Examples of 18th and 19th century Pennsylvania needlework – samplers, show towels, still life floral depictions, aprons and bibs, state seals and more – are marvelous expressions of American folk art. Some are so finely detailed, it’s hard to believe they were wrought by young girls barely in their teens, some even younger.
“The enduring appeal of Pennsylvania textile arts stems from its long and rich needlework tradition,” said Will Kimbrough, Vice President and Department Head of Americana and Fine & Decorative Arts at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates in Mt. Crawford, Virginia. “This tradition is represented by any number of iconic pieces from varying regions, time periods, and styles – from the band samplers of Colonial Philadelphia, to the silk-embroidered pictures and memorials popular in the Federal period, to the pictorially exuberant compositions of Mary Tidball’s school operating at the western edge of the state in the mid-19th century.”
Kimbrough added, “This deep Pennsylvania needlework tradition is undoubtedly linked with the strong Quaker and Moravian influence in the early settlement of the state. The vast majority of this needlework was produced in schools, and the Quaker and Moravian emphasis on education led to the widespread establishment of affordable educational opportunities for men and woman alike in the early period.”
The standard curriculum for girls in these schools, in both the English and Germanic models, included needlework as a core component of a young woman’s education. “Accordingly, more schoolgirl needlework from Pennsylvania survives in comparison with that produced in other states.”
Kaitlyn Julian of Pook & Pook, Inc., in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, said we should thank devoted scholars for their curiosity and dedicated studies to the subject of samplers. “Important research has invigorated the market and compelled collectors to appreciate the historic context and intrinsic value of samplers,” Julian said. “In the past, samplers may have been seen as frivolous pursuits or old-fashioned crafts made by little girls, but research carried out over the past few decades has revealed the extent of the craft and, more importantly, connected collectors to the young women behind the craft.”
The definitive reference book for samplers is Betty Ring’s Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers and Pictorial Needlework, 1650-1850, published in 1993. As the body of knowledge on samplers deepened, especially in the 1990s after the publication of Ring’s book, auction values climbed. “We saw many important collections cross the auction block, like Joan Stephens’ collection in 1997 and Betty Ring’s collection later in 2012,” Julian pointed out.
She continued, “I believe a factor of the enduring popularity of samplers today is partly thanks to online genealogy websites. It is now easier than ever to connect yourself with the past. The lovely thing about samplers is that they contain the name and often location of the maker. These two pieces of information, when typed into a genealogy website, can connect you personally with the young lady who made the piece. From there, you may be able to determine who her teacher was, who her classmates were, what her family was like, and so forth. You can then begin to identify certain regional motifs taught by various school mistresses and appreciate the intricacies of design and differing skill levels among the students.’
“Visualizing a classroom, perhaps not unlike the one you were taught in, brings to mind these girls laboring over their work, trading stories, and being rewarded by their teacher. Making a personal connection like this can make a huge difference in how you engage with, enjoy, and value historic artifacts. Across generations and centuries, the common thread of human experience endures.”
Pennsylvania has produced an abundance of samplers, partly perhaps due to its rich early history as America’s melting pot. By the time of the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia was the world’s second-largest English-speaking city. Quakers, Moravians, Pennsylvania Dutch, and Mennonites all populated the state in the early 18th century, following William Penn’s dream of religious freedom. With each culture came new and different histories and traditions of needlework and embroidery. Quakers and Moravians both placed value in women’s education and as a result, Pennsylvania was one of the first colonies with schools for girls.
As for the demand for samplers and other expressions of Pennsylvania needlework, Will Kimbrough said the market for top-quality, fresh-to-the-market examples in excellent condition will continue to escalate over the next five years. “Additionally,” he added, “identified examples connected with specific schools and regions will continue to perform well. As is true with other segments of the market, more typical, less visually interesting pieces, and anything with distracting condition problems, will continue to decline in value.”
Kaitlyn Julian said, “With all the great scholarship on the subject, I believe that a continued interest in collecting samplers is here to stay. I don’t believe the market is as strong as it was twenty years ago, but interest remains high and the market now presents a chance for young collectors to build their own collection at reasonable prices. In order to maintain a strong market, it is crucial to establish an interest with the younger generations.”
She added, “As always with antiques, exceptional examples will continue to achieve exceptional prices. Samplers that consistently achieve high prices on the auction block include those which are easy to read, brightly colored and without stains or fading. Easy to read samplers with visual interest and intricately embroidered borders always catch the eye of collectors, especially those with balanced compositions and regional motifs. My favorite samplers include those with spectacularly detailed brick houses, boasting rows and rows of windows, a mansard roof, and a dog running in the front yard. Especially impressive are those which are marked with the age of the maker, including some as young as five or six.”