Girlhood embroidery: Remembering a stitch in time

ANTIQUES

September 19, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

Long before S.A.T.s, American schoolgirls' achievements were measured in linen, silk, and chenille. For most 18th- and early 19th-century girls fortunate enough to attend school, the major course of study was the art of embroidery. The result of a term's schooling usually was a charming sampler or silk embroidery in the latest fashion, which parents could frame and display proudly.

Although the tradition of girlhood embroidery dates back to antiquity, its role in early American life now is unfolding thanks to Betty Ring, of Houston, Texas, a dedicated collector turned scholar and author.

The culmination of a quarter-century of Mrs. Ring's collecting and study, and her legacy to fellow collectors, museum curators, historians, and anyone who has treasured a family heirloom sampler -- or simply enjoyed one on display -- is a long-awaited, beautifully illustrated two-volume boxed set, "Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers & Pictorial Needlework 1650-1850," due out next month (Alfred A. Knopf, $125). It's now, and long will remain, the authoritative book on the subject. (Prior, less ambitious books by Mrs. Ring, two decades of her articles in the Magazine Antiques and years of her popular lectures have whetted the antiques world's appetite for this meaty new book.)

Old yarns, new research

For generations, it's been thought that most 18th- and early 19th-century American samplers were naive works, from original patterns, made at home by young girls under their mothers' tutelage, while fancy silk-embroidered mourning pictures were viewed as the works of grieving widows. Such assumptions, made of whole cloth, were part of the works' appeal. Those myths have come unravelled thanks to Mrs. Ring, a mother of seven and grandmother of six, whose enthusiasm for girlhood embroidery is contagious. By spending years piecing together the fabric of the lives of the girls who stitched and signed their works, and the women who taught them, Mrs. Ring proves, among other things, that most samplers and silk embroideries in fact followed strict patterns set out for students by their school mistresses.

To frame her case, Mrs. Ring has jetted across the country to examine dusty 18th- and 19th-century genealogical records, account books, household inventories, business ledgers and newspaper advertisements -- not to mention samplers themselves -- in historical societies, public records' offices, museums, church archives, private collections and libraries, as well as dealers' shops and auction houses. Mrs. Ring's point: By studying the needlework legacy of early American schoolgirls one can begin to understand the evolution of female education and its role in our society. And, by identifying America's first school mistresses and their students, Mrs. Ring authenticates entire groups of samplers. Her genealogical research also enlivens them.

Between the covers

Divided by region of the country and individual schools, Mrs. Ring's book pictures and documents nearly 600 American samplers. Collectors and dealers now will have one authoritative resource to use when stylistically comparing samplers on the market, and in private or public collections. "I couldn't do what I do if it weren't for Betty Ring. I rely on her scholarship," says Amy Finkel, an American folk-art dealer in Philadelphia who publishes semi-annual catalogs of antique samplers she's offering for sale. (Subscriptions cost $35 postpaid from M. Finkel & Daughter, 936 Pine St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19107, (215) 627-7797.)

"There's nothing available like Betty's new book. We usually have to refer to so many different sources," added dealer Carol Huber, who with her husband, Stephen, publishes an annual "Sampler Engagement Calendar," ($14.95 each postpaid from S. C. Huber, 82 Plants Dam Road, East Lyme, Conn. 06333, [203] 739-0772.) The Hubers' calendar makes accessible pictures of samplers which otherwise would remain out of sight in private collections.

Needlework dominated American female education until around the 1830s. Spurred by school reformers and the Industrial Revolution, the traditional curriculum was modernized to focus on academic studies to prepare young women for roles as teachers. About a generation later, a few pioneering collectors began seeking out old samplers, while others dusted off family heirlooms to hang proudly once again. Though little was known about them, early American samplers became fashionable authentic accessories in late 19th- and early 20th-century Colonial Revival interiors.

Important discovery

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