New exhibit puts spotlight on intricate, 19th-century needlework and the young artists who created it
In December of 1805, Deborah Gordon, Lydia Dutch and Eliza “Betsey” Clapp gathered in Rachel Hall Neal’s Portland rooms to master the intricacies of both plain and fancy needlework, to acquire a ladylike skill with pen and brush, and to advance their writing, reading and cyphering abilities.
The room would have been chilly, probably heated only with a fireplace. In order to have sufficient light to create the tiny stitches that sometimes crisscrossed just a single thread of the linen they worked on, the girls clustered near a window, making it even colder. It must have been remarkably difficult to guide, with icy fingers, the needle and fragile silk thread through stitch after stitch.
These young women, most of them around 14 years old, represented a new and remarkable change in the shape of America. Unlike the more wealthy girls of Maine (part of Massachusetts until 1820) who had attended boarding schools in distant Boston in the last quarter of the 18th century, these young women were the daughters of merchants, craftsmen and tradesmen. The fine finish of a genteel advanced education for young women was no longer just available to the upper class that had developed in America through the past century. It was now both affordable and desired by a burgeoning middle class.
A new exhibit at the Saco Museum offers an in-depth look at the complex and lovely needlework created in Maine by schoolgirls of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The lives of these talented and style-setting women are explored in “‘I My Needle Ply with Skill’: Maine Schoolgirl Embroidery of the Federal Era,” which runs from Jan. 12-March 2.
In Maine, in response to that emerging trend, numerous new female academies were opening, especially in Portland, but even in smaller ports and mountain villages in the early years of the 19th century, all run by determined, business-minded women at a time when very few ladies worked outside of their homes. The fine quality of needlework that was created in these Maine academies rivaled that of major metropolitan areas of New England.
In many parts of Maine, small district schools were now available, and both boys and girls were welcome to attend. In some of those schools, very young girls – often as young as 8 or 9 years old – stitched plain marking samplers, under the guidance of female teachers, who were not only providing needlework instruction, but also managing the varied educational needs of remarkably diverse students, all crowded into a single room.
The samplers the children made, the first works of what would, of necessity, become long stitching careers, typically featured two or three different types of alphabets, perhaps the girl’s name and birthdate, the town where she did the work, and sometimes a verse. They were vastly simpler than the pieces that Deborah, Lydia and Betsey stitched, however. The district schools offered only a basic level of education. Students often “graduated” in their very early teens, able to read and write, with a smattering of knowledge of arithmetic and spelling, but little else. For bright boys desiring a higher education – and whose fathers could afford it – there were some academies, and the hope of a college education. For young women, opportunities were far more limited.
It was into this educational void that enterprising women of the 18th and early 19th centuries stepped. For most women of the time, marriage and motherhood followed shortly after adolescence. Young women generally moved directly from economic dependence on their fathers to a similar role with their husbands. They were not legally allowed to own property, and existed with few of the rights we associate with citizenship. If a young woman’s father died before she was married, or if her husband died (or abandoned her), the financial options were very limited.
A few determined women resolved their money troubles (or satisfied a calling or ambition) by opening academies and offering instruction in academic topics and decorative arts. Some offered educational opportunities that went farther than that. Miss Mary A. Jewett, who ran a “School for Young Ladies” in Kennebunkport in the early 1830s, promised that “No pains will be spared on her part to improve their minds, manners and morals.” She charged $3 a quarter for the subjects “usually taught at Academies,” and an additional $2 for the teaching of French and Latin. She also mentioned, “Her pupils will be instructed in the fashionable exercise called Calisthenics which is highly recommended as a salutary exercise for young Ladies.”
Some women operated schools for two or even three decades. Others only taught until some other source for money, usually a husband, relieved them of the need for self-sufficiency. While some of the teachers didn’t have much talent for design in the needlework patterns they drew for their students, many others created bodies of work that rival the quality of that done by professional artists of the era. The best-preserved of their pieces are astonishingly beautiful, demonstrating both the artistry of the teachers and the accuracy and determination of the young students. Their beautifully wrought works are a powerful reminder that we are all compelled to leave a proof of our existence.
A sampler verse that first appeared on a 1785 needlework captures that effort: “When this you see, remember me/And bear me in your mind/What others say when I’m away/Speak of me as you find.”