On August 1, 1827, Phebe Prout of Windham, New York, celebrated the completion of her needlework sampler. Over one-hundred and fifty years later, Phebe’s great granddaughter, Phoebe Prout Smith, made the decision to give Phebe’s sampler away. Phoebe donated the sampler, along with a sampler made by her great-great grandmother, Mary “Polly” Benton, to the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA) in 1972 [1]. To some, it may seem sacrilegious to depart with a tangible piece of personal history as Phoebe had. What was Phoebe’s justification in donating the samplers to NYSHA?

Donations of this kind are not uncommon in museums and historical societies across the United States. People, for various reasons, can no longer house or keep their heirloom objects. Cultural institutions provide a safe, cost effective and charitable way of saving an object from destruction or deterioration. In the early 1970s, when Phoebe made her donation, she was eighty-one years old. She had retired from her work as a school teacher and was living with her sister, Mrs. Helen Rollins, in Oneonta, New York. Phoebe never married and had no children to bequeath the samplers to. She did have extended family living in Chicago and Vermont, but, perhaps, the closest and most reliable location to leave the samplers was NYSHA in nearby Cooperstown, New York [2].

Regardless of NYSHA’s integrity as a safeguard of New York state material culture, the decision to give the samplers away must have been a challenging one. Phebe’s sampler had survived through many generations of the Prout family. To this day, it remains intact despite a few small holes and staining. As Phoebe looked upon the sampler [below], she would have read her great grandmother’s stitched words, “Phebe Prout, sampler made in the 10th year of her age, Windham, August 1, 1827.” It is difficult, reading these words, not to imagine the day Phebe completed the work.

PhebeProutSampler

Sampler, 1827, Phebe Prout Barlow, Linen and Silk Thread, H: 11.25in. X W: 12.5in., New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Ms. Phoebe Prout Smith, N0412.1972. Photograph by Richard Walker.

Finishing a sampler was a significant accomplishment and an important part of a girl’s formal education in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Only girls whose families could afford the materials and necessary leisure time were able to produce samplers [3]. Phebe’s sampler was stitched with brown, green, gold, and white silk on natural linen. She produced four iterations of the alphabet in different scripts, demonstrating skill and style. At the bottom of the sampler, Phebe stitched what needlework scholar, Lynne Anderson, refers to as hanging basket motifs, prominent in Connecticut and New York samplers.

The care, skill and attention to detail that Phoebe’s great grandmother put into her sampler is clear. Perhaps, while the quality of the piece, in addition to its personal significance to the Prout family, made the decision to donate difficult, these aspects also served as a point of pride. The acknowledgement that the Prout family samplers were of the caliber and historical importance to belong in NYSHA’s collection must have had meaning for Phoebe. For the eighty-one year old, NYSHA served as the best option to maintain her personal piece of New York state history in perpetuity.

[1] Sampler, 1827, Phoebe Prout Barlow, N0412.1972,  New York State Historical Association donor records.

[2] “Obituary,” The Windham Journal, Thursday, February 21, 1985, ancestry.com.

[3] Lynne Anderson, Samplers International: A World of Needlework (Eugene, Oregon: Sampler Consortium, 2011): 9.

By Greer Luce ’17

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