Morven Museum’s Schoolgirl Needlework Exhibit

This past weekend we toured the “Hail Specimen of Female Art! New Jersey Schoolgirl Needlework, 1726-1860” temporary exhibit at the Morven Museum in Princeton, NJ. The exhibit displays embroideries in silk and wool that were completed by young, relatively wealthy girls as part of their formal education during the 18th and 19th centuries. All of the pieces reflect the work of girls from New Jersey, although in some cases the girls were sent to nearby Pennsylvania and Delaware to be taught at a prestigious girls’ schools. These needlework samplers were generally meant to be displays of how privileged and talented these girls were.

“It is amazing to me, how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are. … They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses.” – Charles Bingley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

As we had a relatively large group and made plans some time in advance, we were able to secure a special PowerPoint presentation by two of the exhibit’s co-curators as well as a semi-guided tour of the exhibit with them. The presentation helped a great deal in putting the exhibit into context. The co-curators described how there were regional differences evident in the needlework. They had divided the state into 5 distinct regions. Some regions had heavy influences from their Quaker founders, for instance. They also noted how even though there were distinct variations that could be largely attributed to one area or county, there was definitely cross-over as teachers moved from one school to another and brought their knowledge to a new set of schoolgirls. Not only did the exhibit cover more than 100 years of works, it also reflected needlework pieces from girls as young as 5 and as old as 29.

The needlework pieces themselves are astounding. Some show their wear while others have stood the test of time pretty well, still showing off bright colors and clearly legible text. Designs vary but are often of a similar nature: animals (particularly birds and deer), simple buildings, landscapes with a person or two, and alphabets and verses abound. Some pieces were used as a way to delineate a family tree/family historical record. Other more complicated works presented maps of the state or country. One sample contains the poem whose first line inspired the exhibit’s title:

“Hail specimen of female art / The needle’s magic power to show / To canvas various hues impart / And make a mimic world to grow / A sampler then with care peruse / An emblem sage you may find there / The canvas takes what forms you choose / So education forms the mind.” – Anne Rickey

A few of the exhibit pieces also mixed media by having the needlework sent out for painting by an artist. Usually this done with silk-embroidered pieces rather than wool. After the schoolgirl completed her embroidering of the piece, then a painter would add in details or a landscape background to complete the piece. Finally, the piece would be framed, which was unusual for many of these samplers. The effect was stunning. The talent and patience that went in to stitching these elaborate pieces are clearly evident.

The “Hail Specimen of Female Art! New Jersey Schoolgirl Needlework, 1726-1860” is only on display for roughly another month, closing on March 29, so don’t delay in checking it out!

Edited with permission from original post written by Jen Fitzgerald on Arts and Entertainment which can be found here.

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