The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 12, 1999


Treasures from Carlisle's Past: Historical Society's Samplers

Treasures from Carlisle's Past is a new feature column that will highlight the "stories" of many of the objects in the collections of the Town and Historical Society. Some 1,500 to 2,000 "treasures," each with a special link to the history of Carlisle, currently reside on the third floor of Gleason Library. Two collections include all manner of artifacts, from delicate baby bonnets to rugged Civil War battlefield relics.

It is thanks to the foresight of early collectors of town memorabilia and those who volunteered their time to document the items that Carlisle has such a varied sampling of interesting items. Mrs. Benson (Martha Fifield) Wilkins wrote detailed entries in beautiful handwriting in the original collection logs, which make fascinating reading. She was one of the founding members of the Carlisle Historical Society in 1933. Since its beginning, the Society's collection has been housed with that of the Town, although the two are separately numbered. The two collections are closely tied to one another, comprised of similar objects from many of the same families. For example, the medical instruments of Dr. Austin Marsh are found in both collections.

This past fall, the Carlisle Historical Society began a documentation project to digitize the collection catalogues. Working with Virginia Holcomb, an intern from the Tufts University Museum Studies Program, the author began photographing, measuring and locating each object listed in the inventories. The intern developed a database into which information about each item will be entered for eventual access on the computer by interested residents and students of Carlisle's past. The project also provides information on the general condition of the artifacts, a precursor to prioritizing the conservation measures needed to preserve these valuable historic resources. The first treasures described will be the samplers, providing "stories" of some of the women of Carlisle.

Threads of History

Thomas Jefferson, in a 1787 letter, admonished his daughter Martha: "In the country life of America there are many moments when a woman can have recourse to nothing but her needle. . In a dull company and in dull weather the needle is then a valuable resource."

Three years later, he queried his other daughter, Mary, in a similar letter: "How are you occupied? How many pages a day [do] you read How many hours a day [do] you sew?" It is clear from the thirteen samplers in Carlisle's historical collections that local daughters were as diligent in the practice of needlework as Jefferson desired his own Martha and Mary to be.

The samplers worked by Carlisle girls, age ten to nineteen years, date from 1786 to 1838 and illustrate the common forms of plain and ornamental needlework popular during that period. All are worked using silk thread on a linen ground. The linen fabric is very fine — 32 squares or more per inch! The designs, simple and intricate, represent an important element of Carlisle's history. Needlework , one of the major contributions to the decorative arts made by women, is a fitting legacy, reflective of women's roles in Colonial and early Federal society. Textiles, as many of the Carlisle samplers demonstrate, are particularly susceptible to light and the elements, fading and disintegrating over time if not properly preserved. The lives of their makers were often just as tenuous, with many women dying early during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. "Plain sewing" was the necessary, but tedious, task of all women who learned to make simple stitches as young as five or six, to sew good seams and to make good marks to fashion their family's clothing and identify their household linens. As girls progressed they might sew decorative embroideries, learning stitches which would adorn pockets, petticoats, vests and bags.

Six samplers in the Carlisle holdings are representative of so-called marking samplers, containing alphabets and numerals in simple stitches (most often cross-stitch), sometimes followed by a short verse. By completing these, girls learned the proper lettering techniques for marking linens, in order to both identify them and properly rotate them for even wear.

The simplest marking samplers are those of Nancy Follet, age 12 (no date); Martha D. P- - - -unreadable (no date), and Betsy Adams, age 10 (1804). Three others, worked by Mary Fisher (no date), Polly Barrett (no date), and Hannah Lane (1786), contain additional styles of alphabets. Mary completed three alphabets and the numerals up to 13! (Why did she stop at 13?) The Hannah Lane sampler is the oldest dated one in our collections. Hannah carefully noted: "Hannah Lane is my name/10 years old I wrot the same 1786." Hannah later became the second wife of Isaiah Green of Carlisle.

In 1804 Betsy Adams stitched two alphabets: one of script capitals and one of block letters. She ended with this verse: "tis the needle book and pen/I will learn and strive to mend." She obviously "practiced what she stitched," as a second sampler completed by her three years later demonstrates marked improvement! The 1807 Adams sampler, like five others in the collections, illustrates an expanded design, incorporating a border and other motifs. Betsy, who was the daughter of Captain Timothy and Joanna (Keyes) Adams married Captain Thomas Heald in 1824.

Hannah L. C. Green worked a simple but charming sampler at age ten in 1816. She used not only cross, but herringbone, satin and Algerian eye stitches. We may thank Miss Green not only for the gift of her sampler, but that of Hannah Lane, her step-mother. Miss Green also provided an octagonal "summerhouse" for Green Cemetery in 1874 and in 1885 added to her sister's bequest to complete the monument honoring Carlisle's Civil War soldiers.

Design motifs on samplers included fruits, flowers, berries and birds, which might be copied from source books such as Richard Shorleyker,'s A Schole [sic] House for the Needle (1624) or Peter Stent's Booke [sic] of Flowers Fruits Beastes [sic] Birds and Flies (1650). Many had symbolic meanings. For instance, strawberries, found frequently on New England samplers, represented "purity and righteousness."

Several of the Carlisle examples have saw-tooth borders, common to Middlesex County. Particular styles and patterns were frequently associated with individual teachers and geographic locales. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries parents who could afford the tuition, would send their daughters to schools specializing in needlework, music, dancing, painting and other arts. There is evidence that schoolgirl embroideries were hung to attract the attention of suitors. Young men would realize that the daughter came from a reasonably well-to-do household and had the requisite sewing abilities. Glee Krueger (New England Samplers to 1840) lists "advertisements" for Miss Bathseba Whitman of Billerica Academy, Miss Davis of Chelmsford and Miss Prescott of the Young Ladies Academy in Groton, any one of which Carlisle girls might possibly have attended in the early 1820s.

In addition to the charming motifs, the verses that appear on samplers are most intriguing. Verses often emphasized both the necessity for virtue and the brevity of life. In 1825, twelve-year-old Sarah Hodgman created an elaborate floral border encircling this verse: "How rapid time away,/Our living how transient and brief/Tis hardl[y] a moment we stay/Before we decay as the leaf." Only a year earlier, in 1824, ten-year-old Louisa Mansfield worked a similar verse: "In my path through this vale of tears/Let wisdom measure out my years/May my example useful be/And benefit posterity. If good we plant not vice will fill the mind/for weeds despoil the ground for flowers designed."

Esther Heald, daughter of John Heald, Esquire, and Dorcas Green Heald, stitched a particularly fine sampler in 1819 at the age of twelve. Inside a border appear the usual alphabets, then below the verse a house and trees, common elements on schoolgirl samplers. She worked the last two lines found on the Mansfield sampler: "If good we plant not vice will fill the mind/And weeds despoil the place for flowers designed," followed by the straightforward statement: "this vacant place requires a line."

Another type of ornamental embroidery, the family register, is represented in our collections by the Maria Forbush and Mary Monroe pieces. These samplers served as records of births, deaths, and marriages, as well as decorative "showpieces." Thirteen-year-old Maria Forbush, daughter of Paul and Hannah (Green) Forbush, completed her family tree in 1825. An intricate floral and vine border surrounds the family names and this verse:

Jesus permit these precious names to stand,

As the first efforts of an infants hand,

Let virtue prove the never fading bloom,

For mental beauties will survive the tomb.

Virtue is the chiefest beauty of the mind

The noblest ornament of human kind.

Mary E. Monroe worked the Monroe family register with a very elaborate border and many elements characteristic of so-called "mourning pictures." Two large, flowing willow trees dominate the design. Mary sewed this record when she was nineteen years old. It is interesting to note that three of the death dates, including her own, are clearly later additions! This particular piece is the "youngest" of our samplers, completed in 1838. By that time, the focus of fine sewing and its place in a young woman's education was shifting. It would not be until the second half of the twentieth century, with a rekindling of the interest in counted cross-stitch, that needle workers would again sew the alphabet bands, borders and motifs borrowed from their earlier ancestors. Today, needlework samplers, such as those in the Carlisle collections, are treasured for their beauty and as personal expressions of their makers lives.

Stephanie Upton is a member of the Carlisle Historical Society. She currently is an independent museum professional. Formerly she was on the staff of the Concord Museum and was the director of Orchard House for the past five years until 1998.

1999 The Carlisle Mosquito