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Posted April 19, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Historic samplers are focus of museum exhibit

By Josette Keelor - jkeelor@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- The history behind local schoolgirl samplers is written all over the walls at the Abram's Delight Museum in Winchester.

The samplers, which feature a variety of images, from the alphabet and Bible verses to pictures of buildings, trees and flowers, include the names of local girls who stitched them, and sometimes even their ages at the time.

"It was part of their education; they usually learned their alphabets," says Mary Robare, guest co-curator of the exhibit, through the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society.

The idea behind the exhibit started with one sampler, she says. Within six months she had located 25 historic samplers. Most came from around the area, she says.

They are the work of girls, ages 5-15, from the 18th and 19th centuries.

"They framed them, and they were points of pride," says Robare, who explains that the technique is the same as cross stitch. "They actually have a lot of stitches in them."

Because of the cost, "Only the very wealthy girls did this," she says, though there were a few exceptions. "Textiles were precious goods -- listed in wills with the most expensive things."

She encourages visitors to the exhibit to notice the beauty in each, to look at the verses and the motifs that can indicate genealogy.

"When they look at this sampler, they're seeing a relationship between the teacher and the girl who made the sampler," she says.

One of the reasons Robare appreciates the samplers is for their generational history. Much of the framed work in the exhibit shows how the tradition was a family affair, with sisters, mothers and daughters and grandmothers all participating and learning from each other.

"We have several multi-generations represented," she says, indicating two samplers by mother and daughter, Kitty Senseney and Ann Wright.

Many family members used the same elements in their stitching.

Robare points out a flower motif that repeats on many samplers by different girls, concluding that possibly they all had the same teacher.

"The more you look, the more you see," says Robare.

Susan O. Grant, Margaret Ann Pritcherd and Rebecca Ann Miller all used this motif.

"It suggests that it was favored, a favored design," says Robare. The shared motifs also suggest that all of these girls lived in the same area.

Though each sampler offers the name of the artist, few provide a date, and many are difficult to trace back to a time or place.

Each girl would stitch in her age or the date she completed the work, but many would later pull out the stitches because, Robare says, a lady never reveals her age.

"It's our hope that we'll find even more samplers," she says, explaining that a lot of work went into holding the exhibit.

Many people contributed their own family samplers to the exhibit, including Joe Hollis, of Stephens City. The sampler by his ancestor, Grant, is framed right alongside that of Hannah Conrad. Both were Hollis' great-great-aunts on his paternal grandmother's side.

"It's just wonderful to have them, and I've always cherished them," he says of the samplers. He displayed the samplers at his home last year along the house tour during the Stephens City Sesquicentennial.

Robare, who had seen the samplers at his home, asked Hollis to display them at the exhibit.

"Mary helped me a lot because I knew they were connected with my family," he says. "It was very interesting to put them on display and find that stuff out."

Jenny Powers, of Winchester, loaned some samplers from her collection to the exhibit.

"Collectors know collectors," says Powers, explaining that she knew who else to contact for assistance.

"We try to concentrate on Virginia samplers," says Powers, who was a curator at the Kurtz Building with Preservation of Historic Winchester.

Two from her personal collection are from the Pidgeon family.

"This is how I got interested [in collecting], 'cause this was my husband's family," she says.

Three generations are represented in the Pidgeon family samplers, Powers says: Sarah Chandlee, who stitched hers in 1837, and her daughters, Rebecca Pidgeon, 1869, and Eliza Pidgeon, 1867.

Powers used their maiden names on the labels, because "I'm a feminist," she says, smiling. Because women were known by their husband's name, researchers have a tough time locating the names of women who lived hundreds of years ago, she says.

"For each of these labels there's at least three hours of research that goes into it, at least," says Powers.

Robare, an independent researcher, was up to the task.

"Some of them, we even know the house they lived in, when they made the sampler," she says. "You have to know who they were married to to know their name, or who their father was."

Going off a house pictured in one sampler, Robare was able to cross-reference Maria Barton Miller with houses in the area to know where she might have lived, and she found a winner on Apple Pie Ridge.

"You can picture this girl in the house on Apple Pie Ridge," she says. "All of a sudden their way of life starts to come to you."

Powers points out a sampler by Elizabeth Walker, 1791.

"This is the earliest one we knew of, but we just have a picture of it for the exhibit," she says of the facsimile copy. The original is owned by Robare's husband's family, who live in Vermont.

Above a mantel in the room hangs a sampler made on paper instead of cloth. "You still have the basic stitching, but it's on paper," she says. "I guess it was cheaper."

The verse reads, "The Lord is my Shepherd," and Powers believes it dates to the 1870s.

"A lot of them are 1804 or so," says Robare. "They're very early."

One was stitched by Sarah Battaille Fitzhugh.

"We learned that her portrait is owned by Colonial Williamsburg," Robare says.

Other samplers depict a yellow house from New Market. Powers guesses the house might have served as a school house for the girls, where they learned how to stitch.

"The yellow house samplers are on my wish list," she says, admitting she has found samplers on eBay.

"People just don't realize that so many girls around here were doing this," says Robare. "They just don't know this existed."

The "When This You See, Remember Me: Schoolgirl Samplers of Winchester-Frederick County, Virginia'" museum exhibit will continue at the Abram's Delight Museum through Oct. 31. For more information, visit www.winchesterhistory.org.


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