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    Follow the Stories | San Antonio, TX (2008)

    Unraveling a Needlework Mystery


    Posted: 2.25.2008

    image of sampler

    The needlework sampler made by a girl named Elizabeth Ann Pitman, of Newport, Rhode Island, around 1810.

    close-up of top

    The top of the sampler reads "May spotless innocence and truth my evry action guide And guard my unexperienced youth from arrogance and pride.

    close-up of bottom

    The bottom of the sampler reads "ELIZABETH ANN PITMANS work NEWPORT."

    image of appraiser and guest

    Discussing the sampler with Elizabeth Pitman's descendant, Jane, Michael Flanigan estimated the auction value of the piece at between $30,000 and $70,000.

    American needlework samplers are one of the few areas of collecting focused on a school rather than an individual. It is an area where the maker is a child whose work we have and the teacher is an adult whose work we almost never have. This can raise some interesting questions as in the case of Elizabeth Ann Pitman's needlework picture. Scholars almost never complain that they have too much information, but sometimes the information can raise more questions than we have answers to.

    Following the "thread" of Elizabeth Ann Pitman's Rhode Island sampler

    Elizabeth Ann Pitman was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1798, and some time in the next decade or so she did the sampler that was brought in by her descendant to the San Antonio ANTIQUES ROADSHOW in July 2007. That's the easy part.

    The hard part is determining where, if at all, Elizabeth Pitman went to school — and thus where she may have made her sampler. The needlework says "Elizabeth Ann Pitmans work Newport," but it has all the elements found in pieces produced at Mary Balch's school in Providence. This school was founded sometime after the Revolution and continued for the next 40 years as the most successful girls' private school in Providence. Betty Ring, the preeminent American needlework scholar, has written of this group, "Samplers from Mary Balch's school in Providence were the first American embroideries to receive wide recognition as a distinctive group from a specific school, and they continue to be the most renowned samplers made under an identified instructress."

    At least seven other samplers from the years 1796 to 1797, using the same elements as Elizabeth Ann Pitman's, survive, while hers was made around a decade later. All of the others are marked Providence, none Newport. Scholars also believe there is a shift after 1800 away from samplers and towards silk mourning pictures. But the question is more than whether a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, since one of those Balch school samplers nearly identical to Elizabeth Pitman's recently sold for over $300,000.

    A number of possible solutions present themselves. Elizabeth Pitman was from Newport and perhaps although she was going to school in Providence, she stitched her needlework using her hometown. Mary Balch's school did take in boarders, but why would she use a decade-old pattern by then out of fashion? There are at least two samplers using the same basic template as the Balch school examples and worked at Warren, Rhode Island, which is closer to Providence than Newport is. Those were made in 1793 and 1801. The 1793 sampler was done by a woman of 21, which suggests it was made by a teacher creating a pattern for her students; hence we can surmise that the 1801 sampler was made by a student following the 1793 example. Alternatively, maybe someone who worked at Mary Balch's school used her patterns and taught in Newport for a time. Or maybe Elizabeth Pitman used an existing needlework and copied it.

    Elizabeth Ann Pitman's needlework may extend the timeline for this significant group of samplers by a decade, or it may expand our idea of a school beyond just those attending to include those who learned from those who attended or worked there. There are no known class lists or graduation certificates for Mary Balch's school that we can check. We can hope however that somewhere someone is searching archives and will run across a letter or reference to Elizabeth Ann Pitman attending school in Providence, or to someone in Newport setting up school and citing Mary Balch as a reference. But until then we are left with some interesting choices for how to attribute this wonderful piece: "School of Mary Balch's School"; "After Mary Balch's School"; "Mary Balch's Correspondence School." Or my favorite, with its sewing imagery: "Circle of Mary Balch's School."

    While scholars love a research project and museums can simply change a label when a reattribution is required, the marketplace is more cautious. Predicting how it will react to a piece that might upend conventional wisdom is risky. A well-respected auctioneer once said that when people pay big money for a piece, they want all the questions answered so they can sleep easy at night. In the case of the Elizabeth Pitman sampler, they might just wait for those answers before they pay the big price.

    See the San Antonio, Texas (2008) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.

    For more on this subject, see:
    Childhood Embroidery American Samplers & Pictorial Needlework 1650-1850, by Betty Ring, Knopf, New York, 1993.
    Let Virtue Be a Guide to Thee: Needlework in the Education of Rhode Island Women, 1730-1830, Rhode Island Historical Society, 1983.

    More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Folk Art category:
    Bellamy Eagles: When Values Soar
    Hunting for Duck Decoys

    J. Michael Flanigan is owner of J.M. Flanigan American Antiques, in Baltimore, Maryland. He has appraised furniture and folk art for ANTIQUES ROADSHOW since the series' first season in 1997.

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