"Between 1650 & 1850, the Connecticut River Valley was one of the most important areas in America for the teaching & production of embroidery works by young school girls. Tutored in various academies, these precocious needleworkers created images that have become widely recognized for their importance in American history in recent years.
"Due to the parents' emphasis on refinement among wealthy New Englanders, young ladies in population centers like Boston & Providence often attended more than one "finishing school." Executing their samplers, canvas work pieces, memorials, & silk pictures, the schoolgirls signaled their suitability to be wives capable of managing a household & educating offspring.
"Three important academies that taught embroidered needlework were established in Connecticut during this period, by Miss Sarah Patten in Hartford (1785), Miss Sarah Pierce at the Litchfield Female Academy (1792), & Mrs. Lydia Bull Royse in Hartford (c 1800). The Litchfield Female Academy is believed to have educated between 1,800 & 3,000 young women in 41 years. Because of similarity of needlework designs executed by the girls at these schools, it is thought that instructors may have taught at more than one school.
"The Patten school encouraged students to develop compositions with floral garlands & padded eagles surrounding colorful pictorial scenes based on allegorical or biblical subjects. Designed for display in the homes of daughters of prominent people, family coats of arms were important products of Miss Patten's school in Hartford in the early 19C. The large padded eagle holding a floral garland, ears of wheat or fronds & an inscription ribbon identify the anonymously executed family coats of arms as a symbol of status & wealth.
"Among the works painted at the Pierce's Litchfield Female Academy is an elaborate watercolor on silk memorial to the Butler family. Created by an unknown maker, it depicts family members who were likely involved in international trade. Samplers & other simpler items were staples of public schools, whereas silk pictures were the province of private schools & academies. Silk embroideries often required six to 12 months to complete, at which point they were taken home for exhibition in the family's "best" parlor.
"Some of the most graphic, color-filled, & fanciful Connecticut Valley embroidery creations emerged in the form of canvas works around the middle of the 18C, before the formal finishing schools for girls appeared. While some images derived from established designs, many were original and innovative. Some of these needlework pictures featured identifiable buildings, animals & people; others were more whimsical & adventurous.
"The reclining shepherdess figure was popular on canvaswork pieces in Boston in the mid-18C and the palm tree became a signature characteristic on later work stitched at the Misses Pattens' school in Hartford. Silk on linen with a printed chintz border.
"Teachers in the area's urban centers, with ties to New York, Boston or Providence, were exposed to current styles, which they passed on to their pupils. Schoolgirls in rural Connecticut Valley towns had instructors untutored in contemporary trends who relied instead on their own vernacular creative designs or British precedents.
"Often beginning before the age of 10 with elementary samplers worked on linen, Connecticut Valley girls developed a variety of increasingly sophisticated stitching techniques.
"Embroidered pictures & memorials, often displayed in a family's home, reflected a schoolgirl's mastery of the principles of "politeness"- suggesting knowledge of religious & literary subjects, as well as an appreciation for art & music.
"Young girls started with simple stitching projects involving alphabets & numbers before progressing to more advanced needlework, as their skills improved.
"This rendition of "Plenty," which was most likely was adapted from an Edward Savage engraving of 1796 "Liberty Giving Sustenance to the Bald Eagle." Patriotic themes were widely copied in the early 19C. She is flanked by trees with a grouping of buildings in the lower left background, which are found on other Connecticut silk embroideries.
"This delightful courting scene depicts shepherd and shepherdess in a landscape complete with sheep, cows and dog with a house spewing smoke from the chimney and a tree laden with grapes. Garden and pastoral scenes were romantic indulgences and often created in paint or needlework.
"This composition was worked in 1804. The alphabet, numbers, flowers, baskets, birds and trees are worked in crossstitch and the background completely filled in. The center vine-bordered oval depicts a playful shepherdess with garland looking over her sheep, while birds rest in a nearby tree and a house in the background fill out the landscape. The asymmetrical design of the elements surrounding the oval portion includes a crowned lion, a motif found on English samplers from the 18C. The sampler features an unusual combination of oval picture and sampler surround with a difficult long-stitch filled background.
"Watercolor memorials on silk were more difficult to execute and are not as plentiful those painted on paper or worked as silk embroideries. The artist used short brush strokes to imitate embroidery stitches in her memorial to her father and surrounded her work with gold paper.
"Scenic samplers depicting identifiable houses and buildingswere popular in the Connecticut River Valley. The river stitched in the foreground leads the eye to the central building, the First Congregational Church in the artist's home town.
"A paper-faced girl holding a bouquet stands in a disproportionate landscape with paper sheep and a lavishly embroidered floral border on this large sampler.
"Canvas-work with Chandler Home," 1758. Two courting couples, waited on by servants with food and drink, are arrayed in front of the Chandler home as the man at the right is about to be smitten by cupid's arrow.
"Wearing the latest empire fashion, Liberty, holds a staff topped with a liberty cap and an inverted cornucopia spilling fruit."
The information in this article was taken from an exhibit at The Florence Griswold Museum, with research done by Stephen May, & Stephen and Carol Huber. This link will lead you to the website of collectors & dealers Stephen & Carol Huber.
The museum is located at 96 Lyme Street, Old Lyme, CT. It has an excellent online review of this exhibit here. This website will give you directions to The Florence Griswold Museum plus a schedule of its exhibits & activities.