Vintage Samplers As Time Capsules

Vintage Samplers As Time Capsules

LiveAuctionTalk:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Garth's Auctions.

Like time capsules, antique samplers are nostalgic remnants of the past offering a glimpse into the world of embroidery and children.  Samplers act as portals into the day-to-day life of a young girl from another era in time.  They show her mastery of useful and decorative stitching. 

Patty Polk did this and she hated every stitch she did in it.  She loves to read much more.
— Patty, 10-years-old.

In the 18th and mid-19th century, samplers were also her way of showing off her knowledge of the alphabet.  Many were classroom assignments, the way in which she learned reading, religion and math. 

In an age when a woman’s niche in the world was defined by home and family, stitching samplers was a form of self-expression and legacy.  Some took years to make and were started by girls as young as five or six.

A social activity, samplers connected the generations.  Grandmothers taught mothers who then trained daughters.   Displayed in frames, they were handed down from one family to another and proudly displayed in homes.

The very earliest samplers were stitched by professional needlewomen and wealthy ladies to decorate their dresses and homes.  When the Pilgrims settled in America they brought the custom with them. 

The variety is endless.  Some samplers show family trees, poetry and religious verses.  Others display animals, birds, people, trees and flowers. 

Some of the most memorable ones bear verses that come from the heart. 

“This work I did to let you see, What care my Papy took of me.”  This 1817, New Jersey sampler suggests a girl growing up without a mother.  There is a sense of intimacy here that few vintage items express.  

Collectors appreciate nostalgia.  They’re looking for original inscriptions, maker’s name, location, school, and date.  Anything that personalizes the sampler makes it more desirable.

“Patty Polk did this and she hated every stitch she did in it.  She loves to read much more,” proclaims 10-year-old Patty in this 1800 sampler.  Obviously, not every girl appreciated the delicate distinctions of embroidery.

Provenance makes a difference.  Can you track the sampler’s lineage?

The more pictorial the better.  Biblical scenes, slave scenes, schoolhouses, mottos, verses from scripture, all contribute to a sampler’s value. 

What hurts a sampler is staining, mildew, wear, and fading.  Original frames also make a difference.  It shows the sampler is intact and untrimmed.  Age is important too.  Those embroidered before the late-18th century are scarce and if they survived at all are typically museum pieces.  

Antique samplers can be charmingly naïve.  That’s what collectors look for and love about them.  They’re the only major collectible created by children.  That innocent appeal makes them desirable.

After the 1830s both design and workmanship began to deteriorate.  Patterns and materials for the popular wool-work of the mid-19th century helped to put an end to the individual expression collectors so enjoy seeing in samplers.

On Sept. 3-4 Garth’s Auctions featured a selection of vintage samplers in its Early American and Decorative Arts Labor Day Weekend Auction.  


Mary Whitworth; birds, pines; baskets; and house; signed and dated; American or English; silk on linen; framed; 1792; 16 inches by 12 inches;  $499.

Christina Baldwin; bands of alphabets; diamonds; maker’s information; moral verse; signed and dated; probably Bergen County, New Jersey; silk on linen; framed; 1770; 20 inches by 12 inches;  $558. 

Mary Whitts; paired motifs include trees; birds; women; flower baskets; brick house; signed and dated; American or English; silk on linen; framed; 1847; 13 inches by 13 inches;  $572.

Elizabeth Hartman; alphabet; family names; moral verse; signed and dated; Pennsylvania; silk on linen; framed; 1825; 15 inches by 19 ½ inches;  $617.

Deborah Covington; floral borders; alphabets; verse; signed and dated; Kentucky; silk on linen; framed; 1835;  20 ½ inches by 22 inches;  $723. 

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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