SAMPLERS (Part 1): A Mark in Early American History 1600’s Through the Early 1800’s

By Anita Spitzhoff, NAN-Certified Teacher

This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in Fall 1992.

Early settlers who struggled to establish a foothold in this new world brought with them a working knowledge of essential trades and crafts that would either sustain their lives or create a diversion to the hardships that they would face as a nation. It is through the woman’s creative diversion – needlework – that we learn about the sampler.

The Winterthur Guide to American Needlework, by Susan Swan, indicates that samplers were a type of needlework that was originally used to record stitches and designs. They often served as a reference or a statement of the stitcher’s ability. Some samplers bear the names of the makers along with the date of completion. Colonies were settled in the new world around the beginning of the seventeenth century. With them came strong ties from Europe and England. Documented samplers that originated in early colonial America are indicative of the heritage that the colonists shared with England.

Lanto Synge, author of Antique Needlework, indicates that the samplers of the 1600’s were usually stitched on linen that was six to eight inches wide. The length of the sampler varied, but most were less than thirty-six inches. These pieces were stitched in colored silks. Any cut and drawn work were usually worked in white. The sampler was worked in parallel bands of patterns, texts, and motifs across the width of the linen, thus the term, “band” sampler. Since linen was imported and was probably expensive, the bands were worked closely together. The length of the sampler allowed for many strips or bands of the patterns. The width accommodated only a few of the individual pattern designs as these were repetitive.

The early English band sampler was used to record patterns and motifs from books or from numerous friends’ needlework. The samplers were rolled and often placed in a workbox (“casket” is another word for this workbox that was often decorated with beautiful stumpwork or needlepoint) or basket until it was needed to copy a chosen pattern. These patterns were replicated onto garments, fashion accessories, or home furnishings.

At the turn of the seventeenth century, English ladies developed a taste for beautiful, imported silks. These fabrics were transformed into lovely dresses decorated with lace rather than embroidery as was the case with earlier garments. Lanto Synge states, “This change in fashion caused needlework to become an enjoyable hobby; girls devoted their energies toward making samplers for the dual purpose of general practice in sewing and for fun.” Samplers gradually became removed from practicality with the use of intricate patterns. These patterns were more elaborate than those previously used to decorate costumes of the era.

Theoretically, early colonial band samplers were stitched for several reasons: to serve as a record of patterns since few would be immediately available in the new world, to serve as an example of a girl’s or woman’s stitching skills, and to serve as a hobby or enjoyable pastime.

The earliest sampler believed to have been completely stitched in America was that of Loara Standish in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Although the Standish sampler included her name and a verse, it failed to show any date. Historians have dated this sampler to approximately 1633, suggesting that she was about ten years old when the piece was completed. Loara Standish was born in 1623 and died in 1656.

The establishment of the settlements led to the opening of community schools taught by single women. Author Glee Krueger, indicates that these schools were commonly termed as “Dame Schools”. They were similar to our nursery schools or kindergartens. The primary objective of these schools was to provide childcare. Girls, and often boys, began attending the school at age five. The teacher taught very basic reading, arithmetic, knitting, sewing, and sampler-making.

The first samplers stitched by young girls between the ages of five and twelve were called “marking” samplers. These pieces were very simple and generally were rows of alphabets and numbers that served to reinforce the lessons that were taught from the Hornbook Primer. The same numbers and letters that were stitched on the marking sampler were used as a pattern for “marking” clothing or household linens for “proper” housekeeping. The basic markings were cross-stitched initials, or sometimes the whole name and dates, along with a separate identification number for each item.

Few samplers stitched by boys have been located. Most of these pieces have been attributed to the young males enrolled in Dame Schools. This work was used as a method to keep them occupied and quiet while the girls of the school began working on more advanced stitchery or “fine” embroidery. This author is unaware of any evaluation of quality comparing the young boy’s and girl’s stitching abilities.

The second type of sampler, worked after the marking sampler, was a more elaborate piece of embroidery. It was stitched to show a young girl’s expertise in the field of needlework and was often stitched at a “finishing” school (i.e., boarding and day school, academy, or seminary). Samplers began to take on specific appearances that came to be known as American traits in the early 1700’s pieces. A sampler became broader and shorter, even rectangular or square in shape. Some were broader than they were long. These changes presented quite a different look from the traditional band sampler.

A stitched border all around the piece was strictly an American touch that was noted by 1721. These new colony samplers, unlike the band sampler that was used as a pattern reference, were often framed or decorated with a ribboned edge and hung to enhance the barren walls of the colonists’ homes. It is at this point that samplers became a new “art” form. These pieces became treasured family heirlooms that were passed from generation to generation.

Special schools that gave only needlework instruction to young girls opened in some of the local towns. Ads were placed in local gazettes to advertise fine needlework techniques that were taught by these enterprising women. The classes were often a source of supplemental income for these women. In Remember the Ladies, authors DePauw and Hunt detail several of these ads. An advertisement that ran in the local paper in Williamsburg by a husband and wife indicated that the husband would instruct young men in the basic school curriculum while his wife would teach “all Kinds of Needle Work,” while making hats and bonnets. One mother and daughter advertised that the mother would provide midwife services while the daughter would run a boarding school that included the instruction of needlework. A woman in North Carolina offered to stitch or teach any type of needlework, clean teeth, implant false teeth, and prescribe cures for eye diseases as well as fevers.

Boarding and day schools were common in large cities, with seaports serving as some of the major sites. The earliest record of a noted school was around 1706 when Mary Turfrey advertised her school in a Boston periodical. Academies or seminaries were often affiliated with religious groups. Both the Moravians and the Quakers established schools in Pennsylvania that have provided us with fine and often innovative examples of needlework samplers. Quakers later established another school in New York and the Moravians established a school in Wachovia, North Carolina (now known as Winston-Salem) which is still in existence today on its original site. Both religious groups promoted education for the young girl so that she could become a productive, well-educated member of society-a principle that was not widely accepted throughout the colonies.

To be continued…