By: Emily Q Welch

Family heirlooms are usually associated with things that carry great monetary value – a pair of earrings, a designer watch, or mahogany furniture to list a few examples. But in reality, the material culture that families cherish and maintain are sometimes only worth their weight in memories and emotion. Even things that at first glance seems unoriginal, such as once commonly made samplers, can hold a more compelling familial narrative than a priceless piece of jewelry. A prime example is the connection and history between two samplers within the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA) collection that were passed down through the family before being donated.


Sampler, 1797, Polly (Mary) Benton Prout, Linen and Silk Thread, H: 7.25in. X W: 7.5in., New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Ms. Phoebe Prout Smith, N0411.1972. Photograph by Richard Walker.

Sampler making was a common aspect of a girl’s education so she could learn her letters and to sew at the same time. [1] Born in 1784, Polly (Mary) Benton Prout completed her sampler in Richmond, Massachusetts in 1797, as part of her education. She kept her sampler, which had likely taken her many hours of work, even after she married her husband Curtis Prout in October of 1810. As Polly and her husband started their family, which would eventually consist of them and seven children, her sampler was probably largely forgotten as she filled her role as wife and mother.


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.

But soon enough, her children would begin their own educations and in 1827 one of her daughters, Phebe Prout Barlow, completed a sampler herself in Windham, Connecticut.[2] One can only imagine the pride and nostalgia Polly likely felt at seeing her daughter’s completed work and remembering her own sampler. This may have even been the impetus for saving Phebe’s sampler along with Polly’s.

These two samplers, made 30 years apart by mother and daughter, in two separate towns in two separate states, were kept and passed down in the family as heirlooms. The surprisingly good condition they are in despite their age indicates that they were cherished and well cared for by the family. After all, these samplers represented a connection to the familial past, a connection to the family’s maternal predecessors, and offered a view of where the family had come from. Even after they were donated to NYSHA, we can see the pride the family had in its history as both were donated by Phoebe Prout Smith in 1972, a descendant of Polly and Phebe. Not only had the donor inherited a family name, but she inherited the samplers. Though her reasons for donating the samplers to the museum are unknown, we can safely say that they were cherished by the family to have survived nearly 150-200 years in the family’s care. By donating them to the museum, Phobe Prout Smith gave others a chance to not only have a better understanding of her family’s history, but also ensured that that history would be preserved.

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