I enjoy a good mystery, crossword puzzles, and unraveling the story of a young needleworker’s life. Many needlework samplers provide good clues with a name, age, date of completion, and a location. And if you are incredibly lucky, they may include birthdate, family members, and a teacher’s name.
In the “olden” days in quest of the stitcher, I would flip through card catalogs, view reels of microfilm, and troop through cemeteries (I still do that!). There are definite clues to a sampler’s nativity—for example, extensive use of green and red thread might mean a Scottish origin; extremely tight stitching perhaps denotes a British origin; a particular Roman lettering and a pairing of birds labeled “An Emblem of Innocence” is almost definitely Quaker!
You can extend your knowledge by going to antique shows and museum exhibits and studying auction catalogs and the work of needlework scholars. Their research has multiplied what we know about the young women who created samplers. Look for articles and books by Glee Krueger, Betty Ring, Sue Studebaker, Sue Swan, and Gloria Allen, Trish Herr, Carol and Steve Huber, Kathy Staples, Kim Smith Ivey, Marti and Dan Campanelli, and the catalogs of Witney Antiques and Samplings compiled by Amy Finkel.
I make constant use of the website www.familysearch.org, administered by the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Other genealogical websites abound and are open 24 hours a day! Pajama time! Put in as much information as you can. But a cautionary tale, don’t assume that your “Harriet Johnson” is the first one you find. Overwhelming evidence must be obtained. I recently acquired the sampler of Harriet G. Johnson, worked in “Black Rock.” Well, it was purchased in Pennsylvania, and there is a Black Rock in Pennsylvania. Try as I might, however, no luck! Buffalo, New York? Tantalizing, but no. Ohio. Canada. England. Rabbit holes…
But I finally think I have found Harriet G. Johnson, daughter of Robert and Esther Geer Johnson of Middletown, Connecticut. There is a Black Rock, Connecticut, a suburb of Bridgeport, about forty miles from Middletown. Girls were instructed in the polite accomplishments at female academies and private homes. It is conceivable that Harriet was sent away, perhaps instructed by/staying with relatives.
Born October 25, 1817, Harriet Geer Johnson married Azro D. Merrifield, October 5, 1842. Ultimately, Azro, Harriet, and their three sons relocated to California. He worked for the San Francisco Waterworks. Harriet’s sampler is skillfully rendered with a double strawberry border. I think it is a fit, but I would like to find a similar sampler made in Black Rock.
Some needleworkers are much easier. The sampler of Salome Stemm names “Germantown” as her home, a suburb of Philadelphia. That was a quick find: Salome was born October 27, 1810, in Germantown, the daughter of John and Margaret Stemm. January 15, 1832, she married William Reiff (1803–1871), the son of Benjamin and Anna Nancy Reiff. William and Salome are buried in the Wentz United Church of Christ Cemetery, Montgomery County.
Whether easy to find or abysmally difficult, the thrill of the hunt can be an engaging pastime as you unravel the threads of history. Happy sampler sleuthing!
Some Good References for your Needlework Sleuthing
Allen, Gloria Seaman. A Maryland Sampling: Girlhood Embroidery, 1738–1860. Baltimore, Maryland: Maryland Historical Society, 2007.
Allen, Gloria Seaman. Columbia’s Daughters: Girlhood Embroidery from the District of Columbia. Baltimore, Maryland: Chesapeake Book Company, 2012.
Allen, Gloria Seaman and Cynthia Shank Steinhoff. Delaware Discoveries: Girlhood Embroidery, 1750–1850. Baltimore, Maryland: Chesapeake Book Company, 2019.
Bolton, Ethel Stanwood and Eva Johnston Coe. American Samplers. Boston, Massachusetts: The Massachusetts Society of the Colonial Dames of America, 1921, reprinted by Weathervane Books, 1973.
Brooks, Mary Uhl. Threads of Useful Learning: Westtown School Samplers. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Westtown School, 2015.
Campanelli, Dan and Marty. A Sampling of Hunterdon County Needlework: the motifs, the makers & their stories. Flemington, New Jersey: Hunterdon County Historical Society, 2013.
Edmonds, Mary Jaene. Samplers & Samplermakers: An American Schoolgirl Art 1700–1850. New York: Rizzoli International Publications for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991.
Finkel, Amy et al. Samplings: A Select Offering of Antique Samplers and Needlework. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: M. Finkel & Daughter, 1992–2016.
Herr, Patricia T. “The Ornamental Branches”: Needlework and Arts from the Lititz Moravian Girls’ School, Between 1800 and 1865. Virginia Beach, Virginia: The Donning Company/Publishers, 1996.
Hersh, Tandy and Charles. Samplers of the Pennsylvania Germans. Birdsboro, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania German Society, 1991.
Huber, Stephen and Carol. Miller’s Samplers How to Compare & Value. London: Octopus Publishing Group, 2002.
Huber, Stephen and Carol, compilers. The Sampler Engagement Calendars, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003. East Lyme, Connecticut, and Old Saybrook, Connecticut: S & C. Huber, 1991–2002.
Humphrey, Carol. Quaker School Girl Samplers from Ackworth. Pontefract, West Yorkshire, England: Needleprint & Ackworth School Estates Limited, 2006.
Ivey, Kimberly Smith. In the Neatest Manner: The Making of the Virginia Sampler Tradition. Austin, Texas: Curious Works Press for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997.
Krueger, Glee F. A Gallery of American Samplers: The Theodore H. Kapnek Collection. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1978.
Krueger, Glee F. New England Samplers to 1840. Sturbridge, Massachusetts: Old Sturbridge Village, 1978.
LaBranche, John F. and Rita F. Conant. In Female Worth and Elegance: Sampler and Needlework Students and Teachers in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 1741–1840. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: The Portsmouth Marine Society, 1996.
Lukacher, Joanne Martin. Imitation and Improvement: The Norfolk Sampler Tradition. Redmond, Washington: In the Company of Friends, LLC, 2013.
Raiselis, Tara Vose and Leslie L. Rounds. “Industry and Virtue Joined”: Schoolgirl Needlework of Northern New England. College Station, Texas: Virtualbookworm Publishing Company, 2015.
Ring, Betty. Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers & Pictorial Needlework, 1650–1850, Volumes I & II. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Ring, Betty. Sotheby’s Important American Schoolgirl Embroideries: The Landmark Collection of Betty Ring. New York: Sotheby’s Auction House Catalog, January 22, 2012.
Ring, Betty. Let Virtue Be a Guide to Thee: Needlework in the Education of Rhode Island Women, 1730–1830. Providence, Rhode Island: The Rhode Island Historical Society, 1983.
Schiffer, Margaret B. Historical Needlework of Pennsylvania. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968.
Schoelwer, Susan Prendergast. Connecticut Needlework, Women, Art, and Family. Hartford, Connecticut: Connecticut Historical Society, 2010.
Staples, Kathy. Georgia’s Girlhood Embroidery: “Crowned with Glory and Immortality.” Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 2015.
Stephens, Joan. The Joan Stephens Collection: Important Samplers and Pictorial Needlework. New York: Sotheby’s Auction House Catalog, January 19, 1997.
Studebaker, Sue. Ohio is my Dwelling Place: Schoolgirl Embroideries 1800–1850. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2002.
Swan, Susan Burrows. Plain & Fancy: American Women and Their Needlework, 1650–1850. Austin, Texas: Curious Works Press, 1995.
Witney Antiques, Exhibition Catalogs www.witneyantiques.com.
Gary W. Parks is the executive director of the Lycoming County Historical Society, Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and an avid sampler collector.