Social distancing got you in a crafty mood?
Needle working might not be as broadly practiced today, but in the 17th-19th centuries, young girls learned needle working soon after they began learning the alphabet, and quite often earlier than they learned to write. While many extant samplers appear to be worked by girls in their early teenage years, and perhaps a tad younger, curators and collectors have documented samplers worked by girls as young as four and five! Indeed, these young girls may have held a needle before they even held a pen—I’m not sure I would have been trusted with either at such a young age.
Regardless of their age, young girls who completed samplers showcased their command not only of the alphabet and numerals (as are often predominately displayed), but of their skills with a needle a thread. Mastering the art of the needle proved a basic life necessity at a time when, before the sewing machine, everything was made by the human hand. Samplers demonstrated a young girl’s skill and ability to enter into the domestic realm of young womanhood and provided a testament of her skills and status to potential suitors.
Four worked samplers in the collection of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation provide an interesting foray into this realm of young women’s lives.
Mildred Ragsdale’s sampler is the most rudimentary in the collection, probably owing to the fact that Mildred was just 9 years old when she completed it. Nonetheless, Mildred’s young fingers guided colored silk threads through the linen ground, resulting in upper case and lower case renderings of the alphabet, initials and a small heart before her declaration, “Mildred Ragsdale Was Born December 21 1791.” She also tells the viewer that she is “9 Years old.” While her sampler does not boast floral sprigs or elaborate architecture, Mildred has practiced a variety of stitches and certainly used her imagination and creativity with her color selection!
This sampler came into our collection with the attribution of having been worked in King William County, Virginia. In fact, like Mildred herself, this sampler is part of a family—Mildred’s survives in our collection, while a sampler made by her older sister Frances (b. 1784) belongs to the Valentine Museum, where it lives down the street from an undated sampler completed by the girls’ mother, Barbara Fox, housed at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. The three samplers are remarkably similar—all are alphabetical and include the maker’s name and birth date, along with initials of family members. In the case of Mildred’s sampler, we can see the initials “DBR” (her father Drury Ragsdale), “BR” (her mother Barbara Ragsdale), and “AR” (Mildred’s twin sister, Ann Ragsdale). Because of their similarity, it’s likely that the girls completed their samplers at home, perhaps using their mother’s as inspiration and a guide.
While Mildred probably completed her sampler at home, Elizabeth D. McIntosh worked her undated sampler “at Miss A Ware’s school.” In the 18th and early 19th centuries, families of means often sent their young daughters to schools for their basic education. Some of these schools were run by unmarried or widowed women like the aforementioned “Miss Ware.” After the American Revolution, a larger emphasis was placed on the role of female education to the successful development of the new republic, and more private schools and curriculums opened their doors to young women. In addition to needlework, knitting and other domestic skills, girls attending these schools learned reading, writing and an increasing array of academic subjects. Elizabeth’s sampler also shows evidence of other instruction to given to young girls—morality and virtues. Under her expertly worked alphabet (both script and print, and both upper and lower cases), the numerals 1-10, an ampersand and two hearts, Elizabeth worked the following verse:
Plant in thy breast Oh darling youth
The seeds of virtue love and truth.
They’ll bloom and charm when beauty fades,
And be a guard when death invades.
This verse is but one example of many worked by girls which taught that virtue and truthfulness were to be valued higher than physical beauty, which ultimately dissipates. Further, when one shuffles off their mortal coil, ’tis better to be remembered for one’s inward traits than one’s outward traits. Though undated, Elizabeth’s sampler is closely related to an example in a private collection. Thirteen-year-old Sarah Ann Hunt worked her sampler in 1818 in Providence, Rhode Island, and included a nearly identical verse.
Similar to virtue and morality, Lydia Clap’s sampler offers evidence of another theme young girls received in their education—religious instruction. Dated January 1, 1784, Lydia worked the alphabet in silk thread onto a natural linen ground, as well as trees and vegetation, and two structures—one appears to be a 5-bay, 2 ½ story house with two chimneys while the other, with its gable end facing the viewer, appears to have a small animal perched atop its roof.
The verse Lydia chose may be familiar:
From all that dwell below the skies
Let the Creator’s Praise arise
Let the Redeemer’s name be sung
Thro’ evry land by evry tongue.
This is, in fact, the first verse of the hymn “From All That Dwell below the Skies,” known today as No. 101 in The United Methodist Hymnal and sung by congregations in other denominations of the Christian church. Inspired by Psalm 117, Englishman and Calvinist Isaac Watts published the hymn in 1719 in his songbook Psalms of David Imitated, in the Language of the New Testament. Yet, how did young Lydia come to work this verse on her sampler?
By the time Lydia worked her sampler in 1784 in Dorchester (presumably, Massachusetts), Watts’ Psalms of David had been printed in many editions in London, Glasgow, and across the United Kingdom and saw wide use in the North American colonies. After the Revolution however, Americans read with distain Watt’s frequent allusions to Great Britain throughout his text. Thus citizens and churchgoers urged printers to edit a new version of Watts’ Psalms, removing references to Great Britain, kings, and the like. Printers and patriots raced to edit the text. According to musicologist Glenda Goodman, this flurry produced at least 75 different editions of Watts’ Psalms printed between 1781 and 1832. So in 1784, Lydia may have taken her inspiration from a very edited psalter!
In the years immediately following the Revolution, displays of patriotism stretched further than updated psalm books, as evidenced in this sampler worked by Ann Craft in 1797. Her sampler tells us that Ann was born on July 28, 1783—she would be just a few months old when delegates signed the Treaty of Paris to formally end the American Revolution. At the age of 14, Ann worked this sampler on the eve of another significant date in American history—the first peaceful transition of presidential power. Ann dated her sampler March 3, 1797—the last day of George Washington’s presidency. The very next day, Saturday, March 4, Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth administered the oath of office to the second president of the United States, John Adams.
It’s no surprise that Ann’s sampler would include, then, a short but thoughtful reflection on Washington’s legacy as hero of the American Revolution—the Commander in Chief had delivered a victory at Yorktown against formidable foe Cornwallis. Her verse reads:
Let Proud Cornwallis ben/d
the Knee Unto the
God of Victory Who Sna/
Tch the Laurels he had
Won And Gave them Up
The verse is actually one stanza in the poem “A Song of Praise to God from United America,” published in the October 1791 edition of The American Magazine, Or Universal Magazine, a monthly publication from Philadelphia. The poem’s inclusion in the October 1791 edition of the Magazine undoubtedly celebrates the 10th anniversary of Washington’s victory at Yorktown. However, David Tappan wrote the poem—or hymn, rather—in 1783, “composed for, and sung on the Occasion—and now published by desire” to celebrate the Treaty of Paris.
Whether Ann encountered the poem in the Magazine or in another form, her sampler joins a myriad others whose makers chose to include patriotic themes. Ann came of age at a defining era in which young women’s education became ideologically linked to the success of the American republic. If young women like Ann championed national origin stories and revered the values of republicanism and democracy, she would pass those values onto her own children who would, in turn, become model citizens of the republic. Revolutionaries like Benjamin Rush believed that educating women in the new values of the nation ensured the future of American democracy for generations to come. With this sampler hanging in pride of place in the Craft home, Ann signaled to her family (and potential suitors) her readiness for a new role as republican mother.
Through this examination of the 18th-century samplers in our collection, it’s clear that through the act of threading a needle, young women learned much more than how to stitch. Through needlework, young women learned knowledge passed down from mothers, exhibited their virtues and morality, received religious instruction, and prepared to instruct the next generation in republican ideology.
So if you’re feeling crafty, pick up a needle and thread—you never know what you might learn!
Katherine Egner Gruber
Special Exhibition Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
Ethel Stanwood Bolton and Eva Johnston Coe, American Samplers, The Massachusetts Society of the Colonial Dames of America, 1921.
Jodi Campbell, “Benjamin Rush and Women’s Education: A Revolutionary’s Disappointment, A Nation’s Achievement,” John & Mary’s Journal, Dickinson College, Number 13, 2000, accessed March 26, 2020: chronicles.dickinson.edu/johnandmary/JMJVolume13/campbell.htm
Glenda Goodman, “’It is now translated to America:’ British Hymns in the Revolutionary Era,” The Junto Group Blog on Early American History, accessed 3/25/20: earlyamericanists.com/2013/07/01/it-is-now-translated-to-america-watts-hymns-in-the-revolutionary-era/
Kimberly Smith Ivey, In the Neatest Manner: The Making of the Virginia Sampler Tradition, Curious Works Press & The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997.
American Samplers in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History: americanhistory.si.edu/collections/object-groups/american-samplers