifer Davis Heaps about samplers as genealogical evidence here. We can expect more on samplers & genealogy from the Winterthur conference this October. (Hannah Foster’s sampler, 179x. New Hampshire Historical Society)
The strong Quaker presence in Nantucket from the late eighteenth-century and continuing for about a hundred years assured that young women were educated. Enough samplers survive to demonstrate styles set by Nantucket educators. In general, the heyday of Nantucket samplers (say, from about 1790 until about 1815) produced samplers that emphasize letters rather than pictures, messages more than motifs. The one recurring motif, the Nantucket tree, seems to have represented some kind of a pine tree, and appears across the bottom row of Mary Starbuck’s sampler (1796, left; Nantucket Historical Association).
My own attempt to make a knitted sampler has turned out a bit disappointing, so I won’t be framing it or sending it to the local historical society or to the National Archives. I tried to use materials that corresponded in some way to the samplers of two-hundred years ago: a linen base with bits of color (too much color, I think) in cotton and silk and even some metallic threads. I used a very stiff, barely processed & spun linen (with a mean, insistent twist) for the main color, with bits of more reasonable linen, embroidery thread and silk/cotton yarns. Because I wanted a fair amount of definition, I knit at a gauge of about 8 stitches to the inch. It was a delight to pick out the materials, but when it came time to knit, I spent more time untangling yarn than I did knitting. Knitting with two or more yarns, each in a different fiber, each with its own ideas about how to behave, was a vexing challenge. Luckily, linen relaxes considerably after blocking, so the result is better than I had expected. My message, which is probably hard to make out, is:
Union Pearl / Markt This / Sam[N]ple / r 6 mo* / 2008
[row of Nantucket trees]
* “6 mo.” is the Quaker term for the month of June.
Often, written messages continued from line to line, whether or not the word or sentence broke in the right place, which is why the word, “sampler” stetches from one “row” to the next. Borders are moss stitch, which flattens out after blocking to look like basketweave, also a reference to Nantucket.
|Before Blocking||After Blocking|
Some Nantucket & Needlework Resources
- Sherri Federbush, “Journal of Eliza Brock” Historic Nantucket (July 1982): 13-17.
- Julia Fein Azoulay, “Reading into History: Susan Boardman’s Nantucket Embroidered Narratives” Piecework (July/August 2004): 34.
- Elizabeth Shure, “Waiting, Working Women of Nantucket Island” Piecework July August 95: 40.
- Carpenter, Charles H., Jr., and Carpenter, Mary Grace. The Decorative Arts and Crafts of Nantucket (New York: Dodd, Meand & Co., 1987).
- Sturgis Library (Nantucket) Archives
- Swan, Susan Burrows. Plain and Fancy: American Women and Their Needlework, 1650 - 1850
- Ring, Betty. Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers & Pictorial Needlework, 1650 - 1850, 2 vols. (1993)
- Kathleen Staples, “Fancy samplers of New Bedford and Fairhaven, Massachusetts, 1805-1835” Magazine Antiques (Feb. 2008)
- Frances Faile, “ Caring for Old Samplers” Piecework (Nov. 1993): 12-13.
Examples of samplers on the Web
- Allen, Gloria Seaman. A Maryland Sampling: Girlhood Embroidery, 1738-1860
- Huber, Carol, “Simple Samplers to Elegant Embroidery New England’s Girlhood Needlework” New England Antiques Journal
- Patricia Cummings, “Samplers: Historic Embroidered Schoolgirl Samplers” Quilter’s Muse Virtual Museum
Who’s Your Daddy? Families in Early American Needlework
Winterthur Needlework Conference
Winterthur Museum & Gardens, Winterthur, Delaware
Just for fun