By Their Samplers They Will Know Them
By EVE M. KAHN
Published: July 5, 2012, New York Times.
“Our girls,” Dan and Marty Campanelli call them. Each girl was a sampler embroiderer, mostly in the early 1800s, along the East Coast. Each one now has her own biographical research binder on shelves at the Campanellis’ farm in western New Jersey. The couple have spent a decade tracing the sewers’ genealogies and identifying the stitched scenery.
Framed textiles cover walls throughout the 1760s stone farmhouse, and the drapes are kept tightly drawn to prevent sun damage. The Campanellis are largely retired; she was a graphic designer, and he still paints watercolors occasionally. On most mornings, after tending their sheep, chickens, vegetable gardens and orchard, they drive off to research. They make the rounds of archives, historical societies, museums, cemeteries and the files of the samplers specialty dealers M. Finkel & Daughter in Philadelphia and Stephen and Carol Huber in Old Saybrook, Conn.
The Campanellis have no Internet access at home and rely on terminals in nearby libraries. When they find out, for example, that some girls were neighbors or relatives, or descended from major players in the Salem witch trials or American Indian raids on colonists, “we jump in the air and run to all the librarians,” Mr. Campanelli said during a recent tour of the farm.
Their geographical focus lately is their own backyard and environs; next year the Hunterdon County Historical Society in Flemington, N.J., will publish their book about samplers made in the region. The names of a handful of local embroidery instructors are known, including Eliza A. Rue, Amy Stockton Lundy and “Miss P. Kerr.” The Campanellis have found 60 samplers from Hunterdon so far, with clusters of similar motifs attributable to teachers’ varied tastes in gabled houses, baskets, fruits, hearts, feathery trees, squirrels and deer wearing tabbed collars.
When offered a sampler that was already thoroughly researched, Mr. Campanelli said, “we didn’t buy it.” He pointed to a neat row of binders, each with a girl’s name emblazoned on the spine. Because more old book texts and newspaper articles are being posted online, “we revisit each dossier every year,” he said. His wife added: “Sometimes we’ll find something, and Dan will say, â€˜You know, this person just put this up two days ago.’ It’s like they knew we were there.”
Tragic family stories underlie the textiles. In January the Campanellis paid $3,750 at Sotheby’s in New York for an 1820s graveyard landscape stitched in silk. The teenage sewer, Eliza Harding, dedicated the piece to her own dead relatives: two infant siblings and her mother, Sarah. Eliza’s father, Noah, remarried seven months after Sarah died, and the embroidery was never finished or framed. “The stepmother probably didn’t want to hang this in the house,” Ms. Campanelli said.
Sarah Cheeney, a Maine schoolgirl, sewed cheerful flowers around a list of family members while her father, George, was deep in legal trouble for unpaid debts. “The sheriff was after him,” Ms. Campanelli said. One daughter of the Boston shipbuilder Samuel Fillebrown gave up on her sampler after he died in an accident, at 34, in 1815. She had to help her mother raise six other children; on the sampler she started the name of a baby sister, Dorcas, but stopped after the D and left a thread hanging.
The quotations from hymns and poems on the samplers can wrench hearts too. “We should suspect some danger nigh/ Where we possess delight,” Emma Hanney stitched in 1820.
Narrow-bore studies of samplers from particular regions are becoming the norm in the field. Searchable national databases are now online under the auspices of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America and the Sampler Consortium. Recent and forthcoming books and exhibitions focus on embroidery made in Maine, Boston, Connecticut, Maryland, Washington., Virginia, South Carolina’s Lowcountry, Tennessee, Ohio and Chester County in Pennsylvania.
A handful of other private collectors have also managed to reach the Campanellis’ level of geographical concentration. Dr. David Witmer and his wife, Anna Marie, in Charlottesville, Va., own and analyze about 50 Virginia samplers and are tempted by any new arrivals on the market. “I’m always hoping not to find one,” Dr. Witmer said in a recent phone interview, “because that means I’m going to have to write a check.”