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  • Carole Conn

The Endearing Charm of Marking Samplers

Carole Conn, January 2024

I have always loved needlework samplers, particularly miniature ones.

There are extraordinary examples of intricate and beautiful American samplers stitched in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of which are in museums or important private collections. They depict biblical scenes, intricate floral patterns, buildings, family trees, poetry, and moral verses.

But these aren't the ones that attract me. They're too nice.

I love "marking samplers". These are the simple ones - the ones that only have alphabets and numbers on them. Usually they are in a plain cross stitch. They may also have a name, a date, small decorative motifs, and borders.

Every young girl needed to learn to sew. Sewing was a major part of her education in the 1700s - 1800s. If she got to go to school, and many didn't, she was taught basic reading and "figures", but sewing was by far the most important subject. Clothing, curtains, table cloths, sheets, bedspreads, etc. were all made by hand, so every young woman needed sewing skills.

One of the first jobs a female child was given was to "mark" the linens used in the household with initials so that they could be identified for rotation to extend their lives, or for ownership if they were sent out for repair.

Marking samplers were made by these young girls to learn and practice their letters and numbers. They weren't meant to be displayed, as their mothers' intricate pictorial samplers were. They were school assignments, or assigned by their mothers. When the marking sampler was finished, and they were meant to be finished with neat edges and clean stitching, the girl was deemed educated in her alphabets and numbers. She was encouraged to sign her name and the date she finished the sampler in the same cross stitch at the bottom of her work.

But many samplers were never finished. There is a certain charm in them, too. I once had a small sampler with only one line on it and a name. It said " John and Abby was married. Sue" I'll bet Sue's mother stopped her in her tracks with that one!

For most of us collectors of all things early and country, the fancy, pretty samplers are out of our reach - nice to look at in a museum, but not remotely affordable. Marking samplers are still very collectible and can be had for much less money.

What to Look For

Condition: as with most antiques, condition is foremost. Look for samplers that have a minimum of holes, missing stitches and staining. It's hard to find ones that are perfect (and if they are perfect, think again! ) but unless they have something about them that is extraordinary in terms of design, the better the condition the more desirable. Overall darkening and color fading is common, and a certain amount of that is actually attractive.

A Date: even if the young girl didn't sign her name, she often stitched a date at the end of her work to mark the time when she finished it. Generally, the earlier the better. Samplers dating before 1800 are very hard to find.

A Name: the sewer's name and age are desirable features of a marking sampler. Sometimes the name can be researched to determine who the girl was and where she lived - enhancing the value of the sampler. Provenance is a good thing!

Attractive Design: it should have an overall pleasing effect because of the colors chosen, the type of stitching, the design of the borders, and the size.

Special features: if she added a bird or a flower, a picture of her house, a short verse, all the better. Miniature samplers are extremely collectible and hard to find. I'm not sure why they were made - perhaps to get the needlework homework out of the way quickly.

Simplicity: American schoolgirl samplers tended to be quite simple - straightforward lines of letters and numbers separated by fancy stitched borders. English samplers are often more intricate, with figures, extra borders, or poems. However, it should be noted that marking samplers are very hard to identify in terms of where they were made. Again, provenance is helpful. English and continental schoolgirls had the same stitching exercises as American girls did. (If it has a crown stitched on it, it is probably not American!)

What to Avoid

Fakes: samplers that have stitching that looks like a young child's handwriting - uneven, not in straight lines, misspellings, are most often fakes intended to deceive, or sold as reproductions. Keeping letters and numbers in straight, even lines was a requirement for a girl of any age. Some fakes actually have nice stitching, but they are new copies of old samplers, dunked in tea to make them look old. These are harder to spot, but experience looking at a lot of authentic ones helps.

Garish Colors: very bright yellows and reds are indicative of samplers stitched after about 1880, or later. Early samplers were stitched in wool, cotton or linen ( and occasionally silk) thread on plain linen. The colors are muted because they were produced using vegetable dyes, which fade over time. Later ones used commercially dyed threads. If you see bright shades of orange or purple, the thread has been dyed commercially.

Poor Condition: holes, dark stains, tears, are often present in early samplers, but the less noticeable the better. Extreme fading because of exposure to sun should also be avoided.

Altered Samplers: if it has a border only on 3 sides, look to see if it has been cut down to eliminate some damage. Look carefully at the edges to see if they have been cut. A fragment may still be worth collecting if it has some extra special feature, but be aware of what you are buying.

Other Things to Look For: Punch Paper Samplers

Now don't laugh. There are some punch paper samplers worth looking for. I'm not taking about those "Home Sweet Home" ones in red and gold, dripping with Victorian exuberance.

Punch paper became available in the 1820s in America, and by 1840 it was prevalent. It would have been easier for a child to keep her letters straight and properly sized on punch paper than on cloth, so many children used punch paper if their teachers and mothers allowed them to. It was sort of cheating, I guess. All of the holes in the paper were never completely filled in, like in needlepoint. Bare paper was left as is to be the background of the sampler.

If you find a little cross stitch on punch paper that is in the same style as a marking sampler, buy it! It will probably cost very little and might be just as old as a marking sampler. I have a few that I find very charming.

The key to collecting marking samplers is to buy only what sings to you. I have bought some that were very good technically, but they bored me over time, so I sold them.

The straightforward simplicity of American marking samplers appeals to the frugal and serious Yankee pioneer in all of us. They are honest. They are sweet.

They may even be the only lasting mark that these little girls made on this world, and that's something to be treasured!

Carole Conn

For further information:

"American Samplers" by Ethel Stanwood Bolton and Eva Johnston Coe, Pyne Press, 1963

"Plain & Fancy, American Women and Their Needlework, 1700-1850", by Susan Burrows Swan, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977

"Labors of Love, America's Textiles and Needlework 1650-1930" by Judith Reiter Weissman and Wendy Lavitt, Wing Books, 1987.

"New England Samplers to 1840" Old Sturbridge Village, 1978.

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