Samplers were an integral part of a young girls’ education in the 18th and 19th centuries. But what exactly are samplers, and how can studying them help us understand domestic arts, societal beliefs, and women’s education? A sampler is a piece of cloth that has been embroidered utilizing different needlework techniques commonly with the alphabet, numbers, family names, or bible verses stitched on them. Samplers display an incredible amount of skill these girls were able to achieve.

Either their mothers and grandmothers taught these girls how to make samplers or they learned at small community schools. Unmarried women usually ran these schools similar to today’s version of elementary school. Both boys and girls attended these schools, but often this was the only formal education girls received while the boys would continue to higher education. [1]

Girls created samplers primarily as a way to practice their stitching, having this skill enabled a woman to create and mend clothing and other household textiles.  Additionally girls also learned the alphabet and counting through their stitching.  Girls took great pride in their samplers, and families even displayed them in their homes. Though samplers were used for practice, women created samplers for keeping track of information, commemorating a special or historical event, or mourning a loved one. [2] Samplers not only gave their creators a great sense of pride and accomplishment but also provide the viewer with a sense of history.

An example of someone creating a sampler in honor of someone else is the sampler below created by Louella Evans for Jane Cooper. While we do not know for certain, it is thought that the original cloth was a tea towel of Jane Coopers considering married women often numbered their kitchen towels. The dates Louella stitched could be the birth and death dates of Jane Cooper. Therefore Louella is commemorating the life of Jane Cooper on one of Jane’s own tea towels that was handed down to her.

Studying samplers give modern viewers a window into the life of women in the 18th and 19th century. Most often there is no letters, diaries, or other written papers that have survived over the years of women. But because of the deep care and pride women and families put into their samplers, they have become an invaluable resource into learning about the otherwise unknown story of these women.

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Sampler. 1883, Louella C. Evans, linen, cotton, H:13.5 x W:18, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Sarah F. Clarke. N1245.1943. Photograph by Richard Walker

by, Hillary Corwin