Elizabeth Sheffield 1784
ORIGIN AND DATE: Rhode Island 1784
RATED: Intermediate to Advanced
LINEN COUNT, FINISHED SIZE: 35 Count, 13″ x 11″
STITCHES: Cross, petit point (cross stitch over one thread), eyelet, back stitch
Rhode Island samplers were among the first American schoolgirl embroideries to be recognized by serious collectors and textile scholars as a distinctive group with extraordinary visual appeal. This interest was no doubt stimulated by an unprecedented exhibition of 334 New England samplers that was sponsored by the Rhode Island Historical Society in Providence in 1920 and consisted largely of Rhode Island pieces. The following year, Ethel Stanwood Bolton and Eva Johnston Coe completed their incomparable landmark study called American Samplers, and they drew particular attention to the similarities of the samplers of Providence and Warren, Rhode Island. Surprisingly, they failed to mention that the forms seen in these samplers originally emanated from Newport, the birthplace of Providence and Warren schoolmistresses Mary Balch (1762-1831) and Martha Pease Davis (1743-1806), despite the fact that Hannah Burrill’s superb 1770 Newport samplers had been exhibited in 1920. Burrill’s sampler represented Newport’s many-peopled form of the 1770s with figures in its upper border as well as in its deep central band. Perhaps the authors were aware of the dominant Newport style of the 1780’s with birds in the upper border, for in American Samplers they described Elizabeth Sheffield’s 1784 sampler and revealed that it had been for sale at Koopman’s, a Boston shop, in February 1919.
The Sheffield sampler is delicately worked with an unusually pleasing combination of colors in its petit point strawberry band pattern and a unique spread-winged bird in its upper left corner. Although Elizabeth provided her birth date, in the typical Newport sampler manner, her identity is uncertain. She may have been the daughter of Amos and Mary Burrington Sheffield, who married James Tallman in Newport on October 18, 1787.
Since 1921, awareness of Newport and Providence samplers, as well as of those from Warren and Bristol, has increased dramatically, and a great many previously unknown pieces have emerged, including the 1773 Newport samplers of schoolmistress Mary Balch and the 1746 work of her mother, Sarah Rogers Balch (1735-1811). Despite late-twentieth-century efforts, however, the Newport schoolmistress responsible for introducing the sampler styles that would spread throughout Rhode Island is still unknown.
It has been reproduced with permission of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City