Pictorial embroidery in the Early Republican female academy

Plan Author

  • Dakota Walsh, 2015

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Course: Philosophy of Art & Aesthetics
  • Course: More Than One: A Visual Narrative
  • Tutorial: Mourning Art in Early America
  • Tutorial: US History and Culture in the Early Republic

Project Description

Schoolgirl mourning pictures of the early 19th century.

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • David Lazaro, Historic Deerfield


This Plan is an exploration of early 19th-century New England material culture, focusing on female education and mourning imagery through the lens of schoolgirl needlework. This study explores the realm of embroidery produced in female academies in the years following the American Revolution (1780—1830). Despite their quaint associations and unassuming appearances, the needlework samplers and embroidered pictures produced by these schoolgirls reveal rich layers of meaning, illustrating the rigid model of femininity being instilled into pupils along with a divergent but parallel track of greater intellectual liberty for post-Revolutionary girls. In addition to their purely decorative purpose, the layers of creative, religious, and intellectual meaning present in even the simplest sampler can provide insight into the world in which these young women stitched. The Plan includes three papers, the first exploring the place of needlework within the changing curricula of early Republican female academies and the second focusing on embroidered mourning pictures. The third is an analysis of needlework in the museum context. For the final portion of my Plan of Concentration, Dakota exhibited a selection of recent of photographic works in the Drury Gallery at Marlboro College, including 50 black-and-white prints and an installation of found objects and antique gowns. This work is an exploration of rural Americana and self-representation, influenced by the aesthetics of Gothic literature, silent cinema, and early 20th century murder ballads.


The stories of women’s lives in early America can, more often than not, be found alongside the stories of textiles. From the first colonists well into the 19th century, women’s lives and textile production (be it decorative or industrial) are inextricably bound together. From the mill girls of Lowell to the rural social structures of the quilting party, and from the 17th century settler at her spindle to the 19th century schoolgirl stitching her sampler, the creation of textile crafts and products largely fell to women in early America, and within the material objects these women created we can glean important insights into the lives and values of their makers. Embroidery in particular presents layers of seemingly contradictory meanings, being a burden and arbitrarily imposed millstone in some ways, while also serving as a vehicle for creative exploration and establishing the maker’s individual identity.

Wrought in sparkling threads of silk and gold and often including beautiful watercolor accents, the mourning picture certainly shared some aesthetic sentiments with its chronological predecessors. However, what makes the American embroidered mourning picture so fascinating is its complexity, conveying a confluence of political and social change in American culture, and setting up further dichotomies between liberty and domesticity for Republican girls. Mourning simultaneously hoisted another constricting ritual onto young women while also allowing them a conduit for emotional exploration and an unprecedented (albeit restrained) invitation to illustrate their own emotional experiences.


While working at a museum in my sophomore year, I came across an embroidered silk mourning picture with a painted watercolor background. I was very taken with the unique rural folk art style of the piece and its mysterious and richly symbolic Grecian mourning imagery. What enthralled me most, though, was the fact that the piece was made by a teenaged girl in the early 19th century, and depicted her very personal experience of grief over her dead sister. Schoolgirl embroidery of this period is often glossed over as strictly “quaint” and thought of more as an antique than a fine art piece, due in no small part to the fact they are wrought by anonymous young women and with the traditionally domestic mediums of silk and wool. I was eager to explore embroidery’s deep artistic and cultural currents, and to help give these pieces the place they’re due in the American art historical canon.

I loved getting to pore over my primary sources, the original diaries of students at Miss Pierce’s Female Academy in Litchfield, Connecticut. It was fascinating to learn about the roles of academia, novel reading, and embroidery in the students’ everyday lives through the minutiae of their diaries (many were very thorough in the journal entries). I feel very lucky to have been able to add their voices to my Plan. Every morning, after a walk in the woods with my dog Banjo, I would sit down at my beautiful big window in Out Of the Way with peppermint tea and a clementine and devote several hours to writing. Most of my Plan memories are of these private and peaceful moments immersed in internal dialogue with my sources.

I plan to attend graduate school for art history or material culture studies, with the hopes of continuing in the museum or antiques field with an emphasis on early American decorative arts and womens’ history. My Plan laid the perfect foundation for the kind of interdisciplinary academic foray I hope to build on in graduate school. I also love that I was able to weave some of my photography into Plan, because even though I’m not interested in becoming a professional artist, I am so pleased that I was able to have a gallery show and to take part in critiques..