Samplers are an important aspect to the study of material culture. Defined as, “pieces of cloth used to record patterns and stitches” [1], schoolgirl samplers, as they are often referred to, were an important educational tool for young women in the 1800s. While males were often afforded more institutional education opportunities, young girls tended to focus on their skills in their domestic spheres. [2] These samplers allowed students to work on their sewing and needlework skills, while simultaneously learning the alphabet, numerical sequences, and other important bits of information vital to their daily lives.

Like most things in life, there are exceptions to the rule. Upon looking at the samplers available for study, it was quickly noted that one maker’s name on a sampler did not belong with the rest; A. Lake. Further research told us that a child named Alfred Lake made this particular sampler in 1845. Could it be that a young boy had taken up the typical practice of females during this time?

Sampler, by Alfred Lake, 1845.

Sampler, 1845, A.Lake, Cotton/Silk, H 7.75in x W 3.9in. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Fenimore Art Museum, N0392.1950, Photo by Richard Walker.

Alfred Lake was born in Dundee, Illinois some time between 1835-1836. [3] We do not have a significant amount of information about his family, or his place in society, but we can infer that he was about 10 years old when he completed this work. Alfred’s sampler is extremely simple in nature, containing a completed alphabet, a small boarder, his signature, and the date of completion. This is different from many samplers, which often contained more intricate details and motifs, and more information overall. From this sampler, we can draw some important questions in regards to Alfred’s upbringing. Was he attending school like many young men at the time? Was he being homeschooled due to circumstances in his life? Did he create this sampler simply as a project for his free time? While we do not have information to sufficiently answer these inquiries, it is important to account for all the various possibilities that could have lead this young man to create this work, which has been deemed an important aspect to the typical life of a female, in the 1800s.

Alfred Lake is a strong example of breaking historical stereotypes. Although the practice of creating samplers is dominantly female, we cannot forget the variations to the norm. Samplers should be considered an educational tool of universal importance. Both young women and men learned necessary skills through this practice, and have left behind important information about their lives and contributions to society through these records. Placing these important pieces of material culture in one gender-specific section of society is to do these vital educational tools an injustice.


By Samantha Strzepek


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

[2] Amelia Peck, “American Needlework in the Eighteenth Century.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000