Published: June 3, 2003
By David S. Smith
LANCASTER, OHIO — Samplers and needlework, once a mandatory tool used to teach the necessary and applicable skills to the young girls and women of the early Nineteenth Century, have today evolved into highly sought-after, sophisticated collectibles. These elaborate works exemplify not only the technical skills applied, but also the art that flowed forth from America’s pioneer female youths. “Ohio is My Dwelling Place,” an exhibition of samplers currently on view at the Decorative Art Center of Ohio, offers insight not only into the lives of the girls who made them, their families and the teachers that taught them to stitch, but it also relays a glimpse into the history of the state during its first 50 years of settlement. The exhibition, displaying 146 regional samplers ranging from simple alphabetical pieces to elaborate mourning pieces and even one iconic theorem-style effort, is on view through August 24.
Needlework was a critical part of every girl’s education in the early 1800s, and all, regardless of their economic situation, were expected to be proficient with their skills. While many of the skills acquired were utilitarian in nature, sustaining the clothing needs of early settlers, it is undoubtedly the works of the upper-class or elite young ladies who attended private schools that transcend beyond mere needlework into masterpieces of art.
Described by the museum as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the exhibit showcases these early samplers, the majority of which have been loaned from private collections from throughout the country, according to guest curator and author Sue Studebaker. “The needlework of Ohio’s early pioneer girls has migrated to many states and with this exhibition we have brought them ‘home’ because they are a real legacy of Ohio’s history.” Studebaker documented more than 300 pieces of Ohio needlework during the 15 years of research that led up to this important exhibition.
About 70 percent of the samplers are on loan from private owners from 14 different states, many that have been handed down from generation to generation and have never been previously available for public exhibition.
In honor of the 200 years of statehood, the exhibition, “Ohio is My Dwelling Place,” and the accompanying book bearing the same title by Studebaker, bring together the most comprehensive display to date of Ohio samplers. Examples represent more than 50 of Ohio’s 88 counties and range from 1805 to a cutoff date of 1850. “These samplers were executed under a wide variety of circumstances,” declared Studebaker. “Some were done under the supervision of teachers in a common school, some in a ‘select’ or a ‘subscription’ school.” Other pieces of needlework on view in the exhibition were created in female seminaries where the girls most likely were boarding students, in religious schools and four of the samplers were “worked” in a Shaker community.
“Ohio and the Northwest Territory were the western frontier after the Revolutionary War, and the early pioneer teachers and their students produced some really beautiful needlework,” commented the curator. “Ohio had the English, the Scotch Irish, the Germans and even the French… and consider that these pioneers were made up of Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Congregationalists, Quakers and even the Shakers. Ohio really was a melting pot, and all of these cultural and religious influences can be found in the samplers of our Ohio girls.”
Several of the pieces provide a slice of Ohio’s history as seen through the young eyes of a school girl. One such piece of great historical importance is a sampler by Mary Ann Wright of Warren County that was executed in 1823 and depicted her home not only as a family dwelling, but also as a safe house for slaves on the “Trail of Freedom.” The Wrights, with strong ties to England, were members of the Society of Friends and were part of a large and extended family who, as Quakers, were active abolitionists. Young Mary Ann, at age 11, depicted a stately brick house with a picket fence yard and several trees. The unusual aspects of the work are two lions guarding the home, thought to revert back to the English ties the family retained, and a small black figure standing beside the chimney on the roof.
“Mary Ann was living in an area where the ‘underground railroad’ was well organized,” states Studebaker. “‘Conductors’ were everywhere and the Wright family had connections with ‘stations’ in neighboring counties. Mary Ann included her own antislavery statement when she stitched the black man standing precariously on top of the house.”
A more simplistic view of Ohio’s history is portrayed in a unique sampler executed by Sarah Jane Pownall, depicting the riverfront settlement of Manchester along with several steamboats. Although this piece falls slightly out of the dateline for the exhibition, having been executed in 1854, it was included due to its uniqueness and historical context.
The needlework is an accurate rendition of the old town showing each surveyed land parcel with its home and number, along with the town’s commercial and municipal buildings. At the top of the needlework is a large depiction of the West Manchester School where, at age 19, Sarah is believed to have been a teacher rather than a student. The Ohio River was the lifeblood of the town and it is clearly depicted as such in the needlework with five working steam paddle-wheelers, each flying the American flag and adorned with patriotic eagles, either docked or moving along the river. The connotation of life and the settlers’ dependence on the river is also carried in the theme with an abundance of fish depicted, along with turtles and snakes.
Several of the works on display were not created in Ohio, although they were created by girls who spent all but their educational years in the state. Many families while moving west found the Ohio wilderness too remote for the proper upbringing of their daughters and returned them to eastern schools, such as the elite and highly regarded Miss Pattons School in Hartford, Conn.
One piece in the exhibition that shares an equal amount of importance both historically and artistically is the silk-on-silk needlework of Amelia McIntyre, circa 1812, depicting a basket of fruit with a bird perched atop. While this icon of needlework was not executed in Ohio, it was done by a resident of the state while boarding at Celebrated Moravian School in Bethlehem, Penn. Young Amelia was the granddaughter of Ebenezer Zane, who in 1796, under the direction of Congress, opened a trail from Virginia to the Ohio River. Amelia’s father, John McIntyre, helped clear the trail with his father-in-law and subsequently became a major landholder in the area. McIntyre is also generally considered to be the founder and patron of Zanesville.
“Moravian needlework attained an extraordinary level of excellence,” commented Studebaker, who pointed to not only the quality of the workmanship, but also the artistic merits. “Silk canvases were unforgiving; if an attempt to take out a mistake was made it would leave behind a telltale hole, unlike working on linen where several attempts could be made to correct an error.” The curator also pointed to the artistic excellence of the piece with brushlike shading and clear delineation.
Another highlight from the exhibition is the sampler by Nancy Irwin executed in 1834 and attributed to the Lemon Township School in Butler County. The Irwins were among the first settlers in Ohio, arriving in Cincinnati around 1793 and later settling in Lemon Township. The wonderful sampler includes an alphabet and verse, but the standout features are the superbly executed floral borders found on many of the known Lemon Township samplers and the inclusion of a wonderfully portrayed paddlewheel steamboat with billowing stacks and an American flag flying from the stern.
The inclusion of needlework tools is yet another interesting aspect of the exhibition. Shown are pin balls, Shaker thread holders and darning tools, needlework frames or boxes, and also a small assortment of the utilitarian wares that consumed the lion’s share of the ladies’ time, as well as bonnets and clothing, both plain and fancy.
Studebaker is an independent scholar, having completed courses at Winterthur and MESDA. She is an avid collector, lectures widely and teaches courses on American decorative arts. She is also the author of Ohio Samplers — School Girl Embroideries 1803-1850.
The book by Studebaker that accompanies the exhibition, Ohio Is My Dwelling Place, School Girl Embroideries, 1800–1850, features invaluable text, charts and color photographs of virtually all of the samplers in the exhibition. Published by Ohio University Press, it retails for $34.95 paperback and $70 hardbound and is available at the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio book store.
The Decorative Arts Center of Ohio, housed in the Reese Peters House, one of the great Greek Revival homes in Ohio, constructed in 1835 by William James Reese, is at 145 East Main Street. The exhibition is on view Tuesday through Sunday from 1 to 4 pm. Admission is free. The Ohio Decorative Arts Center may be reached at 740-681-1423.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm