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A Stitch in Time: Who Was Elisabeth Gibbons?

On a March day more than two hundred years ago, a young girl stitched her name, age, and the date onto her sampler: “Elisabeth Gibbons Aged 12 Years Old March 21 1812.”

The alphabet and numerals to fifteen are featured at the top of the sampler, embroidered in faded thread of green, pale blue, and beige, and at the lower right, significantly faded, is an apparent religious quotation: “Fear God. Your parents well obey. For you will have no friend but they.”

Sampler, Elisabeth Gibbons, 1812; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2023.

No Biblical connection to this quotation is immediately apparent. According to a Google search, the line, “Your parents well obey” appears in the book Divine Miscellanies, or, Sacred Poems, written by James Maxwell, which was first printed in England in 1756 with a second edition printed in Scotland in 1787. However, it is possible that this quotation was inspired by a sensational epic poem published in England in the late eighteenth century, entitled: The Gloucestershire Tragedy, Being an Account of Miss Mary Smith in Thornbury, Who Poison’d Her Father Sir John Smith, for Love of a Young Man. Within this poem are the strikingly similar lines, “Serve God, your parents well obey / For you’ve no friends alive but they.” Might Elisabeth Gibbons have read and been moved by this emotional account?

The sampler is bordered by a vine of leaves and flowers, the green of the vine still relatively bold, the flowers faded to beige and cream and the faintest pinks and blues. Perhaps natural dyes were used to color Elisabeth’s thread; the colors were likely once more vibrant. The inclusion of the floral border indicates that this sampler was indeed intended to be displayed with pride. At the time of its purchase at a Washington state antique shop in 2023, the sampler was framed as pictured, but the provenance of the frame itself is not immediately apparent.

What is known of Elisabeth Gibbons can be summed up quite succinctly. She was born at some point between March 1799 and March 1800; she spoke English; she was Christian; she received some manner of education in an environment that allowed her the time and opportunity to learn, at the very least, her letters and the art of embroidery. She may have liked poetry and the color green, as evidenced by the dominant color of thread used in her sampler.

Elisabeth might have lived in the eastern United States, Canada, or the British Isles; the Gibbons surname originates there. It seems unlikely that she would have spent her childhood on the American frontier but rather that she lived somewhere settled enough to have opportunities for the education of young girls from genteel families. If her mother had been educated herself, Elisabeth could also have been under her tutelage rather than that of a female instructor.

Birth records from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century are unfortunately sparse. While a handful of birth records for girls named Elisabeth Gibbons—and common variations of the name—born between March 1799 and March 1800 have been indexed and are available via online databases, it is impossible to say how many others bearing that name may never have had their births formally recorded.

Without an exact date of birth, a location, or the name of a school stitched onto this sampler, the odds of connecting it to a specific Elisabeth Gibbons are slim. However, should another sampler turn up with, for example, a similar floral border and a similar religious quotation, made around the same year, then perhaps it could be surmised that the samplers were made under the direction of the same individual and more clues could be gathered as a result.

For now, Elisabeth’s sampler stands alone as a relic of early nineteenth century girlhood, a lost memento of one young girl’s educational accomplishments at a time when opportunities for such an education were far from universal.

Copyright © 2023 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.

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