Samplers and Girlhood

As a young woman, Elizabeth Gossom sat down to stitch. She created the hanging seen at right – a sampler, which included the letters of the alphabet, a poem she loved, illustrations in colors she chose, and recorded the dates for her parents’ marriage, her birth, the birth of her husband, and her own marriage.

The sampler wasn’t just to record such information – it was also a showcase piece. Designed by Elizabeth, it showcased her skills in embroidery, her knowledge of grammar and literature, her preferences for colors and motifs that she would use in decorating her home, and the people most important to her. All that from a single piece of stitched cloth, which was likely proudly hung in the family home.

Samplers like this tell scholars much about girlhood and young womanhood, particularly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As girls were educated at dame schools (a form of homeschooling in reading, arithmetic, and sewing), samplers became numerous – and exist today as family heirlooms, helping us uncover the lives – and preferences – of girls becoming women.

Elizabeth Gossom Roberts created this sampler in the 1830s. Object no. KM2016.39.1

Samplers also tell us about American society. As recounted in my forthcoming book, Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures, samplers like that of Mary Wright help us understand the values of the New Nation. They also hold clues to the growth of American colonies (from 629,000 in 1700 to nearly 5,000,000 in 1800), the emergence of an American middle class that sought to educate their girls in order to obtain attractive marriages and become self-sufficient, identification with new ideals of self-sufficiency through mastery of skills critical to home manufacture and management, and female self-expression in the dedication, techniques, and visual choices made by girls.

Elizabeth Gossam Roberts probably lived much like Mary Wright, creating needlework and embroidered goods until her death. Many pieces would have been passed down through the family, held as prized possessions and objects of memory.

“In the absence of written records, samplers and later embroidery by girls are evidence that they lived, learned, and loved.”

Tiffany R. Isselhardt in Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures

Interpretation by Tiffany R. Isselhardt

Published by kentuckymuseumwku

The Kentucky Museum is located in the Kentucky Building on the campus of Western Kentucky University. The Museum houses several changing exhibits. There are a variety of partnerships, services, opportunities, workshops, camps and other outreach provided to the public each year.

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