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American Schoolgirl Samplers

Author Rita Smith
Air Date 11/3/2003

When I was young
and in my prime
Here you may see
How I spent my time.

This typical sentiment was carefully stitched in the center of an embroidery sampler by young Sarah Pelham in November, 1803. For 200 years, beginning in about 1650, making samplers, squares or rectangles of linen embellished with patterns of embroidery worked in silk threads, was the joy or bane of many a young American schoolgirl.

Most samplers were made not at home, but in the private boarding and day schools that daughters of wealthier families attended. The school mistress designed the samplers, and then marked the designs on the linen. The child did not alter the design in anyway, but simply followed the markings and instruction of the teacher.

Simple samplers executed by the youngest girls, age 5-8, were called markers, and consisted of an alphabet and the numbers 1 – 10, often stitched within a border of geometric figures. This exercise not only taught the child her letters and numbers, but also taught her how to stitch letters onto cloth, a practical skill since family names were often stitched into clothing as well as on other household linens.

Older girls made more elaborate samplers which included embroidered pictures of animals, flowers, geometric shapes, stylized urns and houses, and human figures. Some of these contained verses and sayings on love, death, friendship, and family. Toward the end of the 18th century, map samplers were popular and later genealogy samplers appeared, with a picture of a tree and long lists of family members with their birth dates.

The earliest known American-made sampler is displayed in the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth Massachusetts. It was created by Loara Standish, daughter of Captain Myles Standish, probably during her teen years. After 1850 sampler making declined rapidly. Other forms of creative expression, such as drawing and painting, became more popular. Indelible inks became available, making the marking of clothing and other domestic textiles with cross stitched threads obsolete and women who continued to do needle work switched to using woolen yarns on a heavy linen canvas, which was more fashionable..

But sampler embroidery had served generations of American schoolgirls well. It taught them letters and numbers, and the practical skill of embroidery, and kept them busy, an important virtue as expressed in this sampler verse: Behold this early sampler may show readers at a future day that I was taught before too late all sorts of idleness to hate.

Bolton, Ethel Stanwood and Eva Johnston Coe. American Samplers. New York: Weathrvane Books, 1973.

Edmonds, Mary Jane. Samplers & Samplermakers; an American Schoolgirl Art 1700-1850. New York: Rizzoli International Publications. 1991.

Posted in Art