Published: December 7, 2010
Some scholars cast a shadow so deep that decades pass before newcomers dare examine a subject in a new light. Betty Ring is one such giant. Beginning in 1967 and culminating in 1993 with Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers and Pictorial Needlework, 1650‱850 , the doyenne of needlework studies defined the field’s scholarly and commercial parameters by classifying the best early American embroidery by school and instructor.
Enter Susan P. Schoelwer. In 2005, she began her exhaustive analysis of antique needlework in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society (CHS). Schoelwer soon concluded that much of merit fell outside of Ring’s major scope of interest, either because it was made prior to the rise of formal female academies after the Revolution or because some girls learned to stitch at the feet of their female relatives, not in schools.
Now curator at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Schoelwer’s genealogical sleuthing and her often intuitive investigation of family traditions has culminated in Connecticut Needlework: Women, Art, and Family, 1740‱840 , published by the CHS and distributed by Wesleyan University Press. A companion exhibition at CHS through March 26 displays more than 70 examples of decorative needlework, all but one from the society’s collection.
As director of museum collections at CHS for 12 years, Schoelwer had lengthy opportunity to examine the institution’s holdings, “a rich body of evidence that illuminates both women’s history and American art,” as she writes.
Dating to the 1740s, the earliest group of Connecticut needlework includes traditional, stylized floral patterns, as well as pictorial compositions. Strikingly, the fiber art predates most painting and printmaking in the colony.
Having worked on Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern & Inn Signs from the Connecticut Historical Society and Connecticut Valley Furniture by Eliphalet Chapin and His Contemporaries, Schoewler originally envisioned a similarly exhaustive review of the state’s decorative needlework. Ultimately she had to limit her inquiry to the museum’s 300-piece collection, which includes a representative assortment of canvas work, crewel embroidery, coats of arms, whole-cloth quilting, samplers, silk-embroidered pictures, memorials, family registers and whitework.
Drawing heavily on pioneering research on the museum’s collections by needlework authority Glee Krueger, Schoelwer began to think of family traditions and family histories as the key to understanding the transmission of needlework styles and techniques in pre-Revolutionary Connecticut.
Research into family histories provided Schoelwer with abundant evidence of the importance of kinship networks. One of the most influential traditions descended through the women of the Stoddard-Williams-Edwards families, who lived along the Connecticut River Valley. Other important networks existed along the east side of the Thames River in southeastern Connecticut, stretching from Norwich south to the coastal towns of Stonington, Groton and Mystic.
Schoelwer discovered that in the colonial era, needlewomen were often the wives, daughters and sisters of clergymen, many of whom were educated at Yale. “They represented the best educated women in the region, and quite possibly, in America,” she writes, noting the high economic and social standing of these members of the professional elite.
“Needlework and academic education have often been seen as contradictory. It is very clear that, in Connecticut, needlework and primary education go hand in hand,” she says.
Over time, educational opportunities for women increased and needlework became a more egalitarian pursuit. Says Schoelwer, “The real flourishing of samplers was in the 1820s. It is then that you see the daughters of less prosperous tradesmen and yeoman farmers acquiring the necessary materials and educational opportunities.”
Arranged in four galleries, the exhibition exerts a seductive appeal for anyone with a love of color and pattern. The show begins in the first quarter of the Seventeenth Century with a fashionably elegant metallic and silk embroidered cushion cover that Elizabeth Gore Gager probably made in London before immigrating to Connecticut. The cushion cover is one of many artifacts that document the informal transmission of styles and techniques from England to the colony.
Some of the loveliest domestic textiles on view are bed hangings and covers, many of which sport the colorful, crewel-embroidered birds and patterned vines often associated with Connecticut design. Made around 1750, a set of hangings attributed to Prudence Geer Punderson of North Groton or Preston, Conn., is the earliest known component of a trove of Punderson family needlework, manuscripts and other furnishings housed at the historical society and explored elsewhere in the exhibition.
The CHS is known for its collection of yarn-stitched bed rugs decorated with boldly scrolling, floral designs. In contrast to the shag or pile surfaces of most bed rugs, a blue, white and brown example thought to have been made by Elizabeth Foote Huntington of Colchester, Conn., around 1778 has a flat surface enlivened by flowers filled with darning stitches that pass above and under the ground fabric in counted thread patterns. An artist and educator, Foote taught in the neighboring town of Hebron and is thought to have influenced her niece, Lorrain Collins, whose bed rug of 1786 is also on view.
Among the earliest and most felicitous additions to the show is a pair of silk-covered shoes embroidered with floral motifs by Hannah Edwards Wetmore and her sister Molly Edwards around 1745 in East Windsor or possibly Middletown, Conn. The family’s richly paneled parlor has long been a reason to visit the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, where the parlor was installed in 1986.
More subtle in its appeal is a worsted wool petticoat of 1758 that is attributed to Sarah Halsey of Stonington or Preston, Conn. A mermaid, lion, leopard, fish, stags, rabbits, a butterfly and birds animate its intricately embroidered but monochromatic surface. Under investigation by Linda Baumgarten, curator of textiles and costumes at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, figural petticoats of this type seem to be exclusively associated with eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island.
A second gallery filled with samplers takes up the subject of schools and female education. Of interest is a signed and dated 1821 sampler worked by 8-year-old William Frederic Tuttle of Hartford, a rare example of a young boy’s needlework. Tuttle studied at the Patten family’s school, and as an adult was a director of Aetna Insurance Company, Farmers and Mechanics National Bank and Hartford Hospital.
In 1839, 8-year-old Miranda Robinson of Saybrook completed one of only two known decorative embroideries from Connecticut that were made by black girls. Miranda, who enjoyed a moderately affluent and educated childhood, later worked in the Hartford household of Samuel and Elizabeth Colt.
Pictorial needlework, including religious pieces, fills the third gallery. Of note are three pastoral scenes on silk attributed to Faith Trumbull Huntington, who probably made them between 1754 and 1761. The most technically and compositionally ambitious of the three scenes is an overmantel, still in its original frame, that is partially inspired by French and Italian print sources. Educated in Boston, Faith Trumbull was the daughter of Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull. Her brother, the painter John Trumbull, wrote, “These wonders were hung in my mother’s parlor, and were among the first objects that caught my infant eye. I endeavored to imitate them.”
A fourth gallery honors the Punderson family. Acquired by the museum in 1962, Prudence Punderson Rossiter’s silk on silk embroidery of circa 1776‸3, “The First, Second and Last Scene of Mortality,” is the most published artifact in the museum’s collection. As a self-portrait in a detailed interior, a rare visual record of slavery in New England and a poignant allegory, it is rightly considered a masterpiece.
Newly conserved and exhibited together for the first time are 12 silk on silk embroideries of the apostles. They, too, are thought to have been made by Prudence Punderson Rossiter, sometime between 1776 and 1783. Charmingly naïve, they combine traditional religious iconography with depictions of period furniture, a sailing ship and other contemporary details.
New York’s Coby Foundation, Ltd, which funds projects in the textile and needle arts field at Mid-Atlantic and New England institutions, and the National Endowment for the Arts are major sponsors of the show and exhibition, which also received support from Nathan Liverant and Son Antiques, Jan Whitlock Textiles & Interiors, Northeast Auctions, Denise A. DeMore, Frederick C. Copeland, M. Finkel & Daughter, Titte Halle and Cora Ginsburg LLC, Judith C. Herdeg, Stephen & Carol Huber and Nadeau’s Auction Gallery, Inc.
In conjunction with the exhibition, CHS has planned a series of programs. On January 22, the Sewing Circle Project will conduct a demonstration and marketplace featuring fiber artists from around the world. On February 6, Deborah Ash and Patty Oat will lecture on Prudence Punderson. On March 5, Tricia Wilson Nguyen, a designer, teacher and materials scientist who has researched materials and techniques used in early embroidery, will discuss New England samplers. On March 24, Marla R. Miller, associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, will discuss her new book, Betsy Ross and the Making of America.
The Connecticut Historical Society is at 1 Elizabeth Street. For information, 860-236-5621 or www.chs.org .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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