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This 1943 photograph illustrates the DAR Museum's former
Textile Study Room where samplers could be stored and studied.

This presentation is based on the original DAR Museum exhibition, Telling Their Stories: Nineteenth- Century Samplers and Silk Embroideries, April 11- August 30, 2008. The exhibition celebrated the lives of girls and women by placing their needlework within the context of changing nineteenth-century American life.

Samplers existed long before the nineteenth century, of course, with scholars documenting their presence in ancient Egypt.  Through time and place this form of needlework evolved as an important part of a girl’s genteel education. By necessity every girl needed sewing skills, but in early America only the wealthy could afford schooling in the "ornamental arts."  After the Revolution and slowly through the nineteenth century educational opportunities improved. With an evolving emphasis on academic subjects for girls, needlework instruction was gradually phased out of the nineteenth-century school curriculum.

Although today often critiqued for technique and design, samplers and silk embroideries are perhaps even more important as historical documents. Through study, they may reveal the ideas, beliefs, and attitudes of their time; refer to historical events; serve as a genealogical reference; or even record lost settlements or architecture. And finally also, signed schoolgirl art may provide the only proof of a young girl’s existence.

Schoolgirl art is a contemporary term used to classify samplers, silk embroideries, paintings, and other ornamental art forms made under the instruction of a teacher at home or at school.  The DAR Museum collection includes more than 300 examples of schoolgirl art, mostly samplers and silk embroideries. The first samplers came to the museum in 1910. Since then, DAR members have donated about 75% of this collection. The accompanying family histories have greatly enriched the process of "telling their stories."

- Olive Graffam, Curator


This exhibition is divided into seven segments with a short label explaining each. To view the needlework, click on the title.

  • The Storytellers

    By the late 19th century, collectors recognized the charm of American schoolgirl samplers. This interest partially arose from the Centennial celebrations and from the Colonial Revival movement. It was not until the 20th century that the substantial collections and subsequent reserch resulted in the growth of auctions, exhibitions and a revolving list of needlework historians, scholars and professionals. There are two 20th-century sources that will forever be associated with the study of American samplers and silk embroideries. One reflects the remarkble accomplishments of an organization, while the other is the devoted scholarly work of an individual.

  • Coming to America

    From the earliest days of colonization in North America, sewing traditions arrived with the settlers. During the 18th century, most design and motifs came into the United States directly from England and Europe. As in most decorative arts, those would be absorbed and eventually take on their own American flavor.

View Of South Street From Maiden Lane, New York City, ca.1827
William James Bennett (ca 1784-1844)

Courtesy, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Edward W. C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps and Pictures,
Bequest of Edward W. C. Arnold, 1954 (54.90.130)
Photograph ©1980 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This city view conveys the bustling activity of the New York City docks in a scene providing the first impression of America for newly arrived immigrants.

Throughout the nineteenth century thousands of immigrants entered the United States bringing with them their traditions, beliefs, and distinctive contributions to American culture. These samplers represent sampler makers who entered the ports of New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, as well as Quaker designs incorporating medallions, paired birds, swans, bellflowers, floral sprigs, wreaths and beautiful lettering.

  • In Search of Answers: A New York Survey

    A survey of 22 New York samplers in the DAR Museum collection was undertaken in 2003-2004 to study the samplers in depth, both individually and as a group. This exhibition features a selection from that group.

    BROADWAY, NEW YORK.   Shewing each Building from The Hygeian Depot corner of Canal Street to beyond Niblo’s Garden.  Drawn & Etched by T. Hornor.  Aquatinted by J. Hill.Printed by W. Neale.  Published by JOSEPH STANLEY & CO.Entered according to act of Congress by Josh. Stanley & Co. inthe Clerks office of the Southern District of New York.January 26th.  1836

    Courtesy, Winterthur Museum

    This aquatint shows with incredible detail an 1830’s view of life on New York City’s most famous street.  It is extraordinary documentation of the vast changes occurring in the 19th century.

    • The Long-Established East

      A SOUTHWEST VIEW OF SANDERSON’S FRANKLIN HOUSE CHESTNUT ST. PHILA DELPHIA.  This is a new & beautiful Hotel con ducted on the plan of the European & American Ho tels conjointly having both a Restaurant & Ordinary,the accommodations for Ladies & Families are very superior the rooms being so constructed as to form aparlour by day and a chamber by night.  DRAWN &ENGRAVED BY JOHN REUBEN SMITH.  1844-1845

      This 1840's view of a bustling and sophisticated Philadelphia emphasizes the stark differences between the established East and the new settlements springing up in the Mid and Far West.

      Courtesy of Winterthur Museum

      • Going Away

        To European visitors, nineteenth-century Americans appeared constantly on the move. They moved within the borders of their native states: to the Near West; to the Deep South; and finally to the “Far, Far West,” a term sometimes used to describe the vast unknown western territory. These migrations rent family life and ties.

        The Ohio River, Near Wheeling, West Virginia, 1859-1860
        Lefevre James Cranstone (British, w.America 1859-1860)

        Courtesy, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Gifts of Mrs. Louise Lamson and Mrs. Alfred N. Lawrence, by exchange, 1984. (1984.231) Photograph ©1984 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

        In the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century steamboat travel was an important mode of transportation not only on the eastern rivers but also in carrying migrants into the interior.  It was not without risk; explosions were common, and collisions sometimes occurred when captains decided to race their boats.


        The DAR Museum is located at 1776 D St. NW, Washington D.C., and is free to the public. For more information please contact or call (202) 879-3241

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        • Craftsmanship

          Needlework crafts were extremely popular from the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Many needleworkers left Berlin work on canvas to experiment with the newly available and less expensive perforated paper and cardboard. This section presents examples of "craftsmanship" from the mid-to-late 19th century, including a childish adaptation of needlework structure.

        • Words from the Past

          Sampler verses have long fascinated those who study the needlework canvas. Here are a few with some of their connections to authors or other needlework references.