The pre-Revolutionary world of a young Connecticut needleworker

August 5, 2015 · CHS Buzz ·

By Ilene Frank

Ilene Frank recently joined the Connecticut Historical Society as chief curator. From time to time, she’ll write about what’s new with the collection, educational programs and exhibitions.

Sampler by Susanna Spencer in 1761

Sampler, made by Susanna Spencer, New Hartford, 1761, CHS collection

Why do museums keep collecting objects?
In this day of digital imagery, can’t a picture be enough?
What does a diary, or a skirt, or a shaving kit really tell us about the past that hasn’t already been conveyed through other means?

These are questions I often ask myself. As chief curator at the CHS, I am confronted daily by the magnitude of our collection.

When I arrived a little more than a month ago, I was intrigued by a recent addition: a stitching sampler from 1761, making it the earliest sampler in the CHS collection. Made by Susanna Spencer when she was 14 years old, the sampler shows the alphabet, her name, birth date, the year the sampler was made and the numerals 1 – 9.

I have always been fascinated with samplers. Perhaps because I never truly mastered how to sew a button or hem my pants (my mother still cringes when she sees me pick up a needle), I deeply admire the fine embroidery produced by girls, some who produced remarkable stitching at very young age. When I saw Susanna Spencer’s sampler, I was struck by its simplicity. Compared with other examples that feature depictions of flowers, animals, even human figures, the geometric decorations on this sampler are beautifully understated.

Thanks to other artifacts in our collection about the Spencer family and Susanna’s descendents, some who lived in New Hartford, Connecticut, we can piece together her life and that of her family’s. With supplemental evidence, this sampler moves out of the realm of a purely decorative object and into the realm of historic document. It becomes a touchstone to a woman’s past, when she was a young girl on the verge of womanhood, using the sampler to convey her place in the world.

I appreciate those items that display where a human’s hands have been present. A sampler, where a woman, in this case Susanna, took time to create a design, gather the materials, spend time stitching the threads to make letters, and then words, is one example of an item that links us to our past. It also makes me wish I had paid a bit more attention to sewing class.

To read more about this unique and historic sampler, view the article on page 7 of the Connecticut Historical Society’s summer 2015 Magazine, available when you visit the CHS or through your annual membership. For more information, visit

Ilene J. Frank is chief curator and director of collections and education of the Connecticut Historical Society (CHS). Frank previously served as executive director of the Rensselaer County Historical Society in Troy, N.Y. Bringing a holistic perspective of historical organizations to CHS, Frank also oversaw exhibitions, programs and collections as associate director at the Schenectady Museum and Suits-Bueche Planetarium (now the Museum of Innovation and Science, or MiSci) in Schenectady, N.Y. She is a graduate of the Cooperstown Graduate Program, one of the oldest and most distinguished history museum studies programs in the nation.

About the Connecticut Historical Society

A private, nonprofit, educational organization established in 1825, the Connecticut Historical Society is the state’s official historical society and one of the oldest in the nation. Located at 1 Elizabeth Street in Hartford, the CHS houses a museum, library, and the Edgar F. Waterman Research Center that are open to the public and funded by private contributions. The CHS’s collection includes more than 4 million manuscripts, graphics, books, artifacts, and other historical materials accessible at our campus and on loan at other organizations.

The CHS collection, programs and exhibits help Connecticut residents connect with each other, have conversations that shape our communities, and make informed decisions based on our past and present.

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