What can objects tell us about women’s lives? A whole lot, as it turns out.

The material culture of women has taken center stage on the internet. Bloggers, makeup enthusiasts, fashion historians, and podcasts are using things to interpret the status of women in society. Material culture provides an entry point into the study of female intersectionality across race, class, gender, and sexual identity.

Textiles, in particular, are popular examples through which contemporary women are connecting to women of the past. More and more museums are hosting clothing, hat, and gown exhibitions. Millennials are even taking up the sewing arts, including cross-stitching and sampler making. Suddenly, the relevancy of digitized textile collections has spiked, and among these newly digitized collections is the Sampler Archive Project.

Seasoned textile experts often know how to read samplers to mine them for historical information, much like one might read a page in a book. The characteristics of each sampler—from the materials and dyes used to construct them to the patterns and motifs used to decorate them—can assist scholars in verifying the identity of the sampler’s maker. The Sampler Archive Project is a fantastic tool for researchers seeking to learn more about the woman behind each sampler.

One such sampler was made by a girl named Welthy Andrus from Richfield, New York, in 1815. Welthy was just eleven years old in the year she sewed her sampler. Yet despite her young age, Welthy’s sampler tells us a lot about the world in which she lived. Welthy stitched her name, age, and town of residence into the sampler; this key information provides a basis for modern-day genealogical research. In his 2007 research on Welthy Andrus, former CGP student Stephen H. Light explains that Welthy’s sampler “remains the best proof that she attended school, as the majority of American samplers were produced at school.” [1] He also contends that according to census documents, Welthy never married, and likely ran her household alongside her brother until his death, which preceded hers.

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Sampler, 1815, Welthy Andrus (1803-Unknown), Linen on Linen, H: 12.5 x W: 10.5 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York. Gift of Zoamla Wilsey, N0123.1939. Photograph by Richard Walker.

The consensus among historians is that samplers educated girls in multiple domestic skills at the same time. Through stitching the alphabet and number sequences, they learned how to read and complete basic arithmetic. Life in the pre-Industrial world required thorough knowledge of clothing creation and mending, and so girls and women also created samplers to learn the sewing arts. [2] But just like today, marriage wasn’t in the cards for every girl who was taught how to create a sampler. Welthy and a number of other women whose samplers are documented in the Sampler Archive Project never married or bore children. Did this render the act of sampler-making wholly irrelevant to their lives? Or perhaps did their ability to read, do basic math, and sew equip women with the skills to survive on their own and live freer lives? What can women learn from sampler-making today?

By Julie Hartman

[1] Stephen H. Light. “The Marking Sampler of Welthy Andrus: Accession # N0123.1939.” The Cooperstown Graduate Program: American Material Culture I. 2007.

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

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