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American samplers - that choice bit of Americana all too often brushed off as "schoolgirl embroidery" - are about to bask in the spotlight. Not only does this branch of needlework represent a charming and authentic folk art but, in its way, it also serves as a socio-historical guide for life in America from late in the seventeenth century to the mid-1900s.

Most collections feature a huge variety of themes, quality, schools, teachers and locations. All antique Samplers are excellent points of reference for serious scholars and collectors interested in American samplers for their craftsmanship and historical value - and for the public as well.

Samplers - the word derives from ‘exemplum’, lit. "that which is taken out," from Greek ‘eximere’ "take out, remove" or pattern - originated in western Europe, where as far back as the early sixteenth century girls and women carefully worked their repertory of stitches onto long pieces of plain woven material. Some countries - England, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Scandinavian nations among them - produced their own distinctive types of samplers, but it was primarily the English sampler that rooted itself in nascent American culture. From those beginnings, the native American sampler evolved and flourished from the late seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century

In the 1840s, however, the art did begin to wane. Society changed, and needlework was no longer re-garded as an essential in a young girl's education. The arrival of patterned Berlin woolwork, too, helped put an end to the production of fine samplers. Reduced to simple terms, Berlin woolwork consisted of predesigned patterns embroidered for amusement, not for the sake of learning, as with so many samplers. And by the 1860s, synthetically dyed wools, in an array of vivid colors, eclipsed the colorful but old-fashioned home-dyed materials used in samplers, and the tedious, time-consuming art that had kept young women busy almost two centuries came to an end.

The main purpose of making a sampler was instructional. Practicing on a light ground of single-weave linen, cotton, wool or silk, sometimes attached to an embroidery frame, the girls were expected to master all kinds of stitches that they could refer to years later when they might be doing practical needlework - marking linens for their trousseau, for example, or embroidering fine silk mourning pictures in memory of some dear departed. This was the theory, but in fact some samplers were so beautiful that parents tucked them away as heirlooms or framed them.

The shapes of samplers, and the kinds of stitches used in them, help the experts date them. Early samplers, from the seventeenth century, usually have rows of cross-stitched alphabets and numbers, decorative motifs such as flowers, birds and assorted geometric patterns, the name of the maker, the date and sometimes the name of her hometown, and perhaps a pious verse. Because the standard looms of the day wove linen to average widths of only seven to eight inches, the cloth is usually long and narrow, with needlework wrought in horizontal bands, like the famous one in Pilgrim Hall at Plymouth, Massachusetts, by Captain Miles Standish's daughter, Loara, or the one by Sarah Stone. In the eighteenth century and up through 1835 or so, samplers became plentiful - in all colors, styles, types and levels of craftsmanship. Looms widened, too, and now samplers could be square, or any rectangular shape. Bright colors were now the rule, though earth tones of brown, ochre and gray did exist. Alphabets and numbers were still popular but were often parts of grander designs, with elaborate inscriptions and borders, and Intricate, often original, pictures. They featured moralistic maxims, religious verses or sentimental poetry, and they were alive with people, animals, still lifes, landscapes, architecture and historical or Scriptural events. The verses often came from the Bible or Isaac Watts's ‘Divine and Moral Songs for Children’, published in 1720.

In America, samplers were generally produced at schools by ten- to thirteen-year-old girls from wealthy families. Yet many samplers bear the names and ages of children as young as five and six and others were made by poor city youngsters taught by women from charitable organizations. A few samplers were even worked by boys, apparently because the boys, along with girls, were given samplers to keep them occupied while the teachers were elsewhere. The idea that young girls got any formal education at all in the eighteenth century may seem surprising, but in fact a school for girls had been opened in Boston in 1706 by a Mistress Mary Turfrey, and a variety of schools was established thereafter. Whether the institution was a one-teacher, one-room "school" or a large live-in academy, the basic curriculum included needlework, along with reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic and geography.

The inculcation of moral fiber - sternly defined – in the pupils was of course an aim of such schools. There were church-run seminaries for girls, as well. One of them, the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, opened in 1749 and educated a great many females, including many from out-of-state and many non-Moravians. This school was especially noted for the ornate silk embroideries, often memorial pictures, wrought by its students. Thus, though girls may well have worked on their samplers at hearthside in their own homes, they also got their sampler lessons at school, for needlework was an inevitable - and sometimes dreaded - part of female education. From the mid-eighteenth century, mothers receded into the background as the source for needlework instruction.

The most elaborate samplers came out of eighteenth-century finishing schools: these works, often signed and dated, with even the name of the teacher or school appended, are the rarest and most valuable today. Among the illustrious teachers whose students produced distinctive samplers were the Misses Mary (Polly) Balch in Providence, Rhode Island; Sarah Stivours in Salem, Massachusetts; Mary Ann Smith in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the misleading Miss Patten in Hartford, Connecticut - misleading because Miss Patten really was three sisters, Sarah, Ruth and Mary. Susanna Rowson's Academy in Boston - she was an English actress and author of a novel ‘Charlotte Temple’ - also produced fine specimens.

The eighteenth-century schools were often run by Englishwomen - hence the strong English influence on American samplers. Indeed, it is hard to tell an early, undated, unsigned English sampler from a colonial American one. Many that were made in this country were worked on English canvas, with English thread and needle, with English motifs and under an Englishwoman's guidance; after all, the colonies were English until 1776. In fact, many English samplers today are being sold as American - the latter being the more valuable here. Most experts contend that the vast majority of samplers found in America are not American in origin. In fact, many samplers from England and Scandinavia are misconstrued as being American in origin. Ninety-eight percent of those samplers offered as Pennsylvania Dutch are from Germany, Bavaria, the Palatinate. A good American sampler is a rarity. The only way to sort out the English from the American is often a genealogical search, which can be long, expensive and inconclusive, even when the name of the maker and her hometown are stitched right onto the sampler. Local historical records may be scanty or nonexistent, a family may have moved often.

Among the most unusual types of samplers originate from the Pennsylvania Quaker schools - notably the Westtown School in Chester County - which are squares of linen worked in blocks with light-colored thread. They usually have the maker's name and the date, and possibly the name of her school; they are simple and geometric in design, for they were generally beginners' work. Figurative patterns may also appear on darning samplers, though this is primarily a European device.

Map samplers, never as popular here as in England, were usually worked on silk, sometimes even enhanced with watercolor. Samplers incorporating other media are not uncommon. For example, an early nineteenth-century work has a young girl with a paper face, watercolored; and stumpwork. Three-dimensional embroidery also exists, as well as such embellishments as human hair on the heads of some figures. Decorative ribbon and braid borders sometimes surround a sampler, especially certain Pennsylvania works. Family record or genealogical samplers, typical here rather than in England, usually included only two generations, or sometimes simply names, birthdates, well as numerals. Sometimes, even a multiplication table occurs and the maker's name and date. But they also often have birds, boats, trees and the like - "spot motifs," as they are called. The alphabets are usually cross-stitched or, occasionally, worked in an open eyelet stitch. One very rare sampler, in a private New York collection, has a Hebrew alphabet as well as a Roman one. Some of these have vbeen worked by new immigrants at the time and are otherwise totally American in character.

The rarest samplers of all are probably the miniatures, sometimes less than five inches square.

One of the most endearing qualities of sampler art is its sometimes naive sentiment and piety. Verses were stitched into samplers from the very earliest times, celebrating loyalty, industriousness, patience and other virtues that dutiful daughters were supposed to exhibit. Religious verse and imagery are also common, and quotations from Scripture and quaint apocryphal phrases (many from Isaac Watts's aforementioned volume) abound amidst renderings of flowers, people and landscapes. Some examples:

"In thy fair book of life divine
"My God inscribe this name
There let it fill some humble place
Beneath the slaughter 'd Lamb."

"Let virtue prove your never fading bloom
For mental beauties will survive the tomb."

"When this you see remember me
Though many miles apart
When I do see you once again
I will ease my troubled heart."

Biblical characters appear, too - Adam and Eve being the most popular. For example, a sampler dated 1748 and made in Boston, shows the two in the Garden of Eden with an assortment of animals and a verse at the top. Samplers with landscapes, genre scenes and architectural elements are among the finest pieces of American needlework of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, exemplifying stories, recording events, some are even photographic in intent - depicting a famous building, a landmark, a tavern, a mansion - even George Washington at the Battle of Trenton. A history of local architecture could almost be written from samplers.

For the beginning or aspiring collector, the best advice is first to get a solid background. Samplers are scarcer than they were a couple of decades ago: they seldom emerge from an old trunk these days, and those that do are quickly seized by dealers who know what they are worth and have buyers in tow. Visiting the outstanding sampler collections at museums is also a good idea, and a pleasure besides. Local historical societies may also own a few samplers.

But the major considerations for would-be collectors are price and general availability. A fine American sampler is a ‘ram avis’. Seventeenth-century and even most eighteenth-century works are seldom on the market, and even nineteenth-century samplers may go for steep prices, if they are authentic Americana of exceptional quality.

Not all samplers on the market are so expensive, of course. Nineteenth-century American ones, of varying quality, can be had for $200 to $800, though they may range up to $10,000. One eighteenth-century sampler recently changed hands for close to $15,000. “Even third-rate ones are bringing lots of money," said one dealer, who conceded that only "run-of- the-mill things are around - they're not very good."

Some dealers hope that the escalating prices will bring the finest old samplers back into the market. "What might have brought only $150 a few years ago," said a Connecticut dealer, "could easily bring double or triple that now." She believes that important samplers will undoubtedly be turning up in the marketplace in the next several years. Besides aesthetic appeal, the main thing to look for when buying a sampler is a name and date, bright color (original colors should still be visible on the reverse) and good condition - no stains, holes or unravelings. Though English samplers may sometimes be sold as American, outright fakes are rare.

The high art of American stitchery is most apparent, of course, in first-rate collections at major museums or fine Auction salesrooms. However, in even the most modest example of the young needlewoman's craft, there is something of an emotional appeal found on more high-end pieces. Who would have believed that little girls, often working in dim light and cramped quarters, perhaps under the merciless eye of a schoolmistress, using only thread and needle and their own imaginations, could create designs to delight a generation that dresses in synthetics and does everything by machine?

Preserving a Sampler

Most samplers on the market are framed, except for the rare heirloom unearthed in an attic. Even though the pressure of the glass may tend to wear a framed sampler down, it should probably be left as is. Framed samplers should be kept out of direct sunlight, direct incandescent light and even fluorescent light - unless an ultraviolet filter is used. Dampness, mold, rust and moths - all, of course, are enemies. So is glue. An original frame often has important markings - even, perhaps, the maker's name and should be examined.

Any old and valuable sampler should be trusted to an expert for cleaning. Museums will sometimes recommend antiques restorers, who may also be listed in the Yellow Pages, but some steps can be taken at home. An expert with the Department of Costumes and Textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, offers the following advice:

"First, check to see if the sampler is washable. You can do this by putting a drop of water onto a cotton swab, touching it to the colored threads, then touching a white blotter with the swab to see if the colors come off. If they do, don't wash it. "If it is washable, wash it by hand with mild soap or flakes - not detergent – using distilled water if possible. "If the sampler is not washable, you may put it through a solution of dry cleaning solvent available at most large department stores. Dry it between two or more white blotters. "Before washing, however, if you have a small hand vacuum cleaner or one with minimal suction, use it to remove loose dirt from the sampler. First, put the sampler, front down, onto a blotter, then cover it with a piece of screening (fiberglass or net) larger than the sampler itself. The screen prevents threads from being caught up by the vacuum cleaner." Don't try this if the sampler looks at all fragile. Samplers should not be mended or rethreaded, but a fine French silk net called crepeline can be put behind a hole.

Never iron or stretch a sampler. To reframe a sampler, take a 100 percent acid-free rag board mat (also called museum board) a bit larger than the sampler. Wrap the board with washed, unbleached muslin and slipstitch it in place. Then, with fine cotton thread in a shade matching the sampler ground, carefully slipstitch it to the muslin and frame it.

Old frames and old glass are highly desirable, but be sure to keep a breathing space between the sampler and the glass (put spacers at the corners). A new plain wooden frame and ultra-violet filtering Plexiglas are acceptable, but Plexiglas may buckle, warp or become fogay when cleaned.

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