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My Journey as a Collector

By Alexandra Peters  |  Fall/Winter 2022

I’m not sure at what point I understood that I was a collector. It seemed a little grandiose to refer to myself that way, a person whose house is overflowing with girlhood embroideries, who is not a professional curator or historian. But I began to toy with the idea that I had a collection when it was pointed out to me by a friend in the museum world that I have more samplers than most medium-size museums. Sharon Historical Society had been thinking about the idea that historical artifacts are often in the hands of individuals and that some of those individuals live right in Sharon. So this year, I had the wonderful experience of being invited to be the inaugural collector at Sharon Historical Society for a series called “Sharon Collects,” where 58 of my samplers were displayed in the Museum.

I bought my first sampler in an antiques store perhaps 35 years ago and I was amazed that this piece of history, made by a real girl 200 years before, could come home with me. Samplers are the needleworks of girls, from plain rows of alphabets to complex pictures written and painted on silk or linen, with needles. They were meant to be displayed, and because the families of the girls valued them so highly, they are often beautifully framed. They are accessible – the simpler ones are very affordable and there are many of them out there. (Thousands!) I didn’t know much about samplers at first, and before the Internet, my main point of reference was Betty Ring, a scholar who wrote a huge two-volume book, Girlhood Embroidery, American Samplers and Pictorial Needlework, 1650-1850, published in 1993, that is still the most important reference for American samplers.

A sampler made in 1807 by nine-year-old Mary Sparhawk of Marblehead, MA.
The sampler after professional conservation treatment.

But then the Internet changed everything. I could easily research the girls who made the samplers, the schools they attended, the style of needlework and even whether this particular sampler had ever been on the market before. I know a lot about a sampler and its maker before I buy it. It has been especially exciting to come across samplers mentioned by Betty Ring, like the large sampler created by nine-year-old Mary Sparhawk in Marblehead, MA in 1807 that was on display at the exhibit of my collection this year. There is a photo of it, fig. 159 in Volume One, showing a significant droop of the linen in the upper right corner and is one of a group that Betty Ring describes as “…shining examples of the best in American schoolgirl art.”

It was interesting to me that when I bought it, 30 years after the book was published, this sampler was still drooping. This isn’t good for any needlework. I feel very protective of the girls who made these samplers. Their works are in my hands for a while and I need to steward and safeguard them. The auction gallery from which I bought this suggested that it could use a pressing. Ha! I wouldn’t dare to do such a thing with an antique textile. I had Mary’s sampler conserved by a professional textile conservator. Now that it doesn’t sag any more and has been framed with UV glass (to protect against sunlight) in a way that keeps moisture and vermin out, it should survive a good deal longer. I’m looking out for you, Mary Sparhawk.

And meanwhile, I trusted that Sharon Historical Society would also be looking out for Mary and all the other sampler makers whose work was displayed. If the girls who made the samplers were here, they would be delighted at how well cared for their samplers were while they were living at the Museum. At SHS, the Museum’s rooms were carefully prepared, sunlight was blocked out and special LED track lights added. The staff and board were encouraging and flexible and a dream to work with. It was so much fun to get to share my collection (I’ve gotten used to being a collector now!) with Sharon residents and with so
many other people who came to Sharon to see history through the work of girls.

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