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Thursday, 07 March 2013 03:13

With Needle & Brush: Schoolgirl Embroidery from the Connecticut River Valley


The Connecticut River Valley region stretches from northern New Hampshire to Long Island Sound. The area including Deerfield, Massachusetts, south to Old Saybrook, Connecticut, was an important center for needlework. Taught by skilled instructresses, young women in fashionable academies and smaller day schools mastered the art of needlework and painting, beginning with elementary samplers and advancing to canvaswork in the eighteenth century and to exquisite pictorial silk embroideries and detailed watercolors on paper and silk at the turn of the nineteenth century. The finished pieces demonstrated the young women’s accomplishments in the “polite arts” and displayed the gentility and social status of their families. 

The exhibition With Needle and Brush: Schoolgirl Embroidery from the Connecticut River Valley, at the Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut, is the first to examine the extraordinary needlework and watercolors created by young ladies attending school in the Valley in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Over seventy works, mostly from private collections and never before on exhibit, are included. The embroideries and watercolors reveal the stylistic distinctions of the various schools and teachers responsible for educating young women in the region over two hundred years ago. The following is a selection of works included in the exhibition.

A girl’s first sewing endeavor at school was a sampler on which she stitched letters and numbers as a means of learning both basic academic and sewing skills (these were referred to as “marking” samplers; not illustrated). A larger, more pictorial sampler or family register followed, which sometimes included lettering and numbers along with a verse or scenic panel. Samplers are usually stitched on linen and often relay specific information about the maker, such as her name, date of birth, parents, teacher, town, and age.

Mary Ann Post (1813–1883), Hebron, Conn.
Family register, Glastonbury, Conn., 1827
Silk on linen; 18 x 22 inches
Private collection

Family register samplers became enormously popular in the early nineteenth century, recording marriages, births, and deaths. They sometimes included depictions of several generations of a family alongside memorial monuments. Mary Ann Post of Hebron, Connecticut, the daughter of a farmer, worked this striking sampler at Miss Cornwall’s school in Glastonbury, Connecticut, in 1827. Several other samplers from this school share the same characteristic pillars with arched enclosure and the elaborate floral border with bow-tied garlands. She left space for the death dates of her parents and brother to be added later.
Melancia Bowker (1803–1875)
Sampler, Fitzwilliam, N.H., 1817
Silk, chenille, and paper on linen; 17 x 21½ inches
Private collection

A girl holding a bouquet and standing in a disproportionate landscape dotted with sheep is surrounded by a lavishly embroidered floral border in this large sampler stitched by Melancia Bowker at age thirteen. The girl’s face and the sheep are applied paper, a technique not commonly found on New England samplers. The four Bowker daughters from Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, are all known to have created or taught needlework and Laura Bowker made a sampler very similar to Melancia’s, also in 1817, and now in the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Museum of Design, Smithsonian Institution.
Alice Mather (1762–1842), Lyme, Conn.
Sampler, Norwich, Conn., 1774
Silk on linen with a printed chintz border; 13¾ x 11½ inches
Private collection

Alice Mather included a bucolic scenic panel in her sampler and further enhanced it with the unusual addition of a floral chintz applied border. A resident of Lyme, Alice attended school in Norwich, Connecticut, where the solidly stitched black background appeared on other samplers in the 1760s, as did small sections of a Greek key pattern as seen here in the alphabet. The blue house and biblical verse are found on other Norwich samplers.
Charlotte Porter (1799–?)
Sampler, Middletown, Conn., 1810
Silk on linsey-woolsey; 17¼ x 16¾ inches
Private collection
Charlotte Porter chose a green linsey-woolsey, more typically found in samplers from the northeast corner of Massachusetts and nearby areas of Maine and New Hampshire, on which to work her charming pictorial Middletown sampler. Many samplers from Middletown include impressive houses or groups of buildings set in a townscape, suggesting the influence of one teacher’s designs.
Canvaswork scenes of bucolic landscapes taken from print sources or created as original designs were fashionable pictures for girls to stitch at school in the eighteenth century. They were worked in needlepoint stitches on a linen canvas using silk and/or wool thread. These scenes were sometimes incorporated into a sampler as a pictorial panel in the lower or middle portion, while the traditional alphabet and numbers were stitched above (see Alice Mather’s sampler on previous page). Most examples from Connecticut were made in Norwich. A small group of early related canvasworks made by Middletown and Fairfield girls feature floral designs suggesting that their teacher perhaps trained in Norwich.

Unidentified daughter of John Chandler, Jr., Woodstock, Conn.
Canvaswork, possibly Norwich, Conn., circa 1758
Wool and silk on linen; 15 x 23 inches
Private collection

This intriguing canvaswork scene of two courting couples engaged in conversation, one holding hands, the other about to be hit by cupid’s arrow, was worked by a daughter of John Chandler Jr., of Woodstock, Connecticut, circa 1758. The embroidery gives the viewer a glimpse of an intimate country garden party of the mid-eighteenth century, complete with furniture brought outside from the house and servants presenting refreshments. It is unknown where the Chandler girls attended school, but it may have been Norwich, where canvasworks were popular at the time.

Mary Lockwood (unknown life dates). Canvaswork (one of a pair), Fairfield, Conn., 1740s.
Wool on linen; 16½ x 13 inches. Private collection.

To date, there is a group of four extant Fairfield examples with similar
compositions and one from Middletown, Connecticut. Some of the floral designs are derived from bed hangings, while other motifs like the houses and trees are original creations. They are stunningly graphic with their bold colors and solidly stitched black backgrounds typical of Norwich work during this period. The location where Mary made this canvaswork is unknown.
From the 1790s through the 1830s, needleworks that combined embroidery and watercolor on silk were the height of fashion at female academies. Classical, historical, and biblical scenes adapted from print sources were stitched on silk, with faces and backgrounds painted in by the student, or sometimes by the teacher or a professional artist. After the death of George Washington and the outpouring of grief, memorials gained in popularity, so much so that often the monument would be left blank to be filled in at a later date. Teachers often created their own designs that were copied and can give attribution to a body of work from a particular school. In their quest to enhance their skills and attempt new ones, young ladies sometimes attended more than one school, traveling great distances to do so.

Mary Cheney (1781–1813)
Needlework, Hartford, Conn., 1793
Silk and metallic thread on silk; 18¼  x 16½ inches
Private collection

Mary Cheney stitched the earliest known embroidery from the Misses Pattens’ school in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1793. Family coats of arms were fashionable embroidery achievements for the socially elite in mid-eighteenth-century Boston and in late-eighteenth- and early- nineteenth-century Hartford. Coats of arms worked at Misses Pattens’ school incorporated a padded bird holding bow-tied floral garlands that typically topped the needlework. Floral swags graced the bottom while the family arms and banner were dramatically centered.
Jael Whitcomb (1818–?)
Needlework, Fitzwilliam, N.H., 1828
Silk, paper, and ink on fine linen; 11⅝ x 15 inches
Private collection

The branches of a feathery tree float protectively over the memorial by Jael Whitcomb of Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, stitched and hand lettered to honor two of her siblings in 1828. The unusual design was wrought under the tutelage of her teacher Chestina Bowker, who later homesteaded in Kansas Territory with her husband and five children. This needlework is unique among those worked and instructed by females in the Connecticut River Valley.
Louisa Bellows (1792–1868), Walpole, N.H.
Needlework, Hartford, Conn., circa 1810
Silk, metallic thread, and watercolor on silk; 18¾ x 25¼ inches
Private collection

Louisa Bellows of Walpole, New Hampshire, traveled to Hartford, Connecticut, with several of her friends to attend the Misses Pattens’ school. She stitched this beautiful rendition of Charity, copied from a print, a common source for needlework projects, circa 1810. It was not unusual for young ladies to travel long distances to board at female academies and there pursue both academic subjects and the ornamental branches of education. 
Eliza Ely (1794–1836), Saybrook, Conn.
Needlework, South Hadley, Mass., 1807
Silk, metallic thread, ink, and paint on silk; 17 x 15¼ inches
Collection of Historic Deerfield
John W. and Christiana G.P. Batdorf Fund. (2003.8)

In 1807, when she was thirteen years old, Eliza Ely of Saybrook, Connecticut, traveled up the river to South Hadley, Massachusetts, to attend Abby Wright’s school, where she stitched two embroidered memorials, inscribing neither, attesting to the fashion for leaving them to be filled in at a later date. Typical of Miss Wright’s school, Eliza incorporated the use of heavy metallic thread on the urns, stitched a wispy willow and a tree filled with hanging leaves of French knots, and an opposing couple consisting of a weeping woman and gentleman leaning on the monument with crossed legs.
Polly Jennings (1778–?)
Needlework, Norwich, Conn., 1793
Silk, paint, sequins, and gold foil on black silk; 18 x 24 inches
Private collection

Polly Jennings embroidered this delightful rural scene in 1793 at the age of fifteen. She used gold foil for the crook and staff and metallic thread to trim the fashionable hats. According to family tradition, her father took the finished piece to Boston to have it framed.  Unlike many areas where needlework pieces are copied by students and are somewhat consistent in the motifs used, those from Norwich demonstrate an unusual freedom of design and originality. It is only because the embroideries are signed or descended in the families with specific notations that some of them can be attributed to the area.
Painting in watercolor was an elective subject at girls schools that gained popularity in the late eighteenth century and continued well into the mid-nineteenth century, particularly at many of the larger schools. Memorial tributes were often painted in watercolor with inked inscriptions. Other subjects included famous buildings, pastoral scenes, children at play, and floral motifs.

Unknown member of the Streeter Family
Memorial, Chesterfield, N.H., circa 1833
Watercolor and ink on paper; 15½ x 20½ inches
Private collection

This circa 1833 watercolor celebrates the family of Russell Streeter of Chesterfield, New Hampshire, and was most likely painted by one of his older daughters, Angela or Augusta. The births of his nine children by two different wives are recorded along with death dates of those departed.  The statistics are inscribed within an ornate columned archway with drapery, tassels, and angels, as well as on the black-shrouded monument. The female figure with an anchor representing Hope stands to the left of the monument while a ship flying an American flag sails in the background.
Watercolors painted on silk were more difficult to execute than on paper, and hence examples are less common though taught at some of the female academies. Frequently painted to look like needlework, using small brush strokes to emulate stitches, the subject was usually a memorial.

Lucy Chillson (1795–1870), Weathersfield, VT.
Watercolor, Windsor, VT, circa 1806
Watercolor on silk with gold band of paper surround; 15⅞ x 19⅜ inches
Private collection
Lucy Chillson of Weathersfield, Vermont, painted this memorial to her father (who died in 1806), probably at the nearby Windsor Female Academy in Windsor, Vermont. She used short brush strokes to imitate embroidery stitches and surrounded her work with a band of gold-painted paper.  The figures most likely represent Lucy and her mother.

With Needle & Brush is on view at the Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut, through January 30, 2011. For information call 860.434.5542 or visit

Carol and Stephen Huber are needlework scholars, authors, and dealers based in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.