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Between the Lines: Innovation and Expression in Women's Sewing Samplers, 2023, installation view. Courtesy of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College. Photo by On Location Studios.

Between the Lines: A Student Curator’s Perspective

Today’s post comes from Ida-Rose Chabon, Vassar Class of 2024 and Art Center Student Guide.

For the first time in almost two decades, a selection of the Loeb’s embroidery sampler collection is on view now through September 3, 2023. The samplers on display are part of the Loeb’s newest Spotlight Gallery show, Between the Lines: Innovation and Expression in Women’s Sewing Samplers, curated by professor of American Art, Dr. Caroline Culp, and myself, Ida-Rose Chabon. 

In 2021, I took a class with Bart Thurber, The Anne Hendricks Bass Director of the Loeb, and wrote a paper about the collection of embroidery samplers in storage at the Loeb. In my paper, I described the history of so-called “school girl embroidery,” and the legacy that these works have at a school like Vassar, formerly a women’s college. At the end of my paper, I proposed the inclusion of a sampler into the permanent collection. That same year, I took a class on American Art History with Professor Culp. We spent a day looking at a few of Vassar’s samplers. At the beginning of this year, Professor Culp asked me if I would be interested in helping her curate a show in the Spotlight Gallery of our samplers. I eagerly accepted, overjoyed that recognition was coming to a very underappreciated portion of our collection. Although the exhibition itself is exciting, perhaps the most exciting part of working on this show was the wild goose chase that is art historical research. In this blog post, I wanted to take time to share my favorite discoveries while working on this show, as the actual process of research is often difficult to recognize in the galleries. 

Installation view of exhibition with sewing materials and embroidery
The Lydia Booth Connection:

Key to my paper was the story of Lydia Booth, the niece of Matthew Vassar. In 1864, as Vassar College was in the infancy of its life as a college, Vassar himself addressed the board of trustees saying, “It is due to truth to say that my great interest on the subject of female education was awakened not less than twenty years ago by an intimate female friend and relative, now deceased, who conducted a seminary of long standing and character in this city . . . It was this fact, more than any other, and more than all others, that awakened me early to the possibility and necessity of an institution like the one we now propose.”

 The “intimate female friend?” Lydia Booth! Booth’s interest and dedication to women’s education stemmed from her own childhood, as she attended Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy in Connecticut. The Litchfield Female Academy had a reputation as a tough, high achieving institution. The founder believed (radically I will say) that women were intellectually equal to men, and the academy’s students were taught math and sciences typically unavailable to women at this time. Also key to their curriculum were creative and artistic endeavors. Most famously? Samplers. Although I have yet to find any needlework done by Lydia Booth, there is a case in this show with material and objects from the Hasbrouck family of Locust Lawn. Where did the girls of the Hasbrouck family go to school? Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy. When I say that I just found this connection out, I mean I literally found this out as I was writing this blog post.

Samplers were no doubt key to Lydia Booth’s education, and she took the values instilled in her at Litchfield (women are smart, and deserve to go to school), and brought them back to Poughkeepsie with her. She opened a girl’s seminary on Garden Street. She died before Vassar College was opened, but it was done in her honor, with her values at the center. 

Samplers at Vassar?

My next discovery was perhaps only exciting to me. As I wrote my paper, I was making the educated guess that in the early days of Vassar, the students were, perhaps not instructed in, but were engaging in sewing and embroidery in their free time. For the life of me, I could not find contemporary information on sewing at Vassar. I wrote my paper with the assumption that embroidery was happening, but without fact to back it up. Then at the beginning of this year, I decided to see if anything new had been put online pertaining to sewing or embroidery at Vassar. And lo and behold! I finally found something– a complete digitized record of the Vassar Miscellany, starting in 1911. 

There were dozens of mentions of sewing at Vassar, sewing clubs and sewing events for charity, but my absolute favorite was an Op-Ed entitled “Sewing at the Wrong Time” by LaStell M. Beck (class of 1913). In her article, Ms. Beck writes “I wonder how many of us, when we take our sewing to a lecture or a concert, think just what it means to the lecturer to the college and to ourselves.” She goes on to describe an entire debate that took place in “Arg Section” (I wish I knew what that meant), over whether or not it was disrespectful to sew in class. She calls on the girls of Vassar to keep their sewing in their bags during their lectures, lest they make the lecturer feel as if he was speaking to the “Tuesday sewing circle.” I was overjoyed at this find, and it brought me immense pleasure to read the words of students sitting in the same classrooms and dorm buildings as me, telling the stories of their lives over 100 years ago. 

Screenshot of 1911 article on sewing at Vassar.
Separated Sisters:

My final favorite discovery from this show was the connection between the Curtis Samplers, both of which are on display in this show. After one of our initial meetings, Professor Culp asked me to give a once over of our collections to see if I could find a few more samplers to add to the rotation lists. I scrolled through the Loeb’s database, and happened on this sampler

Embroidered sampler with verse in the middle and a country scene at bottom
Elizabeth Curtis, “Sampler,” 1787, Silk embroidery on wool, Gift of Mrs. James W. Packard (Elizabeth Gillmer, class of 1894), 1960.9.24.a

It was done by Elizabeth Curtis in 1787, a Brit. I thought it was astounding, and I put it in the file for possible inclusion in the show. A little bit of scrolling later, I found this sampler:

Embroidered sampler with verse in the middle and a country scene at bottom
Catherine Curtis, “Sampler,” 1788, Silk embroidery on wool, Gift of Mrs. James W. Packard (Elizabeth Gillmer, class of 1894), 1960.9.24.b

At first I thought my computer had glitched and I was back on the sampler I had just looked at, and then I realized that this sampler was done a year later, in 1788, by Catherine Curtis, an American? I was blown away again, at the technical skill yes, but also by the unmistakable similarity between these two samplers. One American, one British? Due to the visual similarities, and most importantly, the same last name, I was not hesitant to believe that these samplers were done by an elder sister and younger sister, or a duo of cousins. After consulting with Joanne Luckacher, a sampler expert and the curator of the last Loeb sampler show, I believe that the Curtises were British. It is hard to find genealogical information on their relationship, but it is clear that there is a close family one. Perhaps the red brick house with a blue shed that both girls stitched was their family home, or the school they attended. After years of being separated by an error in the archives, these sisters or cousins will hang next to each other on the walls of an Art Museum, family connection restored. 

Between the Lines has been an absolute pleasure to work on, and I am eternally grateful to Caroline Culp for including me in this effort, and to Bart Thurber for encouraging me in my work with our samplers.