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Ethel Stanwood Bolton, Eva Johnston Coe. Massachusetts society of the colonial dames of America, 1921


About this time some school, evidently near Boston, conceived the idea of using Adam and Eve and the apple as a subject for the religious enlightenment of its pupils. Two samplers, done in 1741, and one in 1753, are practically identical, design for design. The apple trees are laden with fruit of such a size as to make the modern farmer green with envy. Adam is accompanied by a goose and Eve by a rabbit. Let us hope that there was no irony in the tender minds of those whose fingers wrought so well. And each of the six figures presses one hand upon man's dearest spot, as if already each felt the result of the coming indigestible meal. The serpent—he looks much more like a fat angle worm—embraces the tree with one or more coils, tempting our universal mother. The fig leaves are large and very modest. In 1745, we find another version of the story, for Adam and Eve face us; and Adam has one of those lovely beards, now so little seen, running under the chin and up in front of the ears, which most Irish laborers of our early childhood fancied. Eve has an enormous quantity of hair, and the serpent has his eye on all comers.    He isjust as short and fat as his predecessors. Thereafter, Adam and Eve appear quite often, but later times were far more modest and less true to history than were our mid-eighteenth century grandmothers.

American Sampler 18

One other sampler of the forties is unique. Mary Ellis, of Milton, Massachusetts, inside a border made a hundred diamonds, and on the diamonds embroidered the multiplication table. Only a few of the figures are still visible. Of course she made such a sampler at school, for no one but a schoolmarm would condemn any small girl to such a task as making a hundred diamonds all alike for such a prosaic result. Perhaps Mary wasn't good at arithmetic and needed severe discipline. At this time, too, we first find the two spies returning from Palestine, bearing between them the grapes of Eschol. Needless to say that none of our sampler artists in any way scamped the bunch, which was usually carried between the two stagger­ing men upon a pole.

About 1750, the sampler becomes a much freer and more original piece of work than was true of the first half of the century. The "period of gloom," as so many writers designate the first fifty years, was over. The wilderness, so far as our original thirteen states were concerned, was pretty well conquered, and prosperous towns had taken the place of struggling and toiling settlements. Once again the amenities of life could be considered, and once again the children had some leisure to cultivate them. The result is an increasing variety of design. In fact, if we look at Elizabeth Pecker's sampler, made at the age of fifteen in 1750, we may realize that the sampler artist at this time went back to nature for her models—more or less. Two trees stand on hillocks on either side, with birds both roosting and flying. Between stands a mammoth basket of flowers. Deer, dogs, and enor­mous fowl disport themselves on the greensward for the edification of a damsel in the lower left-hand corner. She is dressed, not in em­broidery, but in a lovely brocaded skirt, appliqued upon the canvas, and she has a lock of real red-gray hair upon her head.     The truth is that we had so few models that we were forced to try to depict the scenes around us. We began with animals and trees, and later progressed to more complicated scenes. Western Pennsylvania, in 1755, contributes a sampler with verses and a tapestry design in diamond shapes; while the next year conservative Massachusetts, under cross-borders of the older style, gives us an orchard scenef with an apple tree, two deer, two rabbits, two bumblebees, and two eagles. "The animals walked in two by two" upon her sampler. The chief interest, however, lies in the fact that this is the first time that eagles, later symbolic of the country, appear. The same year Sarah Afflick, whom we suspect of Pennsylvania lineage, put three open baskets at the bottom of her sampler, and therein vines of an infinite variety of leaves upon the same parent stems; while tulips, pinks, roses, peonies, and flowers only conceived by the imaginative mind of seven adorn the vines also. And while we laugh, we know that it is very lovely as a piece of design, harmonious in color, and covering the space most interestingly. Really it is a sampler of Oriental design tinged with American feeling, and is unique in its appeal.

Providence Sampler 1733

It would be unfair to leave this period without mentioning Dorothy Lynde's sampler, now forever on exhibition at the Old South Church on Washington Street, Boston. Most of it is beautifully worked petit-point, with just enough embroidery in other stitches to give it the needed variety. Overhead is a very startled-looking sun, flanked on either side by a cherub. Below, on either side of the square containing the lettering and verse, stand two figures upon pedestals. The left-hand one carries a book, and some one has carefully cut out the head. Below is a rural scene; a shepherdess and crook, a bound­ing, spotted black dog, and two meek sheep with huge black eyes. The coloring is lovely, and the illustration gives but a poor idea of its beauty.   

When once you have let originality run riot, you cease to have conventionality, and it becomes increasingly hard to say that any sampler belongs to any period, because it may be a survival of an older period, copied by a girl in an isolated town where new models were hard to come at. Perhaps that is the secret of the charm of samplers, that they were distinctly the expression of the mind of the girl or of her mother or her teacher, and so they are pretty nearly as varied as the mind of man. Even among those which have alphabets alone, there are seldom two alike, because the form varies and so does the color. Probably it is lucky for us that many years separate us from the new and freshly done sampler. Home-dyed colors were, as a rule, quite soft and lovely, and the combinations were almost always felici­tous and according to our taste—if it is still uncorrupted by futurist art. It is, perhaps, cruel to say it of the Shakers, but it seems as if they alone had held over from an earlier century their delight in crude and clashing colors, such as our ancestresses used in their youth and inexperience. These distressing mixtures time and the sun have softened and blended into an harmonious whole.

And so, having turned to nature as a model, these dear girls saw it through the distorted glasses of their imagination. And the result? A wonderful mixture of animals, birds, trees, houses, urns, baskets of flowers and fruit. Vines bearing six kinds of flowers are the ordi­nary sort on samplers. Perspective there was none, and comparative size matters not at all. Usually our beruffled shepherdess is at least three times the size of her house, and once in a while her sheep are so large that they might swallow her whole without inconvenience. But all this was a fairy story, taking form under the child's needle, and all such things happen naturally in fairy tales. Sometimes the children painted in the faces of their people; sometimes they gave them the real hair of the person whose portrait they were attempting.

About 1760 began the period when no sampler was quite complete without its pious verse, and it makes our untheological modern minds ache to think what these children must have been like, if their verses and sayings were anything more than conventional usage. Yet when one reads the records of almost any town, it is to have the realization thrust upon one that at that time theological discussion gave the most abounding joy to our forefathers. So why should not the children, too, have put forth their religious or pious convictions upon the sampler

which was to hang upon the wall? They wished to show that they were not one whit behind their elders in taking up cudgels for their pet dogma, to show that death and the tomb had no terrors for their well-prepared souls.
Mary Webb, a nice little Pennsylvania girl, in 1760 made a clever sampler. She encircled it with a carnation border, and turned the corners with a tulip. Inside she divided the space into nine squares. The middle and the corners she decorated with delightful flowers, and in the four remaining squares embroidered her pious sentiments. She also gives a hint here of the genealogical sampler soon to come, for she put her parents' names upon it. This type, which is quite unusual in America, was more common in England. Perhaps she copied some English model brought overseas.   
The genealogical sampler, in all its glory, did not come into ripe fruition until late in the eighteenth century, but as early as 1730 Ann Robins put her father's, mother's, and grandparents' names upon her sampler. Sarah van Forhies, in 1742, embroidered the initials of her family, and the habit was quite common until the real genealogy came to displace them. Margaret Swain, in 1754, embroidered the initials, but she went a step farther and added the dates of births and deaths. Catherine Van Maater, in 1765, records that her "Father" was Daniel Van Maater, her mother, Mary Covenhaven, and that her brothers and sisters were Sarah, Gilbert, Micah, and Milly.
The first real genealogy seems to be of the Olmsteads, of Connecticut, made in 1774, but it has not half the charm of one done by an unknown girl, recording an unknown family, which probably resided in or near Springfield, Massachusetts:

"Phoebe       Born April 7, 1751                                   
"Lew"          bor feb 23, 1753
"Zebbo"      Au 29, 1755
"Cal"           bor Jun 29, 1758

and then only initials up to the last child's birth in 1771.
From 1780, on to the end of the century, the real genealogy and the one containing initials only, flourished side by side, but were never nearly as common as they were after 1800. These samplers are just as useful to the student as the Family Bible, and should be cherished for their information with equal care.

It is just at this time that the little Dutch sampler of Catherine van Schaick was done in Albany. The border is difficult to place; two birds stand on two unnameable objects, one of which may be a house

Margareth Calef Sampler Middletown Conn 1767

Southern Samplers

By 1766, the South had taken up Adam and Eve, and Sally Rea gives us a very interesting example. Adam and Eve, encircled in ballet skirts of fig leaves, stand in the attitude of the minuet, holding the apple together. The serpent coiled around the tree leans out and whispers in Eve's ear, while her accompanying rabbit stands in a scared attitude, ready to run at need. Adam, who looks a most courtly and smiling gentleman, is in this instance accompanied by two very inter­ested dogs, one white with black decorations, the other "counter-changed." The whole thing is adorable, and envy surges in your breast.   
The same year a child in Dighton, Massachusetts, Bath-sheba Searing her name, began that noble series of samplers which grew from picturing one's own house and yard to putting public buildings on the "carpet" of the sampler, and finally led to the delineation of whole towns. Bath-sheba made a picture of her nice, hip-roofed brick house, and she pictured her mother in one window and her father in the other. Sarah van Forhies, of New Jersey, mentioned above, had made a house in 1742, but it seems to have been an isolated experiment and had no copiers until this later time.


About this time, too, the girls in the Southern states began to make samplers. South Carolina has one as early as 1752, and Georgia in 1763. Sarah Jones, of Savannah, did the Ten Commandments in verse, the Lord's Prayer, and the Creed, surrounded it with a flowered vine, and added a basket and flowers. It was not only Puritan New England, but the South also, which mixed religion and samplers in­extricably.   Philadelphia, in the person of Elizabeth Coleman, offers Pope's "Universal Prayer"; and so it is with relief that we turn to Margaret Calef and her wonderful scene, undisturbed by pious senti­ments. This Middletown, Connecticut, girl shows us the fruit of her imagination in most beautiful petit-point. There is a brick castle with high tower and many windows, with five straight poplar trees looking over the roof; on either side an apple tree, and on the lawn in front a lamb and a mottled dog. To the left, a wasp-waisted lady sits on a chair, with one dog behind and one with three white spots leaping up in front. She holds an enormous rose to her painted face. Before her stands her husband, long, buttoned coat, silk stockings, and shoes, all of the latest cut, his queue correctly tied, holding a parrot in his hand. And as a background, high hills, with poplar trees and deer, and a huge tulip plant, that dwarfs the trees. The sky is cloudy and contains one star. Each time you lo ik you find some new delight. And if you love this sampler, doubly will you love Hannah Johnson's, one in 1768 in "Newbury Newton" (Newburyport). Never before and never again will the mind of child conceive such a flirtatious and lovely cow as Hannah Johnson did. The ceer with which she's flirting is almost as charming.  
The next decade seems to have been given over to country scenes, to shepherds and shepherdesses, flocks and herds, houses and farm buildings. It also introduced a new stitch which was developed in two ways.    At this period appears the crinkled silk, which looks as if they were unwound from larger and tight-twisted hanks.  

American Sampler sth 18th

    Occasionally it is appliqued, when the embroidery represents the bricks of a house or something else appropriate. At one school in Essex County, Massachusetts, taught by Sarah Stivour, the children used Ion 3 stitches in this crinkly silk to represent the grass and sky. The particular use is limited to that school, and to the years between 1778 and 1786. Work from her school can be identified at a glance.  )The scenes depicted become more elaborate during this ten years, and are saved from being classed as needlework pictures by a very narrow margin. This is true as far south as Georgia. But even in their elaboration, the feeling persists that if one could only really know their history, many samplers that are now far separated over the country were made under the same school-mistress's eye. These samplers are not always identical, but the whole action and design savor of the same controlling mind. Grace Welsh, Sukey Makepeace, Abigail Mears, and perhaps Elizabeth Pecker, who used a form of hunting scene, illustrate very well the probable common origin of a group.   

Grace Welsh Sampler 1774

Now the stiff cross-stitch trees of a former decade give place to those with gracefully bending trunks, and tops that look like dejected and lop-sided feather dusters. This is well exemplified on Betsey Adams's sampler. She lived in Quincy, Massachusetts, as all the great Adamses did, but I'm sure that she never saw the prototype of those trees in Quincy. 

Abigail Mears Sampler 1772

The children of this decade abandoned cross-stitch and its kindred stitches more than their predecessors, and used satin-stitch increas­ingly. They also added queen-stitch, with very pleasing results, and often included punch-work fruit.
It would be unfair to leave the time of the Revolution without mentioning the unknown child who embroidered Christ at the foot of a huge tree, with arms outstretched. From the branches hang fruit labeled "Peace," "Sanctification," "Election," "Refuge," "Repent," "Buffeting," "Temptation," "Reproach," "Everlasting Love," "Death," and many more. This and Mary Daintery's, earlier in the century, are the only representations of Christ on samplers so far known.   

Sampler made in 1775

A form of sampler very common in England was little used in this country, though a few have been recorded—the map sampler. The earliest example which has come to light in the Colonies was a map of France done on an oval of satin by Frances Brenton, of New­port, Rhode Island, in 1775.   Perhaps the education of the girls began at this period to include a knowledge of the world outside their own narrow horizon. Ann Smith made a map of Europe in 1787. Later, in 1793, Betty Scott, whose mother became John Hancock's second wife, made a beautiful map of England, very accurate, and beautifully worked. It was, perhaps, one of those stamped in England and brought to this country. At one time they were very popular with English damsels. Five years later, Leonora Louisa Spechet also made a map of England, and Frances Wade made a map of North and South America, which was of her own drawing, one might surmise. Her geography was almost as frenzied as that during the war, and even Mercator's projection looks far less queer.   


During the last years of the Revolution, the sampler began to increase in the land. Originality ran riot, and everything that the children saw was pictured with more or less fidelity to nature. Perhaps the most interesting pair of samplers done in the 1780's are two which come from Tuckerton, New Jersey. They are painted samplers done by John Mason, in 1780, and by Sarah Piatt, about 1784. Sarah painted a picture of herself in an oval at the bottom, and we should guess that John tried to portray his father and mother. The pair of samplers is most interesting, and calls to mind that later, by some fifty years, pen and ink samplers were accomplished by some pupils in the schools. They are quite rare now, as, of course, paper is much more perishable than linen.
There is a unique little sampler in Essex County, Massachusetts, which was cut in the form of a Liberty Bell, with a little ring at the top. It was done by "Rocksalana Willes," in 1783. What she put on the sampler was neither very artistic nor interesting, but it certainly was of the era.  

Rocksalana Wille Sampler 1783

Two years later, Hannah Janney made a sampler, and worked upon it a verse "On Education." One might almost feel that this was truly prophetic on her part, for later she became the mother of Johns Hopkins, who founded the University which bears his name. Just at this time began that most interesting series of pictures of Brown University which is discussed in the chapter on Schools.   Theyare so lovely that it is impossible to refrain from mentioning them again here. From the college on the hill at Providence to Pennsylvania is not so very far, so at the same time that our New England maidens were learning to embroider what they saw, little Ann Buller made her unique contribution in Philadelphia. She pictured scenes which never were on sea or land. One can almost see the child sitting in wrapt silence, drinking in the strange tales of some sailor-man who had been overseas and in far Eastern lands. He had told her of the Arab in his tent, of camels, and flocks, and herds. Perhaps she re­membered Abraham sitting in his tent door, with all his flocks around him. And then she constructed her amazing country. In the middle, at the right, sits her hero in the door of a large, white tent, while before him graze six of the leanest sheep that sampler-land has ever produced. Next a lean cow stands, wondering, with mournful eyes; and then a " woman and two men, in modern dress, one of whom holds a camel by its bridle. Below two camels, with protuberant necks, eat fruit from two trees, and a man and woman stand near a well-house. Desert camels and a typical New World well!

Hannah Janney Sampler 1785

Then we come to the very modest era when Adam and Eve went clothed to their doom, and fig leaves were insufficient. In Salem, Massachusetts, there was a Quaker maid who pictured Adam and Eve in plain Quaker dress, with Cain and Abel standing beside them in knee breeches. The "tree of knowledge" is there and many animals, but Rebekah Hacker's childish heart was too tender toward the sin­ful pair to put in the serpent as a reminder of their fall. Margaret Ramsay helped out our first parents in a different way, for she planted her tree of knowledge just outside the garden fence, and back of its flower-borders she put a comfortable cottage, with nice lace windows. From this time on, Adam and Eve again be­come a favorite theme, clothed or unclothed, fat or lean. Meanwhile, all through the period, we have lovely pictures of workless shepherds courting with pipes the equally workless shepherdesses; beside them bloom flowers as large as cabbages. Their houses are flanked with trees, or, as Lucy Cushing embroidered her home, set between two enormous sunflowers reaching the second-story windows. Newport and Sally Munro give us a wonderful doctor's gig with a horribly knock-kneed horse.  

Sally Munro Sampler 1790

By 1790, the variety of sampler work was infinite. Two Phila-delphians, Jane Humphreys and Elizabeth Lehman, and one Dela­ware girl, Mary Clark, each made on fine linen a basket filled with flowers in the finest "hollie-point."~ These three samplers are exquisite things, and most beautifully wrought. By this time, sampler making seems to have become an art and many new stitches came in fashion, so Zebiah Gore made her lambs in bullion-stitch. One often wonders just how the child carried out the design which she or her teacher had conceived. Sally Baldwin, of Providence, never finished her sampler, and so our question is answered. A house and a cow stand stark in their nakedness of pen and ink. In one case, the needle and thread are left to this day in a child's unfinished work.
At the end of the century, we are on the verge of several new methods of work. Again, alas! the magic of a new century does not create the beginning of a new era sharply, though one may feel that the increasing prosperity of the country and the awakening interest in the education of girls elaborates and develops what has gone before. Pious verse is not always a sine qua non, and at times neither verse nor alphabet appear. The borders, done now as fancy wills, are not the old repeating designs which have held sway since first the sampler formed part of the maiden's outfit.
The genealogical sampler had had no great vogue, and the new century was to develop that form most interestingly. Houses at this period begin to sit on terraces, each step of which displays a tree, and on many samplers the house is broader than this pyramid of green lawns. True to this pastoral era, sheep and a shepherd invariably disport upon the lawns. Beulah Hollinshead was the first girl, appar­ently, who started this fashion, which the new century adopted most enthusiastically. Ann Macomber, in the last year of the century, revived a fashion originally set by Miss Polly Balch, of Providence, Rhode Island, at her school. No one, apparently, had followed her idea of 'depicting public buildings, until Ann Macomber put Liberty Hall, Philadel­phia, upon her work. She set the building in more rural surroundings than we are used to associating with it, for a horse and two dogs run merrily about in the grass on either side.   

During the study of the records and pictures which make up the material from which these facts are drawn, certain small things obtrude themselves and give a human interest to all this needlework. We are struck, at first, by the number of surnames which have died out in the course of years. Perhaps some of them have only gone West, leaving no one in the East to carry on the family. Certain it is that many names are strangers to their east-coast homes now. Again, the names left by the Roundheads impress us, and we meet Constant Brayton, Content Silsbee, Content Wing, Faithy Trumbull, Desire Williams, Temperance Matthews, and Charity Peters. Our fore­fathers were greatly daring in their choice of names, as witness: Rosefair Brooks, Welthe Barker, Lucretia Creaton, Sarah Doubt, Perese Hopton, Leafea Ide, Maieson Howard, Rocksalana Willes, Robe A. Ormsbee, Lendamine Draper, Increase Githernon, Sibilah Moore, and Petheny Geer. The most amazing family as to names, however, was the Jones family, duly recorded with births and deaths in 1797. Perhaps the name Jones seemed too feeble in its appeal, and so "Pappa" and "Mamma" Jones named their children Thetis, Thisbe, Sabra, Atlas, the twins Mithra and Luna, and Andes. No one could ever brand that Jones family as commonplace.
Another interest is in noticing just what each girl says about her work. They "wrought" it in many ways, according to their own testimony. One was "written by Tabitha Smith Feb 18th 1713 being then aged 9 years." Sometimes they tell when they began, as did Sarah Troup, in 1738; and some are cryptic, like the child who says, "I made it in the year of January 1st 1751.v Most children tell you when they finished their work, and you can almost feel the pride with which they worked the date. There are, however, some rather odd ways of conveying their meaning:
"In the year of our Lord, 1793". "Hannah Sanderson Her Exampler", 1789. "Drusilla Tomlin Her Sampler and Work", 1793.
But of them all, none gives the hustling American view of life so succinctly as did one child in the strained year of the outbreak of the Revolution:
"Sarah Ann Souder worked this in great speed And left it here for you to read."
Of the children who embroidered samplers, there were some who deserve mention because they themselves or their near relatives became well-known. We have recorded the sampler of Abigail Williams, granddaughter of the "Redeemed Captive" of Deerfield, Massachu­setts, the Rev. John Williams. Abigail Wadsworth, of Hartford, whose sampler is dated 1730, was the daughter of Jonathan Wads-worth, the great Indian fighter, and granddaughter of Joseph, who hid the Charter in the "Charter Oak." Dorcas Gatcomb, who made a sampler two years later, became the wife of John Welch, who carved the original "Codfish" weathervane, now in the Old State House; and a sampler having a date somewhat later, 1751, bears the name of Dorcas Welch, daughter of the carver. Abigail Janney, as we have mentioned before, was the mother of Johns Hopkins. Mary Sterrett, of Baltimore, made a sampler when she was eleven; at sixteen, a famous beauty and belle, she had married Richard Gittings, of Long Green, Maryland. The Massachusetts Historical Society owns a pair, one done by the sister and one by the niece of Governor Thomas Hutchinson, of Massachusetts. Doubtless there were other famous people in this long list of girls, but their fame has not come down to us.
Various other strange things may be noted in passing. Mary Studley, of Portsmouth, made two samplers in 1753, and so far as we know broke all known records by each one. The habit of sampler makers, as a rule, was to make the numerals from 1 to 9 and then to add a 0.    Sometimes they go to 12, and once in a while to 20; but Mary Studley made one sampler with the numerals from 1 to 49, and another one marked from 1 to 50. One sampler bears two dates and two names, that of "Mary Wheatley, 1760," and "Isabella Thompson, 1797." Apparently, Mary Wheatley never finished her work, and Isabella Thompson used the unfinished linen to try her skill. Margaret Starr, in 1795, worked the name of William Cox with her design, and so helps us all to suspect a romance.
Roman numerals were only occasionally used on samplers. Elizabeth Holyoke said that her age was xiii in 1784, and Susanna Holyoke confessed to x in 1790.
The average age of the sampler makers after the seventeenth century was about thirteen, but we have a record of one made by a woman of sixty. At the other end of the scale we find Mary Smith, who was six years old in the year " 17014." In her fifth year, Agnes Rust made one which was only three and a half inches wide, but sixteen inches long. Polly Fuller, in 1790, was only four years old; and Catherine Bispham, in 1755, was five. Phebe Cash, a Negro child belonging to the widow of Dudley Atkins, Esq., of Newbury, Massa­chusetts, worked her sampler in 1789. We might add that there are at least three in the collection done by boys. Lemuel Vose, of Milton, Massachusetts, worked one in 1773; and two years earlier, Gideon Freeborn, of Rhode Island, embroidered one. He covered the canvas with diagonal lines in black, with diamonds of yellow, purple, pink, green, blue, and red between. It would seem to be a rather garish sampler.   Nicholas Bleecker, of Albany, worked one in 1790.
And so the century ended which had seen the growth of a truly American handicraft, crude in many cases, but a real and sincere effort to develop artistically. Best of all, it was a growth along original lines, and no slavish copying of English models; for the American sampler, bound by no conventional type, is more varied and more interesting from 1740 on than its English cousin. Being a freer art, the result is generally pleasing and often quite beautiful.

American Sampler 1793 by Sarah Brown




Source: Ethel Stanwood Bolton, Eva Johnston Coe. Massachusetts society of the colonial dames of America, 1921