Born in 1801 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Willamina Rine was twelve when she stitched this sampler at Mrs. Armstrong’s school in 1813. The archives of the Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster reveal that her parents, Christian and Barbara, had several other children: Henrich, Christian, Veronica, Sophia, Martha, and Elizabeth. A Fanny Rine embroidered a sampler at the same school in 1808, and evidence strongly suggests that Fanny was the nickname of Willamina’s older sister Veronica. (Fanny’s sampler describes her as the daughter of Christian and Barbara and has a birth date that corresponds to Veronica’s.)

The school where the Rine sisters created their samplers was established by Leah Galligher in 1797. When Leah left town in 1802 after her marriage ended in a bitter and public separation, her sister, Rachel Armstrong, and her sister’s husband took over the school. An 1805 newspaper advertisement announced that “Mrs. Armstrong teaches, as usual, spelling, reading, writing, plain sewing, sampler work, spriging, flowering on muslin and satin, rug work, and setting in lace.” By 1820 the Armstrongs had left Lancaster, but in 1822, Rachel’s daughter, Sarah, placed an advertisement announcing that she was returning to open a “school for young ladies.” The samplers embroidered by Willamina and Fanny are two of the four known to have been made at Rachel Armstrong’s school.

Mourning samplers like Willamina’s, with its imagery of a tomb and weeping willow, were extremely popular in the early nineteenth century and did not necessarily memorialize a specific person. The fact that such a subject was considered appropriate for young girls, however, intimates an early familiarity with and acceptance of death. A poignant record of tragedy in Willamina’s own family can be found in the church archives, which document the loss of her parents’ first child: “Buried in our churchyard, Christian Rine’s little son, Henrich, aged 11 months, 2 days, [died] of whooping cough.”

Jennifer N. Johnson holds a degree from the Parsons/Cooper-Hewitt Master’s Program in the History of Decorative Arts and Design. While pursuing her studies, she completed a two-year fellowship researching the Cooper-Hewitt’s American sampler collection. She is currently a Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow in the American Decorative Arts department at Yale University Art Gallery.

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