By Luke Murphy


Sadly, history often focuses solely on the lives of men. While historians can attribute this partially to how western culture views men and women, another reason why researchers focus on men is that there is much more recorded about them. So, how do historians know anything about women of the past?  One method involves examining the material objects women left behind, such as embroidery samplers, which, can prove helpful in revealing information about them.[1] Esther Maxwell’s sampler, created when she was ten, provides researchers the only (known) primary source into the life of a person who might otherwise have been lost to history.

Esther was born in Unadilla, New York on December 10, 1806 and died on April 22, 1834, before census takers would have recorded her, as the census did not begin to record all of the members of a household until 1850.[2]  Besides her sampler, I could find no other record referencing Esther during her lifetime, though I did find her grave and a genealogy mentioning her that was published after her death. Unfortunately, neither of these sources provide much information about the life of Ester Maxwell. By looking at her sampler, in corroboration with other sources, historians can begin to understand who Esther really was.

Esther Maxwell

Sampler, 1817, Esther Maxwell (1806-1834) linen and silk on linen, H: 15.25 x W: 12 in. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Claudine Munro, N0084.1958. Photograph by Richard Walker.

The top half of her sampler contains two alphabets and a number sequence. Compared to other samplers, Esther’s represents a fairly simple design, indicating that she likely did not receive professional needle working instruction. Despite its simplicity, the fact that her sampler included an alphabet indicates that she practiced stitching to help make herself stand out, and Esther likely intended for others to see this sampler.[3] Girls commonly created samplers to develop their signatures, and differentiate themselves from other girls in their families.[4] Esther could have valued this sampler as a means to make herself stand out in a world that so seldom documented her existence.

The bottom half of Esther’s sampler displays information on some of her siblings. Oddly, Esther’s parents do not appear on her piece, which other sampler makers commonly included during the early nineteenth century.[5] Records detailing Esther’s relationship with her siblings do not exist, but clearly Esther valued her siblings enough to put them on the piece she used to represent herself as an individual. Tragically, Esther notes that her sister, Mille, died at the age of four. In mentioning her, Esther shows historians that she wished to preserve the memory of her deceased sister, as no other primary source records exists to indicate the existence of Mille Maxwell.

While simple in construction, Esther’s sampler tells us a lot about her. In practicing stitching the alphabet to develop her signature, Esther shows historians that she valued her individual mark on the world. Additionally, Esther’s inclusion of some of her siblings indicates that she valued them in her life and wished to preserve their memories. Taken as a whole, Esther Maxwell’s sampler grants historians details on the life of an individual that would otherwise have gone unrecorded.

[1] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Ivan Gaskell, Sara J. Schechner, and Sarah Anne Carter, Tangible Things: Making History Through Objects (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 164.

[2] “Esther B. Maxwell,” Find A Grave, published November 2, 2008, accessed April 3, 2016, bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=Maxwell+&GSiman=1&GScid=2209442&GRid=31089748&.

[3]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, eds. Maureen Daly Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin (London: Routledge, 2009), 55.

[4] Lynne Anderson, Samplers International: A World of Needlework (Eugene, Oregon: Sampler Consortium), 9.

[5] Anderson, Samplers International, 20.