By Brandon Emerson ’17

Understanding the lives of women in the 19th century is a difficult task. With little recorded information about their lives, much is left to speculation. At first glance samplers are simply stitchings of alphabets and shapes, often used to teach girls how to sew and embroider clothing at home, however, through the careful analysis much begins to be revealed about the lives of these seemingly obscure women.[1] The sampler crafted by Judith S. Mosher (N0140.1972) at the age of ten allows for a deeper understanding of the life she led and why she lived that way.

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Sampler, 1831, Judith S. Mosher, linen, silk, cotton, H:20.25in X W:18.25in, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Ella M. Stoddard, N0140.1972. Photograph of Richard Walker.

At a time when women began working in textile factories and society was shifting to a more manufactured goods based economy, Judith was still being trained in a very specific set of skills that would serve her in a life based around a traditional view of women in the home.[2] The detail in her sampler is tremendous. She went the route of crafting a family record of her household, complete with full names, birthdates, a verse, and a motif of a building. The sampler is a linen background with high amounts of silk embroidery with sparse amounts of cotton on the motif. The materials coupled with the size (20.25in by 18.25in) demonstrate a level of wealth and a high amount of time dedication because she was able to complete this daunting task rather than doing housework, typically necessary of low income families of the time period.[3] The neatness of the stitching on the sampler is indicative of a high level of skill which would be desirable to a potential husband.

Judith eventually married Thomas Potter, a merchant and manufacturer, with whom she settled in Rensselaer, New York by the year 1850. The census of 1850 also indicates a household value $16,000, one of the highest in the area, and a family size of seven children.[4] She went from being born into a seemingly wealthy family to marrying a man of wealth. Her sampler is the starting point for the discovery of her story and with that a look into the lives of women in the 18th century. While roles were beginning to shift, sampler making demonstrates traditional values that persevered through this evolving time. The stories of women like Judith provide a much needed look into the lives of the obscure and voiceless. Through careful study of artifacts, such as samplers, their voices can be heard and the historical record expanded.

[1] Lynne Anderson, Samplers International: A World of Needlework, 2nd edition (Eugene: Sampler Consortium, 2011): 9.

[2] Aimee E. Newell, “Tattered to Pieces: Amy Fiske’s Sampler and the Changing Roles of Women in Antebellum New England,” in Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, 1750-1950. (Ashgate: Farnham, 2009): 51-52.

[3] Ibid, 55-56.

[4] 1850 Federal Census, Town of Moreau, Saratoga Co., pg. 122A, http://www.newyorkroots.org/saratoga/census/1850more/1850moreau122.htm

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