Ohio Is My Dwelling Place: Schoolgirl Embroideries, 1800-1850. By Sue Studebaker. With a foreword by Kimberly Smith Ivey. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002. xxvi, 310 pp. Cloth, $70.00, ISBN 0-8214-1452-6. Paper, $34.95, ISBN 0-8214-1453-4.)
In 1777, a Continental Army officer complimented Philadelphian Sarah Wister on her “needle wisdom.” The young Miss Wister’s sampler, hanging in the parlor of the family’s Germantown home, served as the sole evidence of this trait. One necessarily wonders how much wisdom, a term so often applied to the learned, the experienced, or the elderly, may have been possessed by a sixteen-year-old Quaker girl. We do know that Sally (as she was called by family and friends) attended Anthony Benezet’s school, British America’s first public school for women. There Sally learned the basics of education, but also learned the “higher branches” of French and Latin. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century American girls’ school curricula did approach that of boys; the differences, though, charted gender roles and class expectations. Sally Wister still learned needlework as she parsed French, as did other young girls of the time. In 1777, Alice Lee Shippen wrote to her daughter Nancy (who attended a Trenton, New Jersey, boarding school) of her expectations of these “ornamental branches” of a young lady’s education:
Tell me how you improve in your work. Needle work is a most important branch of a female education, & tell me how you have improved in holding your head & sholders, in making a curtsy, in going out or coming into a room, in giving & receiving, holding your knive & fork, walking and seting. These things contribute so much to a good appearance that they are of great consequence.
From the mid eighteenth century through the Civil War, wisdom meant to Americans the ability to judge rightly in matters relating to life and conduct. Wisdom could also define learning or erudition, or a type of knowledge, as well as the spiritual life attained through biblical study. Young ladies’ use of needle, thread, and other tools with which to create alphabets, verses, images, and symbols, was not the necessary skill of a tailor. A genteel girl’s needlework signaled to all the acquisition of an education and a specific set of social graces. In Sally Wister’s case, as in those of many other American girls in this era, “needle wisdom” embodied in a sampler symbolized the pursuit of refinement, the acquisition of a specific skill and, especially after the American Revolution, more cosmopolitan knowledge, and even a spiritual nature deemed peculiar to women.[1. Sally Wister’s “needle wisdom” found in Kathryn Zabelle Derounian, ed. and intro., The Journal and Occasional Writings of Sarah Wister (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London and Toronto: Associated Universities Press, 1987), 61; (Anne Home Shippen Livingston), Nancy Shippen Her Journal Book, ed. Ethel Armes (Philadelphia, 1935; rpt. New York, 1968), 39-40, quoted in Davida Tenenbaum Deutsch, “The polite lady: portraits of American schoolgirls and their accomplishments, 1725-1830,” The Magazine Antiques 135 (March 1989): 742-753, at 744-45.] Continue reading