Stitches in Time
By: Hannah Brevoort
If you’re anything like us, you’re always searching for an answer to the eternal question: how can I make history relevant to students? Here at the Ohio History Center, while we think all of our collections are relevant and exciting (we’re nerds), some collections are easier to connect to a student than others. Our sampler collection is one of those.
Part of what keeps our samplers relevant is their makers. The samplers in our collection, most dating to between 1780 and 1850, were created by girls aged 6 to 15. This is an age group your students may not encounter a lot in their history textbook, but one of which they’re probably a part! Well-educated young women and girls created samplers to hone their embroidery skills, necessary in their adult life, to practice their letters and numbers and to show off their talents and moral values to potential suitors visiting their home. Like art students make today, samplers were often hung on the walls of girls’ homes! We know the women and girls who made samplers were well-educated and likely wealthy because they had the time to not only go to school but also work on embroidery projects. Both their education and embroidery projects, however, were meant to serve them in the domestic sphere. These women and girls needed to know how to read and write numbers and letters to that they could create monogrammed garments and linens and keep track of them. Displaying samplers on the walls of their family homes was a modest way to advertise a girl’s suitability for marriage.
Even your craftiest students will likely be impressed by the workmanship shown in our samplers. Samplers could take weeks or even months to complete, and girls would need to know multiple complex patterns.
We even have samplers that are unfinished or contain mistakes! A common problem was running out of room for the sentence you were trying to include on your sampler. In many cases, girls would either abbreviate words to save room, or simply continue the sentence up the side of the sampler. These mistakes help make the samplers come to life, as we can imagine the girls laboring over them to practice their embroidery. All of us know what it’s like to work hard on something only to make a mistake, and it’s interesting to know people of the past were no different!
Sometimes we’re very lucky and the samplers have personal stories attached. The sampler by Eliza Sockman, pictured above, only contains a partial date, “18—.” This sampler was donated by Ms. Sockman’s great-granddaughter in 1953, and according to her Eliza had completed the date but picked out the last two numbers so a potential suitor wouldn’t know how old she was. It’s interesting to learn a little about Eliza through this anecdote – what she valued and what she worried about. This also tells us that Eliza’s sampler would have been displayed in her home for the benefit of suitors.
Our sampler collection is a great way to learn about children and teenagers of the past. Most students will probably connect to the samplers and their makers in some way, whether it’s the hard work and creativity that goes into creating a work of art, or even their horror at having to create something so complicated at such a young age. Whatever their reaction, this collection helps make history come alive.
Because our samplers are old, delicate and sensitive to light, they’re not on constant public display. You can bring your students to see them by scheduling a Guided Experience.
School field trips and group visits to the Ohio History Center can be scheduled through email at [email protected] or call 614.297.2663 or 800.686.1541
Discussion Question (1st-3rd Grade):
Families of the past often hung samplers on their walls. What sorts of things do your family hang on the walls of your home? How are those things similar to and different from samplers?
Discussion Question (9th-12th Grade):
Samplers were used to advertise a girl’s suitability for marriage. How is hanging a sampler on a wall similar and different to how people pursue dating and marriage today?