Little House in the Big Woods- A look into the history of American Samplers

“Little girls had to sit in the house and stitch on samplers” pg. 96

American samplers adapted from the English and Dutch migrations to the New World.  These early works were literal samp-cloths or examplars which were a recording of various stitch styles and patterns. “In an age when paper was scarce and books were scarcer, the logical way for a woman to remember an interesting pattern or stitch was to copy it on her own sampler”. (Grow and McGrail, 13) What started basically a cloth notepad to track all those amazing stitches you came across would slowly morph into an art into it’s own right. 16th century samplers began to display the stitcher’s name, narrow in dimension and repeat patterns. Finally as English settlers descended into the colonies 17th century samplers lost all reference value and displayed decorative motifs that previously were random at best.  These narrow samplers could easily be used on households linens or clothing. The 18th century would see the slow transition between narrow to the square samplers we now traditional think of.  Because of the time invested into creating these pieces between household chores and the ease of portability samplers were a wonderful way to remember family and friends as migration went from across the ocean to across the mountain ranges.

As America expanded from the shores of the east coast into new frontiers and as new cultures immigrated throughout the 18th century samplers began to cultivate a uniquely American style. Design elements widened to include pictorial, borders, architecture, darning, maps, mathematics, and alphabets. Educational materials creeping into samplers has created a misconception that these were used in female schools to teach young woman.  How oh how could these delicate vessels learn to read? Given the hardship of an ocean crossing and raising a family in cold, hungry New England why does the idea persist of woman as illiterate witches? These woman were colonial rock stars. Children over the age of six could traditionally read prior to admittance to colonial schools and young woman, 12 or 13, working on samplers would have been reading for years. “A far more reasonable explanation for the existence of the alphabet sampler can be found in one of the practical functions of embroidery itself. A model for embroidered numbers and letters of the alphabet was an essential part of a young girl’s education-someday she would be a housewife who would have to embroider identification marks on valuable household linens. All articles of personal clothing-as well as sheets, pillow covers and towels-were carefully marked and numbered so that they could be counted and checked regularly. We can get some idea of how precious household linen was considered by looking at the care with which it was enumerated in old wills and household inventories; and we can get some idea of why it was so precious by reading a description of the labor that was necessary to produce a yard of linen cloth.” (Grow and McGrail, 25)

Through repeated design elements in samplers between settlements you can see communication and migrations patterns.  The original telephone game involved silk thread and linen it turns out. Isolated communities’, due to religion or geography, samplers look vastly different then their urban counterparts who benefited from girl’s boarding schools and seminaries. Repetition could be traced through students in specific schools in New England returning home and teaching their own pupils or families stitches. Simply through studying these early American samplers an economic and social timeline emerges outside of the few remaining written correspondence preserved. From frontier colonists to established American families you can trace the emerging economic climate of the United States. As well as view which early communities favored isolation. “…because the Pennsylvania-Germans purposefully isolated themselves from other cultural influences, continuing to follow the older patterns and customs not only in sampler design, but in all aspects of folk decoration. The Jewish-American girls, unlike their Pennsylvania-German counterparts, were located primarily in urban areas. Their samplers were made in the prevailing style of the time and place” (Grow and McGrail, 39)  1840-1850 saw the slow decline of American design. Germany, Berlin specifically, began producing exacting designs patterns with increases in shading and increased threads used. It was only the nostalgia of the Centennial Exposition in 1876 that one saw the reproduction of earlier styles. Patriotic patterns also began circulating with holes already punched out on heavy paper for wool embroidery.  I believe we can thus trace the original hipster to 1876. Early American styles were just so much cooler then the industrialized  punched design…and that my friends is how Brooklyn was founded. The first “I liked it before it went mainstream” was said with a sigh following a flip of the bonnet and log cabin coffee shops sprang from the ether. -story of Brooklyn may be based on passing thoughts and not actual facts

Laura Ingalls was born on February 7th, 1867 in Pepin, Wisconsin. In Little House in the Big Woods it’s Ma who remarks to Laura how much easier quiet Sundays are now compared to the story Pa tells of a Sunday misadventures involving a pig, a sled and a thrashing. “It was harder for little girls.  Because they had to behave like little ladies all the time, not only on Sundays. Little girls could never slide downhill, like boys. Little girls had to sit in the house and stitch on samplers” pg. 96. Pa’s father, Lansford Ingalls, was born in Canada whose family was originally from England and settled with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Ma’s mother, Charlotte Quiner, was born in Massachusetts in 1809 whose own mother emigrated from Scotland. The female history on both sides of the family would have had a long history into American samplers design and execution.  What motifs would Caroline Ingalls remember as part of her childhood?  How frequently were new designs shared with her family during childhood and by whom?

As for me, it’s going to be difficult to look at sampler now at an auction and not see the design, economics and industry behind each piece.

Research included in this blog included a amazing book I found tucked away at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon. Grow, Judith K., and Elizabeth C. McGrail. Creating Historic Samplers. Princeton: Pyne, 1974. Print


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