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Unraveling Antique American Samplers
by Bob Brooke


American samplers fetch high prices, especially at Americana shows. There’s a good chance that the unsuspecting buyer discovering a single one in an antique shop will be taken, through no fault of the dealer. Most antique dealers can’t tell real samplers from fake ones. It’s only those who specialize in such things that can truly tell the difference.

According to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Loara Standish made the earliest known American sampler in Plymouth Colony around 1645. Over the next two centuries, women created samplers as a way to save different types of stitches or designs they might want to use sometime in the future.

The earliest known American sampler was made by Loara Standish of the Plymouth Colony about 1645. By the 1700s, samplers depicting alphabets and numerals were worked by young women to learn the basic needlework skills needed to operate the family household. By the late 1700s and early 1800s, schools or academies for well-to-do young women flourished, and more elaborate pieces with decorative motifs such as verses, flowers, houses, religious, pastoral, and/or mourning scenes were being stitched. The parents of these young women proudly displayed their embroideries as showpieces of their work, talent, and status.

An example of a 19th-century young girl's needlework could show the extent and quality of her education as well as her religious and moral convictions. Schoolgirls from wealthier families used more expensive threads and learned more complicated designs or stitches while those from poor families used samplers almost as resumes of their abilities in an effort to gain employment in doing sewing.

Many early samplers do not have the letters “J” and “U” in their alphabets because they were not part of the early Latin alphabet and so the letter “I” was used for “J” and the “V” for “U.” The letter “s” is often replaced with the printers “s” which looks like the modern f.

While the samplers, themselves, don’t show much about the lives of women in early America, the research people have done in diaries, account books, letters, newspaper ads, local histories, and published commentary has helped to illuminate their lives.

By the 18th century, embroidered samplers as mere memory aids disappeared and samplers became an integral part of the school curriculum in genteel female education. They were educational tools, much like a slate or horn board, that strived to develop a young girl’s stitchery skills for both practical and ornamental purposes. Samplers also developed secondary functions as girls were made to sew upon them verses, poems, or tracts concerning life and death, and the rewards of pious behavior. The execution of verses on samplers, with increasingly more elaborate decorative motifs and designs, provided practice for more intricate stitches and designs along with the hope that reproducing such sentiments on cloth would foster virtue, publicly exhibiting moral and needlework accomplishments.

Most girls’ sewing education began with simple marking samplers consisting of several cross stitched alphabets, numerals, and perhaps a few simple geometric motifs placed in ordered, horizontal rows. After their completion, the makers of these marking samplers could often go on to produce more intricate and individually designed pieces. For other girls, the marking sampler was the extent of their needlework education. Samplers that depict maps, genealogical information, or detailed architectural elements were also produced by young girls who benefited from a broadened educational curriculum that later covered subjects like geography, civics, and the natural sciences.

As there was no standardization of curriculum, a girl could learn only what her teacher was skilled enough to teach, but the multitude of available teaching situations throughout the eighteenth century were diverse enough and in demand by concerned parents and community leaders, that most girls received some sort of education no matter their social and economic circumstances.

Every sampler is a historical record of one girl’s educational training and the type and value placed on that education. The overall design, materials used, and design motifs give evidence of her culture, religion, social class, and personal artistic accomplishments and abilities. For well-educated girls of high social class, samplers confirmed their genteel standing.

Samplers also benefited the poor or orphaned girl by teaching her a trade in practical, marketable sewing skills for future self employment. Sampler making was also seen as laying the groundwork for religious piety, family responsibility, and civic virtue.

By the 1850s, needlework, once a measure of gentility, became relegated to an elective subject in female academies. The gradual spread of public education and co-education among all classes of people pushed sampler-making from the classroom to a pastime at home. The increased use and availability of ink to mark textiles replaced the laborious cross stitched letters on clothing and household textiles, and the increased availability of paper, pencils, slates, and blackboards were the preferred method for practicing letters and numbers.

Today, collectors consider samplers works of art, as well as insights into the past. Subject matter ranges from a simple alphabet to complex landscapes, Biblical scenes and passages, as well as birth/death/ marriage records offering valuable genealogical information. In the past, collectors overlooked samplers as ordinary exercises in needlework, but today, they’re highly collectible and can command extremely high prices. For example, a sampler, sewn by New Jersey schoolgirl Mary Antrim sold at Sotheby’s for a over $1 million in 2012, while another fetched over $611,000 in 2003. Some sampler makers used only thread and needlework to create them while others used watercolors and paper and added embellishments like seed pearls or beads.

There are plenty of samplers being made today specifically intended to deceive unwary collectors in this lucrative tens-of-thousands to hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars market. The safest way to buy a sampler, of course, is through a reputable dealer who has a well-established reputation in sampler authentication. On the other hand, the riskiest way to purchase one is through an online auction site or an unknown online seller. Without being able to closely examine the fabric used and other details, there's no way to know for sure if a sampler is real or a fake.

So what are some ways to tell a fake or reproduction sampler from the real thing? One of the first thing to check is fabric discoloration. Old fabrics can darken in spots or brown to some degree in general, but much of this depends on what type of fabric the woman used and where it has been stored over time.

There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to sampler age. However, there are a couple of basic things to look for to make sure the browning is authentic. Many times, fakers will add browning to fabric by staining or darkening the fabric with tea or coffee. If a sampler browns, it tends to do so naturally around the edges near the frame, but blotchy browning should raise a cautionary flag. Also, if the fabric is wrinkled as if it were twisted or bunched up and the brown spots seem to follow that pattern, there's a good chance the browning has been added deliberately.

There have been a few cases where the actual date sewn onto a sampler has been altered to make the piece appear older—a "9" changed to an "8" or a "6" changed to a "0." If there's no evidence of stitches having been removed from the fabric and the piece is important enough, a genealogical search can be done to determine the dates of the needleworker's' life. If the sampler includes her age, would she have been of the correct age during the year sewn into the sampler.

Collectors interested in samplers from a particular region or school will find it easier to use style and thread type to authenticate them. By studying designs and types of thread used in a particular region or school throughout the years, when they came into use and when they stopped being used, it’s easy to date just about any sampler. Certain designs or stitching styles may also be more prevalent in a particular region, a certain school, or during a specific time period. On the other hand, some designs or stitch styles may not have been used at all by a particular school.

As with any antiques or collectibles in today’s market, it’s buyer beware. Being educated about samplers is the best defense to being taken.

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