Cynthia Brown Sampler

Sampler, 1831, Cynthia A. Brown, linen, silk, H:16in x W:19.75, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Ida Kennings, N0491.1961. Photography by Richard Walker.

Cynthia A. Brown stitched one set of numbers and four alphabets onto her embroidery sampler in four different scripts. She, like many girls who made samplers, were likely learning their letters and practicing their sewing skills at the same time. [1] These alphabets are followed by the words “Cynthia A. Brown. Born Pierpoint. Jan 24. 1831. AG 10.” It’s a very simple sampler, nothing particularly elaborate.

And that’s all we know about her.

Unfortunately, this is an incredibly common story when researching young girls in the 18th and 19th centuries. Records did not favor women in general, much less children, who were unimportant until they became adults. Government records were primarily concerned with voter data and tax information, which primarily applied to white male property owners until the mid-19th century, not their families. [2] Women were not often included in many public records, like newspapers, until they were old enough to be married. By taking their husbands name, it became much harder to track their lives as young girls. Other sources like church records, gravestones, genealogies, diaries, letters, etc. are valuable – if they exist and are accessible. Surviving records from these years are sparse at best, having been lost or destroyed over the last centuries. While it’s not impossible to learn about women and girls at this time, the odds are low.

Even with Cynthia giving us a birthplace, date and full name, she is impossible to find in any historical record. There is currently no town called Pierpoint in the Northeastern United States, nor could we find any that held that name in the early 19th century. Looking at censuses, even if we attempt to guess who her father was based on her age at the time of the census, Brown is such a common surname that it’s almost impossible to definitively identify her by her family. We were unable to find any birth records. So Cynthia remains an enigma.

So we are left with this one piece of fabric, with four alphabets and one set of numbers and the maker’s basic information as the only record presently known of this girl’s life. We can extrapolate from the object itself that she came from a comfortable enough life to have the time and resources to make a sampler, especially one of this size.[3] Beyond this, we know nothing about what her life was like growing up, who was a part of her life, what she spent her time doing, or what was important to her.

Even though this class of graduate students cannot learn anything more about this girl born nearly two hundred years ago, we at least know that Cynthia A. Brown existed and made a sampler when she was ten years old. Even though we don’t know her story, we know she had one, and we can hope that we will find out what it was someday.

By Peyton Tracy

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

[2] Beth Foulk. “How to Use Pre-1850 Censuses for Genealogy Research,” Ah ha! For Genealogists (blog), WordPress, February 21, 2012.

[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. (Ashgate: Farnham, 2009): 55-56.