Through the generations there has always been a fascinating interest in these folksy samplers. These pieces were one of the few ways a young lady could show off her education and artistic talent. They became a part of her dowry, traveled with her throughout her life and were willed to a favorite relative.
Before a girl could to to school, she had to prove her skill in plain sewing, embroidery and cross-stitching. She was expected to help with hemming, seams and mending. At around 8 years old she would be ready to start displaying mastery of those difficult stitches, her printing and handwriting, her sense of rhythm and composition.
However, there was a whole social status that subtly revolved around these pieces. The completed work went from the work basket to the parlor wall to silently proclaim the suitability of the daughter for marriage by revealing her virtues of obedience, patience and skill. It also showed that the girl’s parents were wealthy enough to send their daughter to school for refinement rather than the factory.
One of the earliest American samplers dates to 1653 and was stitched by Lora Standish, daughter of Miles Standish of the Pilgrim Society of Plymouth, Mass. Very few samplers from this era in America have survived. Of the 700 examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum Collection in London, the earliest is from the 14th century-16th century Egypt. For the purpose of this article, however, the focus is in American pieces. With that, there are a larger number of examples from the 1750s to the 1840s.
Favorite motifs include the Tree of Life, Fleur-de-lis, Trefoil, Indian pink, pineapples, strawberries and acorns to name a few. Typical New England samplers show several different styles of the alphabet, sometimes as many as five. Numbers were used as a fill-in to make the piece balanced.
The most important part of the sampler is still the handling of the motto or inscription with the more creative and literary, the more desirable. Quotations from the Bible, especially the Lord’s Prayer, The Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments, were frequently used. The ones dealing with love, friendship, maidenhood, chastity, death or sorrow used creatively were definitely more desirable. In the middle of the 18th century, a house or church became the central figure in composition. In the late 19th century pieces follow the prevailing sentiments of the Victorian Era which preferred verse and drew inspiration from editions of printed material such as Harper’s Magazine. What is not commonly known is that boys were taught the art of sewing as well. Thse pieces were simple marking types with taught boys to mark clothing and to instruct servants to do the same in a large household. This became a necessity for retrieving items from central washing areas within the household compound. It was also used as a way to distinguish linens to rotate them into storage and retain pieces for legacy purposes.
Collecting samplers has a very sophisticated market. Many dealers still see this market as underestimated for their importance in time. They reason that there are very few antiques where the buyer knows with a fair amount of certainty where the pieces was made, when it was made and by whom. What makes each piece a true art form is the fact that they were never made to be sold.
In the beginning American samplers were stitched in the same form as English ones. By the 18th century, designs began to vary, with the American creations becoming freer in expression, larger, flowing and more pictorial.
It’s all about identifying the interesting characteristics of the piece. There are regional styles combined with central themes and border designs that can even lead a buyer to the teacher. Sampler historian Betty Ring, whose collection is renowned as one of the best in the country and who has written many books on the subject, advises: “Collect the best you can. Look for quality, not quantity.” A lot of her pieces sold at auction in 2012 with one of them hammer price including buyer’s premium at $1,070,500 Sotheby’s.
Most samplers do not get nearly that much at auction today. As American styles and motifs are not in fashion in today’s market, being blocked out by the Mid-century Modern craze of the Millennials, prices vary highly based on whether one is in a regional market or national/international ones. At Sotheby’s in 2018/ 2019 American samplers sold at around the $25,000 mark, but as low as $6,250 to $1,125 with Regional auction prices round $300. Doyle of NY had an auction in January 2020 where pieces were selling for $250 and pieces estimated at $20,000 to $30,000 did not sell. I have a prediction, however, that there may be a renewed interest in needlework with the majority of the public still under quarantine and looking for inexpensive ways to keep busy.