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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

American Needlework in the Eighteenth Century

In eighteenth-century America, a girl was expected to grow up, get married, have children, and take care of a home. Because of the limits of her sphere, a girl received a very different education from that available to a boy. Indeed, before the advent of public education in the mid-nineteenth century, in order to receive any education at all a boy or a girl had to be born into the middle or upper classes and have parents who valued education enough to pay for it. Usually, a boy would be taught traditional academic subjects, while a girl might be tutored in the barest rudiments of reading and arithmetic. Instead of academic studies, girls were usually sent to schools that taught an assortment of skills considered “female accomplishments”—music, watercolor painting, comportment, manners, and sewing.

As part of her preparation for the responsibility of sewing clothes and linens for her future family, most girls completed at least two samplers. The first, which might be undertaken when a girl was as young as five or six, was called a marking sampler (1993.100; 1984.331.6; 2010.356). Marking samplers served a dual purpose: they taught a child basic embroidery techniques and the alphabet and numbers. The letters and numbers learned while embroidering a marking sampler were especially useful, since it was important that any homemaker keep track of her linens, some of her most valuable household goods. This was accomplished by marking them, usually in a cross stitch, with her initials and a number.

Young girls made marking samplers either at home under the tutelage of their mother or grandmother, or at small community schools, called “dame schools” for the women—usually widows or spinsters—who ran them. The equivalent of today’s early years of elementary school, they were attended by both boys and girls. The children were taught reading and arithmetic, and in some cases both sexes participated in knitting, sewing, and sampler-making instruction. Although boys usually went on for further academic training, in many cases this was the only formal schooling a girl received.

A girl who was lucky enough to continue her education usually made a second embroidery at a ladies boarding school while she was in her adolescent years. This was usually a more decorative pictorial sampler (14.26; 1984.331.14; 1984.331.8; 1974.42; 1984.331.22; 44.113) or needlework picture (39.108.1; 46.155; 53.179.13; 36.28; 1999.271). While less straightforwardly useful than marking samplers, decorative samplers and needlework pictures also served an important function: they revealed the values of the girl and her family to potential suitors. The completed work was usually framed and hung in the parlor, proclaiming the maker’s obedience, patience, and skill. It also communicated that a girl’s parents were wealthy enough to send their daughter to school and that the family valued the arts of refinement. The verses found on many samplers reinforced these messages, emphasizing the importance of female virtue, the value of education, and obedience to one’s parents and to God. The acceptance of death and the remembrance of the dead, including the sampler maker herself, is another frequent theme. Girls usually signed their samplers, stitching their name, age, and the date the sampler was completed. These small bits of embroidered cloth are often all that remains to testify to the otherwise unrecorded lives of their makers.

Although most women did not make decorative embroideries after they married and became responsible for all the day-to-day sewing that was needed to keep their families clothed and provided with basic linens, some continued to make imaginatively patterned and colored embroidered textiles for their homes. The most common projects, especially in New England, were bedcoverings and bedhangings. These were usually sewn of a linen or linen/cotton blend fabric that was decoratively stitched with patterns of plants (33.122), flowers (61.48.1), and birds (59.20; 22.55) in brightly colored worsted wool. These designs imitated similar bedcoverings and hangings popular in England; the English embroideries looked to elaborately printed textiles from India for inspiration.

Another, much more rarely surviving example of household embroidery was upholstery covers for seating furniture; the Museum owns one completely embroidery-covered easy chair (50.228.3) and an embroidered chair back (2003.480). Projects like bedcovers or furniture upholstery could have been made by teenage girls who were preparing to be married, or by married women who were wealthy enough to have servants to complete household chores, thereby allowing them the leisure time in which to embroider. But in some cases, embroidered household textiles were actually “professionally made”: during the eighteenth century, talented embroiderers are known to have sewn for their neighbors in exchange for money or goods.