Makers, artists, suppliers, and consumers of objects possibly never foresee their items and products resting in boxes, drawers, on shelves in a museum collection for perpetuity. The sampler made by Sarah Woods in 1833 (N0050.1940) began its life as a teaching tool and practical skill builder. In the 19th century, samplers were created by young school girls in an effort to practice and hone essential sewing skills. Samplers also gave these girls, who often never received formal education, an opportunity to learn the written alphabet and numbers. [1] It’s easy to image Sarah’s small hands moving the needle carefully between the warp and the weft of this piece of linen. This sampler might have been displayed in her room or house and could have followed her throughout her life, from her parent’s home to her husband’s.

 

Sarah Woods

Sampler, 1833, linen, silk, H: 17 1/4 x W: 13 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Mrs. C. Gray Capone, N0050.1940. Photographed by Richard Walker.

However, here it is at the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA), housed neatly in an archival box in a temperature-controlled collections storage facility. Vastly separated from its original use by time and space, Sarah’s sampler continues to serve its educational mission, for it resides in a town that is home to a museum studies graduate program. The Cooperstown Graduate Program and NYSHA forged a partnership in 1964, bringing emerging museum professionals and folklorists into the museum’s collection. [2]

Since that partnership, Sarah’s sampler has been a part of NYSHA’s collection. The Cooperstown Graduate Program integrates object study and learning into its curriculum, and in 2005, Sarah A. Benway used this sampler in a textile assignment for the Methods of Artifact Study I course. The assignment prompted students to create an exhibition around an object of their choice from a given category. [3] In this case, students, like Benway, had to choose a textile object from NYSHA’s collection. In her paper, Benway uses the sampler as a gateway into an exhibition titled “Educating Sarah: The Vocational Education of Girls and Young Women in Antebellum America.” The goal of this exhibition was “to prompt discussion of vocational education and place women in the labor history of antebellum America,” and Benway envisioned creating a “persona,” a fictional character, around Sarah, the sampler maker. Sarah Woods would narrate and interpret the lives of young girls in the 19th century through her fabricated experiences and sampler. [4]

Benway, in her paper, planned to create a fictional character out of Sarah Woods. While she may have decided this to have more creative freedom with the interpretation of Sarah Woods, Benway probably made this decision because Sarah Woods’s identity has yet to be discovered. Her common name makes it almost impossible to distinguish her from the thousands of Sarah Woods’s that lived in the Mid-Atlantic and New England region in the early 1800s.

Sarah Woods’s sampler proves that a museum object can make lasting impacts long after its maker’s/owner’s demise. Although she seems to have fallen through the cracks of history, Sarah’s sampler continues to serve its embedded educational purpose.

 

By Karissa Carlson ‘17

 

[1] Lynne Anderson, Samplers International (Eugene Oregon: The Sampler Consortium, 2011), 9.

[2] “History,” Cooperstown Graduate Program, http://www.oneonta.edu/academics/cgp/about/history.html.

[3] HMUS 521: Methods for Artifact Study I Syllabus, Fall 2005, pg 3.

[4] Sarah A. Benway, “Educating Sarah: The Vocational Education of Girls and Young Women in Antebellum America,” Textiles Assignment, Methods of Artifact Study I, Dr. Cynthia Falk, December 12, 2005, pg 1.

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