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Girlhood Embroidery

Samplers at Pilgrim Hall Museum
by Peggy M. Baker, Director & Librarian
Pilgrim Society & Pilgrim Hall Museum
An exhibit sponsored by Mayflower Realty, May 2003

There are two ways of knowing the distant past. One is through the written record. The other is through artifacts, or the tangible remains left behind by our predecessors.

The women of Plymouth Colony are, for the most part, undocumented in the official records. Consequently, their lives, their concerns, their thoughts, and their aspirations are largely lost to us.  And while we find a few (very few) women writers as we progress into the 18th century, they are rarities and not representative of most women.

As a result, we must place even greater reliance and greater value on the artifacts of the women in order to understand their lives.
We have a number of "women’s artifacts" at Pilgrim Hall Museum. They include cradles, cooking utensils, tableware, a beaver hat, the portrait of Penelope Winslow and the portrait of Elizabeth Paddy Wensley. All these artifacts relate directly to women, but they were all made by men. The only artifacts at Pilgrim Hall that were made by women are textiles - a beaded purse, an embroidered tabletop --  and samplers.

Of the three, the samplers are probably the most significant – representing, as they do,

  • a form of art,
  • a form of education,
  • a form of pastime that endured for several centuries and which, through its evolution, can be examined for evidence of the changes in women’s lives.

Samplers appear in Europe in the early 16th century as "reference books" of stitches and designs. As books of patterns appeared, the sampler’s importance as a reference began to lessen and its importance as a showpiece to display excellence and versatility in needlecraft began to grow. By the 17th century, the needle arts were part of the formal education of English girls and samplers were serving a dual purpose as both reference and showpiece.

Samplers were generally worked in colored silks on linen. Early samplers are long and narrow, with random designs.

The first step in the evolution of the sampler, beginning in the mid-16th century, was the designs being worked, not randomly, but in bands. The next step saw the introduction of signatures and rhymes. It is at this point that the American sampler story begins.
The first American-made sampler is the sampler embroidered by Loara Standish.

The 17th century: Loara Standish

The first American-made sampler is that embroidered by Loara Standish.

Loara was the daughter of Mayflower passenger Myles Standish and Barbara Standish. One of seven children, Loara was born sometime after 1627 and grew up with her family in Duxbury, in Plymouth Colony, across the harbor from the original Plymouth settlement.

Plymouth Colony was a young community. In 1627, there were 60 children and teenagers. Some of these children were being taught by Mrs. Margaret Hicks, but no record of a formal school survives. We do not know who taught Loara her alphabet or her embroidery. We do know, from the quality of her sampler, that she was taught by a needlewoman of considerable ability, perhaps her mother, perhaps a neighbor.

A legend says that Loara stitched the sampler while sitting in the doorway awaiting the return of a lover, lost at sea. The lover is undoubtedly the result of a later highly romantic imagination, but the doorway rings true. In the 17th century, needleworkers depended on natural light to produce fine handwork - windows were few and small and houses were very dark.

Loara Standish died before her father Myles. He made a formal request in his will, written in March of 1655/56, to be buried beside her:

if I Die att Duxburrow my body to bee layed as neare as Conveniently may bee to my
two Daughters Lora Standish my Daughter and Mary Standish my Daughter in law...


Loara’s sampler went to her brother Josiah and descended in his family until its 1844 donation to Pilgrim Hall Museum.

The sampler is long and narrow, measuring approximately 23 1/2" high x 7 1/4" wide. measuring approximately 23 1/2" high x 7 1/4" wide. It shows the first two steps in the evolution of samplers, its motifs are in bands and it has a signed verse. The verse reads:

Loara Standish is my name
Lord guide my heart that I may do thy will
Also fill my hands with such convenient skill
As may conduce to virtue void of shame
and I will give the glory to thy name

Some of the stitches that Loara used include the long-armed, Montenegrin cross-stitch, double running stitch, back stitch, Algerian eye stitch. There are many combinations of stitches which we can no longer attach to names.

Loara used stylized motifs – an acorn, a rose, a carnation, and an intertwined "s." The sampler material is a fine linen (approximately 50 count) and it is embroidered with a diversity of silk thread.  Loara’s color palette included blues, greens, pink and a now-faded red.

Click here for additional images of the Loara Standish sampler.

18th century samplers at Pilgrim Hall Museum

During the 18th century, the shape of samplers changed as they became less long and narrow.

The bands moved to the sides of the sampler and served as borders. Motifs now included alphabets, numerals and even whole scenes. Verses became an even more prominent element. Stitchery became simplified, there was a much heavier reliance on cross stitch.

As New England women taught their daughters how to embroider, distinct regional American styles developed. American colonies were often closer in touch with England than with each other, so these regional variations are noticeable. One characteristic shared by the American colonies, was a greater spontaneity and tolerance for their young daughters’ errors. Colonial samplers were also developing a more naturalistic style than the formal English samplers.

Click here for Elizabeth Brewster & her sampler, early 1700s.

Click here for Elizabeth Gouch & her sampler, 1738.

Click here for Grace Cobb & her sampler, 1794.

19th century samplers at Pilgrim Hall Museum

After the American Revolution, academies for young women become widespread. One of the foremost accomplishments taught at these academies was needlework. Samplers were produced under the watchful eye of a teacher. The format of the sampler was up to the individual schoolmistress and the more decorative samplers were the product of more ambitious and more "social" schools.

Betsey Ellis Hutchinson sampler, 1831

Education, in the 19th century, was neither free nor a "right" – it was valued as a privilege and women were proud of their achievements. Parents were very anxious for their daughters to be, and to be SEEN to be, well-mannered and accomplished. A girl’s future marriage and her economic well-being could depend on her acceptance into society. For this reason, all private academies would have their girls produce fine samplers.

Click here for Rebekah Rider and her sampler, 1820

Click here for Betsey Ellis Hutchinson and her sampler, 1831, and the Plymouth school of needlework

Click here for Saba Cushman and her sampler, 1832


During the 1830s, Catherine Beecher spearheaded a movement to raise the status of women by improving their education.  The curriculum at Beecher’s school for young women in Cincinnati was extremely ambitious. The required course of study for the freshman class, as outlined in Sarah Josepha Hale’s Ladies Magazine for 1833, included reading, writing, spelling, composition, botany, mineralogy, geology, natural history, geography, arithmetic, geometry, history, grammar and philosophy. Fine needleworking was no longer a focus of this academic curriculum. If skills above and beyond the purely academic were desirable for social advancement, French and music (but not embroidery) were offered as electives.
Even for the less educationally ambitious, the time-consuming elaborate and well-executed sampler was falling out of favor. Popular author Lydia Maria Child, in her Girl’s Own Book of 1838 wrote: "Embroidery. This is nearly out of fashion; and I am glad it is : for it is a sad waste of time."  Lydia was not quite as fierce as she sounds. She thought it wise for small girls to learn plain sewing and simple, easy types of decorative stitchery.

She was, however, much more concerned that girls should spend time playing out in the fresh air and acquiring, through games and recreational pastimes, a variety of skills that would enrich their lives.

As these educational and recreational changes became commonplace, the popularity of samplers plummeted.  By 1840, the "Golden Age" of American samplers came to a close.

For additional information about samplers, we recommend:
Betty Ring.  Girlhood embroidery : American samplers & pictorial needlework 1650-1850.  New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Ethel Stanwood Bolton and Eva Johnston Coe.  American Samplers.  New York : Dover Publications, 1973.  (Originally published in 1921.)
Rozsika Parker.  The subversive stitch : embroidery and the making of the feminine.  New York : Routledge, 1984.

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