Embroidered Samplers and Women’s Education in 19th Century America

In early 19th Century America, young girls were predominantly educated within the home. Although many girls in prominent, wealthy families could attend dame schools, their education was limited to what would prepare them for their future roles as wives and mothers. Different expectations of the roles of men and women meant vastly different approaches to their educations. In the late 18th Century, embroidered samplers played a crucial role in a young girl’s education. Not only did these samplers teach girls basic embroidery techniques, but they also learned the alphabet, numbers, and sometimes a biblical verse. At the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum, we have on display four samplers embroidered by Mary Dwight Huntington, Bethia Throop Huntington, Catherine Whiting Fisher, and Eliza Fitch Lyon. Growing up just before women’s colleges like Mount Holyoke, founded in 1837, and Smith, founded in, 1871, became a common path for women, Mary, Bethia, Catherine, and Eliza, not only watched their brothers, sons, and nephews attend college, but also some of their daughters and nieces.

Mary, Bethia, Catherine, and Eliza, as they relate to each other

Mary D. & Bethia T. Huntington

Mary Dwight Huntington’s Sampler

Bethia Throop Huntington’s Sampler

Born in 1815 as the ninth of Dan and Elizabeth Whiting Phelps Huntington’s eleven children, Mary D. Huntington made this sampler at the age of 10, on February 14th, 1826. Mary’s older sister, Bethia T. Huntington, the fourth of the eleven, made her sampler at eight years old in 1814. Until her death in 1839 at the young age of 24, Mary wrote to and received many letters from her older brother, William Pitkin Huntington. In 1826, William writes to Mary admiring how fast she was able to make sheets and pillows. In addition to this, it seems that Mary’s, as well as Bethia’s, education went beyond these household skills. In 1831 and 1832, William wrote his sisters numerous letters in French. William writes, “mais ce que je regarde avec le plus l’intérêt c’est vos études francais,” which roughly translates to, ‘but what I find the most interesting is your French studies.’ He continues in his letter to explain various grammar rules of the French language to Mary. This raises the question of whether the sisters were formally studying French in any capacity, or whether it was just William who thought they should be proficient in a foreign language. In fact, Mary, Bethia, and their two sisters were students at the Troy Female Seminary, founded in 1814 by Emma Hart Willard. Subsequently called the Emma Willard School, the school provided young women with an education comparable to that of young men at a time when women were barred from colleges. Mary and Bethia’s education was reaching beyond the sewing, alphabet, and numbers they were taught through their samplers. With institutions like the Emma Willard School, the focus of women’s education was beginning to shift from household tasks to a curriculum which included mathematics, science, history, foreign language, and literature.

Catherine Whiting Fisher

Catherine Whiting Fisher’s Sampler

Catherine Whiting Fisher, Granddaughter of Elizabeth Whiting Phelps and Dan Huntington, and niece of Mary and Bethia, was eight years old when she made this sampler. Similar to Mary and Bethia, Catherine frequently corresponded with her brother, Edward Fisher, while he was away at college and she remained at home. Interestingly, on September 24, 1859, Catherine receives a letter from an S. Dilloway that reads, “I am glad you propose to be a teacher.” As women’s education was becoming more mainstream during Catherine’s childhood with institutions like the Emma Willard School, teaching was becoming an acceptable and achievable career path for women. Women’s education continued to grow during Catherine’s lifetime as women’s colleges were founded. One of Catherine’s nieces, Eleanor (Fisher) Grose, attended Smith College. So, through the three generations of Bethia and Mary, Catherine, and Eleanor, women’s education was transitioning from preparing women for motherhood, to opportunities in teaching, and eventually to higher education.

Eliza Fitch Lyon

Eliza Fitch Lyon’s Sampler

Eliza, aged eight when she made this sampler, was the daughter of Samuel Huntington and Mary Warner. Dan Huntington was Eliza’s great uncle, making Mary and Bethia her first-cousins-once-removed and Catherine her second cousin. Eliza married Theophilus Parsons Huntington, also her second cousin, making Eliza and Catherine sisters-in-law as well. Eliza and Theophilus had three children: Walter Elliot, who served in the civil war, Maria Whiting, and Edward Dwight. Unlike her relatives Mary, Bethia, and Catherine, it seems that Eliza’s formal education did not expand beyond this sampler. She married Theophilus in 1837 at the age of 19 and had her first child in 1842 at the age of 24. In contrast to this, Mary, Bethia, and Catherine, never married but each received a more formal education than Eliza.

Click here to read more about how marriage, or the choice to remain unmarried, affected the lives of women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.



Finding Aid, Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers. 1987-88.

Peck, Amelia. “American Needlework in the Eighteenth Century.” Metmuseum.org.

Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, on deposit at Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library.