American Samplers

Ann Yale Hopkins was said to be sick of mind.  She claimed that girls should have educational opportunities equal to that of boys.  Puritan leader and first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, wrote of Mrs. Hopkins in his Journal, April 13, 1645: "If she had attended her household affairs, and such things as belong to woman, and not gone out of her way and calling to meddle in such things as proper for men, whose minds are stronger, she would have kept her wits, and might have improved them usefully and honorably in the place God had set her."

These dark notions prevailed for many years. Following the Revolution, led by progressive thinkers like Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and Britisher - Mary Wollstonecraft, a ray of dawn came to American. New attitudes about female education and woman's role in society were introduced.  Dress was liberalized. Hobbling corsets and petticoats were set aside for freer clothes. It became accepted that woman could travel without a male companion.  In this era of flickering enlightenment, tiny girl's schools expanded into large Seminaries and Academies. 

The tradition of making a sampler flowered within their walls, greatly accelerating a decorative trend that began in Boston and a few other areas some years earlier. The long standing British type of wall hanging, inspired by German and Italian needle pattern books, was augmented by works of art. In this foremost of all school projects, young woman began to be encouraged by their schoolmistresses to demonstrate not just a mastery hem, cross, and eyelet stitching, but to employ their thread as the artist brushes on his paint.

One such teacher was Miss Mary Balch, who, before she was twenty-three, established the first female Academy in Providence, Rhode Island around 1785 and continued there as dean until her death in 1831. Her students were the first in the country to add town buildings to their samplers.  Surviving examples from Mary's school are generally masterpieces of needlework color and design and are sought-after like great paintings.  A Providence "Statehouse" sampler sewn in 1788 by Balch School pupil, Rebecca Carter, hammered out at $192, 500, the year it turned two-hundred .

Common sampler designs of the Colonial and Federal years include one or several of the following elements: an alphabet-the J is often missing, numbers, a family record-sometimes depicted on a tree, a verse-often biblical, a pictorial scene, a map-although American map samplers are rare compared with English, a coat of arms, darning blocks of stitchwork, and pictorial embroideries on silk-most of which depict a mourning scene including weeping willow trees and a bereaved family beside a monument.

Of all antiques, memorial pictures are the ones from which most people shy away.  This is a shame, because these scenes of mourning are the crowning glory of American schoolgirl art, and one of the most tasteful and loving remembrances of our past. They are sad to look at sometimes. The monuments are normally inscribed with names from deceased members of student's family, frequently toddlers.  But, those were the times. Death was a common visitor.

It is noteworthy that no American schoolgirl memorial has been discovered that predates George Washington's death in 1799.  The event was such a blow to the nation that the President's image and tombstone were depicted everywhere; newspapers, prints, books, even on memorial wallpaper printed in Boston in 1800.  The image was so profound that it made its way into our school art.  When you see a beautiful silk memorial, don't shy away.  Think of a tribute to the most beloved of our presidents.  And think of young woman who were beginning to see themselves as more than seamstresses.  They were doves set free - soaring artists.

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