The ABCs of Sampler Collecting 

By Carol Huber

Samplers and schoolgirl embroideries are one of the few decorative arts collected today that were made away from home by non-professionals and not intended to be purchased or sold. One of the least understood areas of Americana, samplers were not highly collected until the middle of the 20th century. Largely due to Bolton and Coe's hugely successful work, American Samples (a listing of pieces owned by DAR members), samplers were discovered, and collecting began at a very modest level.

Considered childish endeavors, samplers were endearing, the messages often sweet, but the collecting world had no clue about why, how or where they were made. The romantic notion that samplers were stitched at mother's knee by candlelight was not dispelled until the last quarter of the 20th century when scholars began researching and writing about the young ladies' schools and academies found inscribed on many pieces. As more and more samplers were published, groups with similarities appeared, and attribution could be made to many based on style and composition. This knowledge, along with genealogical information, allowed scholars to recognize regional characteristics as well.

"Learn Your Duty And Do It, Lucy Ann Smith, aged seven, 1812" was the inscription stitched on her small and simple marking sampler. A requirement of all young girls, sampler making was a necessity and an important part of female education. Although sampler making dates to Egyptian times and served as decoration and pattern recording, the samplers as we know them in America served a twofold purpose. The basic marking samplers, consisting of alphabets and numbers with perhaps a simple verse and modest border, were useful instruction for learning the fundamentals.

However, it was a necessary technique for marking linens and clothing which were often sent out to be laundered and needed to be rotated for equal wear. More intricate and pictorial samplers were worked at day or boarding schools and were considered an "accomplishment" to be brought home and proudly displayed. These are the types of samplers that are highly collected today.

Sampler making was consistently practiced by all girls from the time of the landing of the Pilgrims to well into the mid-19th century. The earliest known American sampler was stitched by Loara Standish, the only daughter of Miles and Barbara Standish, between 1640 and 1650. (Loara and two of her six brothers died before reaching adulthood.)

True to British form, early American samplers repeated what they knew from the mother country and were long, narrow band samplers, displaying rows of decorative motifs that could be copied for clothing or household decoration.

This type of sampler was not intended to be framed, but rolled and kept in the workbasket for referral. It is next to impossible to separate the English from the Colonial pieces of the 17th century, and since most of these are not signed or dated, they are almost always attributed to England. Good examples can be purchased for $3,000-$10,000, while more elaborate pieces can sell for over $100,000.

By the beginning of the 18th century, samplers became shorter, wider and more pictorial. They were intended to be framed, and many were worked at expensive boarding schools. Early Boston and Philadelphia pieces are highly desired and often wrought by daughters of very prominent citizens. New England girls sometimes stitched a pictorial panel in tent stitch at the bottom of their sampler, while Philadelphia girls continued with band patterns well into the 1740s. Southern samplers occasionally contain motifs copied from their northern neighbors as teachers migrated south to open schools.

Schoolmistresses advertised extensively, and girls continued the tradition of sampler making throughout the 18th and mid-19th centuries. Teachers, and the schools and academies they created, have become an important part of the overall sampler collectors knowledge base. It was the teacher and not the student that designed samplers, and consequently, the similarities of pieces allows us to group likenesses and attribute them to specific regions.

Samplers exist by the thousands, and collectors should be aware of the great range of pricing. The value of a sampler is not dependent on the date or the maker, but rather on graphic appeal, location and condition. The cut off date for most collectors is about 1850. After that date, samplers were less likely to be taught as a part of school curriculum, but more as a hobby, and the materials used became larger (i.e., wool verses silk and coarser linen). Simple marking samplers are abundant and inexpensive, under $1,000, while extremely graphic, colorful and important pieces are rare and can run into six-figure price tags.

Fortunately, there are not many fakes on the market, but there are some. Cute little, crooked lined, primitive-looking pieces worked on coarse fabric are not period. Often dyed with tea, the background looks spotty and the composition more like a child's drawing. Teachers in the 18th-19th centuries did not employ this type of design or fabric.

In purchasing a sampler, the buyer should first and foremost buy what is attractive to him or her, but always with an eye to the visual appeal and condition of the work. Faded samplers will not look brighter when hung on a wall and at a distance will look blank. Stains for the most part will not come out, and color cannot be put back in. If there is no central appeal, the eye will not focus on anything, and the sampler will simply look busy and fussy. Most importantly, buy quality over quantity.

The market for samplers has increased radically over the past 25 years. The publication of numerous books and articles and private sales and auctions have aroused greater interest, bringing ever more schoolgirl needlework to the market. A broad-based, consistently growing market over so many years indicates a budding but permanent market and not a collecting fad.

Although prices have risen considerably over the past 25 years, samplers are still readily available and a good investment value. Prices have been rising steadily, and there are more collectors. As in every field, the best sell the most quickly and increase in value more noticeably.

Some collectors find a focus for their collection a sampler from every state or every school, samplers with animals, samplers within a time range, or those with specific names. But whether focused or not, a collection of samplers creates a warm and eye-catching display and provides a beautiful connection to the past.


Stephen & Carol Huber of Old Saybrook, Conn., have been dealing exclusively in schoolgirl embroideries for more than thirty years. They can be contacted at 860-388- 6809 or hubers@AntiqueSamplers.com, or visit www.AntiqueSamplers.com.

Jane Wilson's Sampler, Delaware, 1791, silk on linen, 14 3/4" x 12". The elaborate floral border is vivid and well designed. Jane was 13 when she stitched this piece.

Sarah Doubt's Sampler, Boston, 1765, silk on linen, 19 7/8" x 11 3/4". New England samplers often incorporated a canvaswork panel in the lower portion; canvaswork pictures were very popular in the first half of the 18th c.

Ann M. Martin's Sampler, Pittsgrove, Salem County, N.J., May 1840. Ann's sampler is an excellent example of the transition from early 19th c. samplers to later work when designs became larger, and wool yarn replaced silk thread.

Ann Marsh's Sampler, Philadelphia, 1727, silk on linen, 15" x 11". Ann worked this sampler under her mother's tutelage, who was a teacher in England. This piece sold at Christie's several years ago for $300,000.

Sarah Turner's Band Sampler, England, 1720, silk on linen;
13 1/2" x 11". The composition is a shorter version of a 17th century band sampler. Bands were used to record patterns for clothing or household textiles.

Fanny Keever's Sampler, Penn., 1833, silk on linen, 16 1/2" x 13 1/2". Fanny stitched a remarkably informative sampler with birth date, parents' names
and instructor.

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