By Julia Fell, ’17

In November of 1827, Elizabeth Phillips of Fishkill, New York, was 11 years old. Around this age, most girls in early American society completed a sampler. A sampler is a piece of fabric embroidered by a young girl in order to learn a variety of stitches, as well as to show off her skill with the needle.[1] Elizabeth’s sampler (N0024.1982) was a record of her educated upbringing in the early 19th century. This may not have been Elizabeth’s only sampler, as it does not contain any alphabets or number series, as many samplers do. This piece is entirely verse, which would show off her skills with the needle as equally as alphabets would, however for her own education, another sampler with the traditional sets of letters and numbers may have been completed. The fact that Elizabeth chose to complete a large piece of needlework, perhaps in supplement to another sampler, shows her desire to hone her skills.

sampler

Sampler, 1827, Elizabeth Phillips (1816-1902), linen, silk, H: 16.75in x W: 16.5in, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Clayton Weber, N0024.1982. Photograph by Richard Walker.

The verse that Elizabeth embroidered is quite macabre, playing into a popular 19th century inclination for mourning rituals and a preoccupation with death. Her poem is rife with flower symbolism, another popular theme during the 19th century. Unfortunately, a severe split in the middle of the fabric as well as the wearing away of much of the thread on the bottom half prevents the whole poem from being read. It is clear, however, that 11 year old Elizabeth is already aware of the temporary nature of life, and warns the reader to live to his or her best ability, as even the young will perish, like roses or lilies “…whither when cold winds do blow.”

Elizabeth Phillips Storm

Elizabeth Phillips Storm, 1845, Ammi Phillips (1788-1865), oil on canvas, H: 33.625in x W: 28in, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Clayton Weber, N0001.1983.

Aside from the fine craftsmanship and theme of the sampler itself, a portrait of Elizabeth, painted by the well-known artist Ammi Phillips[2] in 1845, is evidence of her education and her society’s somber traditions. Her bright white lace collar and black dress could be indications of mourning wear, black being the primary color appropriate for mourning during the Victorian period, and white being the only acceptable color for accessories during the early stages of the mourning process. Elizabeth is pictured leaning on several books, which is a sure indication of their importance in her life as a well-educated woman. She also holds a small leaf, which may be a Mulberry leaf. In Victorian flower language, Mulberry could be interpreted to mean “wisdom.”[3]

Elizabeth Phillips’ sampler, both for its content and theme, supplemented by visual cues from her portrait, is evidence of her education and as well as of her society’s preoccupation with death and mourning.

 

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

[2] New York State Historical Association. “Elizabeth Phillips Storm (N0001.1983).” New York State Historical Association. Accessed April 5, 2016. SKIN Museum.

[3] Hooper, Lucy. The Lady’s Book of Flowers and Poetry to Which Are Added, a Botanical Introduction, a Complete Floral Dictionary, and a Chapter on Plants in Rooms. New York: J.C. Riker, 1842. 187-188

Advertisements