Do you own anything that reminds you of a loved one who has died? Photographs and objects can serve as tangible reminders of a person after they have passed away. Often, these objects had some connection to the person when they lived, whether it’s a pocket watch they used to carry or a souvenir received as a gift from them. These days, it’s unusual to have an object that only represents a person’s death. It’s also unusual to specifically create an object in memory of a loved one. However, when this sampler was stitched in the mid 1800s, such memorials and physical expressions of grief were common.

Sampler, after March 3, 1842, linen, silk, H: 14 1/8 x W: 11 1/8 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Alana P. Williams, N0007.2006. Photograph by Richard Walker.

Sampler, after March 3, 1842, linen, silk, H: 14 1/8 x W: 11 1/8 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Alana P. Williams, N0007.2006. Photograph by Richard Walker.

This sampler was created in memory of Ezekiel Maltwood, “Who died the 3 of March 1842 aged21.” Although the maker did not include their name, they were likely a female relative of Ezekiel, possibly his younger sister Sarah Maltwood, who was around 11 years old when he died. [1] Samplers were usually made by young girls around ages 8-11. The genealogical research and style of the sampler indicate that it was likely made in England. In addition to the memorial at the top, the sampler also features a religious poem and depictions of birds, lions, dogs, flowers, insects, and even a biblical scene of Adam and Eve.

Although the symbols seem almost cheery, the religious verse is significantly gloomier. It calls on “sinners” to repent and “come to Jesus” so they may avoid the “gulph beneath you.” The focus on life beyond death is consistent with the memorial theme of the sampler. In addition to dealing with mortality, the poem also serves as education for both the maker and the people who looked at the sampler. English samplers frequently included verses intended to “morally educate” the children who made them. [2] This poem presents Christian beliefs and “moral” behavior as a way of escaping death.

In the 1840s, death was much more present than it is today. Modern medicine was still developing, and people frequently died of diseases and in childbirth. Infant mortality rates were also high. Mourning rituals offered a way to extend the memory of those who died. For women, mourning periods could last anywhere from six months to two and a half years. Creating memorial samplers was one way of honoring the mourning tradition. When finished, the samplers were often displayed in the family parlor as a way of teaching family history and respecting the deceased.[3]

It’s impossible to know what the maker was thinking while she stitched this sampler. Was it a way of grieving? A keepsake to remind her of Ezekiel? A physical reminder of mortality? A combination of these? Although we may not know the personal story or feelings she may have had, we can still understand the sampler as it fits into a larger tradition of mourning, memorial, and grief.

By: Christine Scales

[1]“England and Wales Census, 1841,” database with  images, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M79T-59B: accessed 7 April 2016), Ezekiel Maltwood in household of Robert Maltwood, Caston, Norfolk, England; from “1841 England, Scotland and Wales census,” database and images, findmypast (http://www.findmypast.com : n.d.); citing PRO HO 107, The National Archives, Kew, Surrey.

[2] Anderson, Lynne, Samplers International (Eugene Oregon: The Sampler Consortium, 2011), 28.

[3] Zielke, Melissa. “Forget-Me-Nots: Victorian Women, Mourning, and the Construction of a Feminine Historical Memory” Material Culture Review Volume 58 (Fall 2003): 55-56.

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