SAMPLERS (Part 4): 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 summer 1993.

Numerous and complex sampler stitches were required to accomplish the variety of designs that needleworkers created. Sampler research by Glee Krueger shows that seventeenth-century stitches include cross stitch over two or four threads, long-armed cross, queen, detached buttonhole, hem stitch, eyelet, running, double running, satin, reticella lace techniques, drawn work with needleweaving and spider stitch, arrowhead, backstitch, and Montenegrin. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century samplers included herringbone, satin, surface satin, New England laid, Oriental, buttonhole, inverted or reverse buttonhole, encroaching satin, eyelet, split, back, flat, slanting Gobelin, speckling or seeing, rococo (queen), French knot bullion, chain, outline, stem, long and short, running, straight, tent, rice, couching, feather, Florentine, fly and ray stitch.

A great number of sampler styles have been identified by studying existing pieces. Styles are created by specific designs that are common to a group of samplers. Styles may be formed by the creation of an original design or by a combination of more than one existing design.

One of the earlier styles of samplers that came to be known as American in design was a combination of rows of verse between rows of patterns, similar to those found in the 1600’s band samplers. The entire sampler might then be surrounded by a border. This sampler was found in existence during the early 1700’s.

The pictorial sampler began to emerge around 1730. This sampler style allowed the stitcher to design a scene reminiscent of their home or family life. Proportions were not often accurate, but a viewer could easily note the meaning of the piece.

Another sampler that came into existence about the mid-eighteenth century was termed by Susan Swan as “a compartmental sampler.” It is easily recognized because the entire ground fabric is divided into either nine or twelve blocks. Each area is filled with a verse or design.

A few lacework samplers have survived from the mid 1700’s. Cutwork, needle lace and drawn work (also known as Dresden work) were combined to create one of our most interesting and delicate looking samplers. This work was especially common in Pennsylvania until the early 1800’s.

Darning samplers allowed a girl to demonstrate her skills in reproducing plain and twill weave after cuts were made in the ground fabric. This knowledge was useful when a woman needed to mend tears or holes in worn pieces of clothing. These samplers were prominent in the 1780’s.

Map samplers are rarely seen, but one early example of France was stitched by a young girl in Rhode Island in 1775. Other samplers of this style were noted in the late 1700’s. Terrestrial globes, worked with silk thread outlines on silk fabric, were a unique ball-shaped map found to have been worked from 1810-1820 in Pennsylvania. These samplers were worked by students who had completed a basic and advanced sampler. The globe was considered an easy project for the student as the words and designs were drawn on the silk fabric and then threads were wrapped around the globe and couched to hold them in place.

Around 1770-1790, three sampler styles were prominent. According to Gloria Allen in a 1989 DAR publication, the fully developed genealogical sampler emerged in the 1770’s, but as early as 1730, a few samplers began to include family information, particularly the initials of the family members. The 1770’s style recorded names, births, marriages, and deaths in families with these lists often surrounded by lovely flowers or pictorial scenes. Symmetrically balanced scenes with houses, as well as samplers that were highlighted by center ovals, framed by floral swags and inscriptions along the bottom completed the group of pieces that were known to have been produced at the end of the eighteenth century in America.

In 1818-1830, three new samplers became apparent in America. Samplers depicting houses, asymmetrically set-in design, and another type enhanced with large fruit baskets and verses were styles common in Philadelphia. Around 1830, the color-coded charts from Germany came on the market to begin a form of samplers known as Berlin work. Pieces were traditionally worked with wool yarns and the sampler experienced a new look.

After 1830, the nation began facing incredible, fast-paced change. The industrial revolution was on the heels of all Americans. It was an era that would benefit travel, mechanization, and modernization to the point that women would dare to be better educated, take on work outside the home, and change the course of the family’s prior status. It is evident that the needle arts would suffer as is witnessed through a sharp decline in the number of samplers that were created after this period.

Many other types of samplers have been documented through time, but their styles are few in number and they are scattered in locale. This would tend to indicate that these pieces are “original” in design, copied from other samplers or periodicals, or the stitcher was enrolled under a teacher that was well versed in the needlearts, but failed to remain with the instructor for a long period of time. Contrary to earlier beliefs, some females traveled great distances within the colonies. This would account for some examples of samplers being scattered. Acrostics (samplers that use the author’s name to create a verse, with each letter of the name serving as the first letter of each sentence of the verse), multiplication tables, and advanced variations of the marking sampler, as well as those that were influenced by imported samplers or periodicals, tend to be routinely available.

In early America, where luxury items were few and the stamina and will of the body and soul were strong, women took great pride in their stitching. Whether these pieces were used as a means to add a decorative warmth to the often cold and dull interiors, the sampler has given us an insight into the creativity of women who helped establish our country. They have provided us with a wealth of knowledge and a rich heritage in the needlearts.

Selected Bibliography

  • Allen, Gloria Seaman. Family Record: Genealogical Watercolors and Needlework. Washington, D.C.: DAR Museum, 1989.
  • Bolton, Ethel Stanwood and Eva Johnson Coe. American Samplers. New York: Weathervane Books, 1973.
  • DePauw, Linda Grant and Conover Hunt. Remember the Ladies: Women in America, 1750-1815. New York: Viking Press in association with the Pilgrim Society, 1976.
  • Earle, Alice Morse. Home Life in Colonial Days. New York: Grosset & Dunlop, 1898. Reprint, Massachusetts: The Berkshire Traveller Press, 1974.
  • Griffin, Frances. Less Time for Meddling: A History of Salem Academy and College, 1772-1866. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1979.
  • Krueger, Glee F. A Gallery of American Samplers: The Theodore H. Kapnek Collection. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1978. Reprint, New York: Bonanza Books, 1984.
  • Krueger, Glee F. New England Samplers to 1840. Sturbridge, Massachusetts: Old Sturbridge, Inc., 1978.
  • Old Salem, Inc. A Laudable Example for Others: The Moravians and Their Town of Salem. Dept. of Education and Interpretation: Winston Salem.
  • Ring, Betty. American Needlework Treasures: Samplers and Silk Embroideries from the Collection of Betty Ring. New York: E.P. Dutton in association with the Museum of American Folk Art, 1987.
  • Sebba, Anne. Samplers: Five Centuries of a Gentle Craft. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1979.
  • Spruill, Julia Cherry. Women’s Life and Work in the Southern Colonies. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1938. Reprint, New York: W.W. Norton, 1972.
  • Swan, Susan Burrows. A Winterthur Guide to American Needlework. New York: Crown Publishers, 1976.
  • Swan, Susan Burrows. Plain & Fancy: American Women and Their Needlework, 1770-1850. New York: Hold, Rinehart, and Winston, 1977.
  • Recent Discoveries About Philadelphia Samplers” ANTIQUES, Vol. CXXXVI, No. 6, December 1989, 1334-1343.
  • Synge, Lanto. Antique Needlework. United Kingdom: Blandford Books, Ltd., 1982.