What were you doing when you were twelve years old: riding bikes with friends, lip synching to your favorite band, watching bad TV shows, making cookies? I might have a hard time remembering exactly what occupied my time when I was twelve, but I am absolutely certain that I was not embroidering an intricate sampler as Margaret Barnholt was in 1831.

This sampler is made from silk embroidery thread on a simple cotton foundation fabric and shows six scenes: a church with a garden, figures, animals, birds and butterflies; the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, and a mourning scene with a weeping willow, grave with funerary urn, and more figures. Three additional vignettes show figures with animals and trees. A rose vine border surrounds the piece and a verse reads: ‘Mother dear weep not for me/ When to this yard my grave you see/ my time was short and blest was he/that called me to eternity.’

Young girls like Margaret Barnholt created samplers as part of their education, showing the alphabet and numbers, as well as verses, poems or tracts- combining lessons in needlework with morality, or in the case of some samplers, memorializing the death of a loved one.

The vignette with the grave, weeping willow, and family is a classic format seen in many mourning samplers. Margaret may have had a sibling who passed away, and the addition of the grieving family and the initials on the gravestone makes this more of a personalized story- a mourning sampler within the larger sampler, showing a portrait of her family and recording the death of a brother or sister.

Every sampler is a historical document of sorts. It reflects the milieu of the girl who made it, the emphasis her family placed on education and home-making, as well as her skill at needlework. Parents proudly displayed the samplers as markers of their daughters’ talent and status- the equivalent of basketball trophies, walls filled with photos from school plays, graduations, and similar milestones. In this case, the likely possibility that Margaret may have lost a sibling further highlights the differences between the concerns of families in the 1800s and those of the present day.

Samplers help shed light on the lives of young women in early America- lives that otherwise went completely unrecorded and undocumented.

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