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Thursday, 07 March 2013 02:53

The Samplers of Colonial Boston


Fig. 1: This 1769 map by John Bonner illustrates Boston before the landfill obliterated the Mill Pond. At the time, the city divided itself into the North End and South End, with the city’s primary business district, along and between King and Cornhill Streets. Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

Gertrude Townsend, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s, first curator of textiles, focused much of her energy during the late 1930s and early 1940s on building the country’s finest collection of early American embroidery, curating the exhibition New England Colonial Embroidery, in 1941, the first to focus exclusively on the subject. With the opening of the museum’s new American Wing in November 2010, three consecutive exhibitions will further Townsend’s work and will be the basis for a forthcoming publication exploring the embroideries of colonial Boston, the lives of the girls and women who made them, and the economic role of embroidery in this urban center (Fig. 1).

Fig. 2: Mary Holingworth, born in Salem (about 1650/52). Sampler, ca. 1665. Linen plain weave embroidered with silk; 25 x 7½ inches. Photo courtesy of the Peabody-Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.

Mary Holingworth’s sampler shares many similarities with band samplers embroidered in England during the mid-seventeenth century, including the stitches used, the color of the silk, and the design of the bands. Band samplers developed in England during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century as a way to collect embroidered band patterns that could be worked onto clothing and household linens.

The first exhibition Embroideries of Colonial Boston: Samplers, Saturday, November 20, 2010, through Sunday, March 13, 2011, features samplers from the eighteenth century made by girls between the ages of ten and thirteen; the age when girls from middle- and upper-middle-class families typically began their training in the genteel arts of embroidered fancy work, music, dancing, and deportment. Girls furthering their embroidery education began their training by working elaborate samplers, often embroidered with pictorial imagery created using a wide range of stitches. These samplers no longer functioned in the traditional sense as a collection of patterns which could be copied onto household linens or clothing, but were often framed and hung on the wall as symbols of a girl’s genteel accomplishments.

Newspaper advertisements and primary sources have revealed that more than one hundred embroidery teachers were active in eighteenth-century Boston. Each taught her own style, which might have been influenced by the samplers she worked as a young girl or by what was fashionable at the time. Even with the wide range of samplers produced within the city of Boston, taken as a whole, the schoolgirl embroideries produced in the period reflect the evolution of Boston from Puritan capital to wealthy merchant town and the changes that took place in the education of its young women over the course of a century.

The samplers in the exhibition fall into distinct styles, some reflect the fact that they were embroidered under the same teachers, others indicate evolutions in design from one teacher to the next, one generation to the next. Some samplers reveal the influence of immigrants who brought their own embroidery styles to Boston. As a result of recent research, some of the samplers can now also be grouped by neighborhood and social and economic class.

Of the few known surviving seventeenth-century American samplers, none can be securely attributed to a Boston teacher. According to the reverend William Bentley (1759–1819) of Salem, Massachusetts (whose diary is the source of much information from the period), the sampler worked by Mary Holingworth of Salem in circa 1660–1665 (Fig. 2) was completed in Boston when Mary studied with Mme. Piedmonte, described by Bentley as a “celebrated instructress of her day.”1 Although no information about Mme. Piedmonte has been found in the historical record, the reference points to Boston as an important center for the education of the children of prosperous families from beyond Boston as far back as the seventeenth century.

Fig. 3: Mehetabel Done, Boston (1715–1757).
Sampler, 1724. Linen plain weave embroidered with silk; 18½ x 7½ inches. Collection of Anna and Neil Rasmussen.

Mehetabel Done’s sampler is the oldest known Boston Adam and Eve sampler. Mehetabel was the granddaughter of Elias Calendar, who served
as minister of the First Baptist Church, at the corner of Stillman and Salem Streets in the North End, from 1718 to 1738.

Fig. 4: Anonymous, sampler, initialed M. D. English, 1654. Linen plain weave embroidered with silk; 17¾ x 7⅛ inches. Photo courtesy of the MFA Boston.

While the scene at the bottom of this seventeenth-century English sampler is almost identical to Mehetabel Done’s sampler (fig. 3), even more striking is the use of similar stitches. Both include satin stitch and a complex wrapped buttonhole stitch rarely found on samplers.
Fig. 5: Rebekah Owen (1734–1811), Boston. Sampler, 1745. Linen plain weave embroidered with silk; 18 x 10½ inches. Museums of Old York, York, Maine.

By the early 1740s, the typical Adam and Eve sampler had a more centralized scene and a strawberry border. This evolution could indicate the influence of a new teacher in the city.
Fig. 6: Sarah Hill (1726–1784), Boston. Sampler, 1737, Linen plain weave embroidered with silk; 18 x 8 inches. Photo courtesy of Historic New England. Museum accession; 1918.10.

In 1737, a new sampler style appeared in Boston. This sampler and a near identical example by Hepzibah Baker in the collection of the Winterthur Museum share a hexagon band, now known as the Boston Band, which is a signature element of this style. The teacher of this style of sampler probably later adapted it to include the figures of Adam and Eve as can be seen in fig. 7 and continued to teach the sampler until the late 1740s.

More than one hundred Boston samplers made between 1700 and 1776 have been identified. The earliest samplers that can be securely placed within the city show the influence of England. It is not surprising, since the colonists brought their culture and traditions with them. As Boston developed into a wealthy port city and center of colonial trade, its merchants identified themselves as a part of the British Empire and took pride in keeping up with the latest London fashions in architecture, design, and education. One of the first women to advertise embroidery lessons in the city was Mary Turfrey in 1706. According to Bentley, Turfrey had newly arrived from London, and so would undoubtedly have brought the latest styles of embroidery with her. Mary Holingworth, who had earlier been instructed by Mme. Piedmonte, and her husband, Philip English, sent their daughter Susannah to board and take lessons with Turfrey.2

Samplers embroidered with images of Adam and Eve or the Garden of Eden form the most identifiable and earliest Boston sampler style. Three distinct groups of Adam and Eve samplers evolved during the eighteenth century. The earliest known group was made between 1724 and 1736. The scene with Adam and Eve in Figure 3 shares a remarkable similarity to that of a 1654 English sampler in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Fig. 4), and a related embroidery may have inspired the woman who developed this style of Adam & Eve sampler for her students. Six known samplers in this style were worked between 1724 and 1736 along with five related samplers, two of which feature the Garden of Eden without Adam and Eve and another three composed solely of decorative bands. The second recognizable group of Adam and Eve samplers (Fig. 5) includes five samplers that appear to be later transformations of the previous-mentioned style, possibly developed by a new teacher at the school. A third Adam and Eve sampler had emerged by the late 1730s (Figs. 6, 7). There are nine known examples, the earliest two of which feature the Garden of Eden, again devoid of Adam and Eve. The girls who worked these samplers lived in the North End of Boston and were the daughters of its craftsmen and merchants The North End of Boston was the first area of the city to be settled in the 1630s and remained home to the original Puritan colonists’ families into the eighteenth century, where Adam and Eve as well as references to the Garden of Eden remained important symbols in Puritan theology.3 In the mid-eighteenth century the South End of the city became home to Boston’s more prominent merchants who built large estates near the Boston Common and set themselves up as gentlemen. Educated by the most fashionable teachers, their daughters embroidered tent-stitch pictures, often with pastoral scenes, and coats of arms that included more expensive materials than the silk threads used on samplers such as gold and silver metallic yarns. The girls embroidered samplers as well, although simpler in design and execution than the samplers made in the North End. Popular styles included biblical imagery such as the Spies of Canaan (Fig. 8) or bands of flowers (Fig. 9).

Fig. 7: Margaret Mansfield (1728–1777), possibly Lynn, Mass. Sampler, 1744. Linen plain weave embroidered with silk; 20 x 8 inches. Collection of Jane and Gerald Katcher. Photo by Gavin Ashworth.

This sampler was made by Margaret Mansfield who was sent to Boston to be educated. Many women who taught embroidery also boarded girls.

Fig. 8: Sarah Lowell (1738–1759), Boston. Sampler, 1750; Linen plain weave embroidered with silk; 17⅞ x 12⅝ inches. Collection of Glee Krueger. Photo by Ralph Krueger.

Sarah Lowell was the daughter of Ebenezer and Mary Reed Lowell. Her father was a successful merchant and retailer, and the family lived on State Street in the South End of the city near the Boston Common. The two figures carrying the bunches of grapes are the Spices of Canaan biblical imagery.
Fig. 9: Lucretia Keyes, born in Marlborough, Massachusetts (1723-1764). Sampler, 1737. Linen plain weave
embroidered with silk; 18½ x 14½ inches. Collection of Anna and Neil Rasmussen.

Lucretia Keyes embroidered her sampler in 1737 shortly after her father, the merchant Gersham Keyes moved his family from Marlborough to Boston. The family lived in the South End near Peter Pelhem, a painter-engraver who also opened a school where he and his wife taught dancing, painting on glass and embroidery.

Fig. 10: Mary Welsh (1760-1820), Boston. Sampler, about 1772; Linen plain weave embroidered with silk; 21 x 15 inches. Photo courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Mary Welsh’s sampler, which is dominated by the tent stitch picture of a seated shepherdess and shepherd, has more in common with the pictorial embroideries worked by Boston schoolgirls than with more traditional band samplers of the earlier eighteenth century.
Fig. 11: Sally Jackson (born in 1760), Boston. Sampler, 1771. Linen plain weave embroidered with silk; 30 x 20 inches. Photo courtesy of the MFA Boston.

The design of this sampler shares remarkably similar elements with an embroidered chair seat and crewel, or wool, embroidered petticoat borders and bed hangings in the collection of the MFA, Boston, all of which may have been designed by the same Boston draughtsman.
As pictorial embroidery and not sampler work began to dominate in Boston’s finer embroidery schools of the South End and city center, its imagery, often pastoral, began to influence the sampler styles produced by girls of the North End which now incorporated elaborate pastoral scenes created in tent stitch4 (Fig. 10). Other samplers incorporated the pastoral imagery found on crewel-work bed hangings or petticoat borders and set within an elaborate floral framework (Fig. 11). The Boston samplers of the third quarter of the eighteenth century reflect the trend toward more pictorial works that served as emblems of gentility rather than symbols of piety and education. By the end of the eighteenth century Boston’s evolution from Puritan community to wealthy merchant town was complete. The samplers produced during this time reflect the tastes of a secular community where prominence was based on wealth and not on religion.

Embroideries of Colonial Boston: Samplers will open with the MFA’s new American Wing on Saturday, November 20, 2010, and continue through Sunday, March 13, 2011. This exhibition is supported by the Coby Foundation, Ltd. and the MFA Associates/MFA Senior Associates Exhibition Endowment Fund. Embroideries of Colonial Boston: Pictorial Embroideries will follow and remain open from April 2, 2011 through August 28, 2011. The third exhibition in the series, Embroideries of Colonial Boston: Domestic Textiles will open on September 17, 2011 and close on May 27, 2012. For more information call 617.267.9300 or visit

Pamela A. Parmal is the David and Roberta Logie Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts and Department Head at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

1.Richter, Paula. Painted with Thread: The Art of American Embroidery (Salem, Mass.: Peabody Essex Museum, 2000), 8.

2.Diary of William Bentley, Vol. II (Salem, Mass., The Essex Institute, 1905), 25.

3.See Andrew Morrall, “Regaining Eden: Representations of Nature in Seventeenth-Century English Embroidery” in ‘Twixt Art and Nature: English Embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580–1700, ed. by Andrew Morrall and Melinda Watt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 79–97. I would also like to thank Lynn Tinley for sharing her PhD dissertation work on Boston Adam and Eve samplers.

4.See Nancy Graves Cabot, “Engravings and Embroideries: The Sources of Some Designs in the Fishing Lady Pictures,” in Antiques Magazine (December, 1941):
367–369, and Gertrude Townsend, “Notes on New England Needlework Before 1800” in Bulletin of the Needle and Bobbin Club 28 (1944): 2–23.