Lot Number: 295 (description taken from Sotheby's catalogue)
RARE NEEDLEWORK SAMPLER, SARAH ELWELL (1814-1892), PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA, DATED 1826
Worked with silk threads on linen in outline, straight, padded satin, queen and cross-stitches. Inscribed: Sarah/Elwell/Philadelphia/1826.
20 1/2 by 15 1/2 inches. (32 threads to the inch). Some darkening of linen and minor losses and stain.
Sothby's estimate: $10,000 - $18,750 (with 25% buyer's premium added)
Sold (SPECIAL SALES PRICE - no
(To purchase call 860-388-6809)
Among the faded penmanship exercises preserved in Hopewell Village archives is a list of twenty-four "anxious
wishes" compiled by an unknown Pennsylvania schoolgirl. She wanted most of all to be independent, to be admired,
and to be joined in matrimony, while to be in love was placed next to last. She desired to set the fashions, be
happy, go to Europe, reign in all things, and be an ornament in society. At the very end was the wish to be wealthy.
This extraordinary index reveals the expectations of a young girl in a remote nineteenth-century Pennsylvania village
and provides a revealing glimpse of the culture that shaped her life in the tightly knit Hopewell community.1 It
was into such an atmosphere that Sarah Elwell was born on August 17, 1814, the youngest of Samuel Elwell and Rachel
Sheppard's seven children. Little is known of Sarah's early life in the village; except that she was orphaned before
she was five. 2 Hopewell, located in the valley of the Schuylkill, on the border of Berks and Chester counties,
was dominated by the massive glowing furnace, the night-and-day operation of the creaking waterwheel, and the ever-present
charcoal dust from the local ironworks. Samuel Elwell was apparently connected to the famous Hopewell Ironworks
and Foundry, for land records indicate that the Elwell family owned sizeable tracts of land in Hopewell and Pittsgrove
townships. As landowners, they would have been in a prestigious position in the community, both economically and
socially. 3 While some older children studied at home with tutors, there is evidence that a common school was established
in Hopewell before 1804. After 1820, the school was presided over by a Sarah Brown, who received her fees in the
form of subscriptions charged to individual pupils on the basis of attendance. There is no indication that Brown
instructed the girls in any form of needlework. Such subscription teaching continued well into the 1840s.4 Pupils
from all levels of Hopewell society began attending classes around the age of five; the ironmaster assumed responsibility
for those families too poor to pay. Sessions were held in vacant houses, in the local boarding house, and at the
Baptist church; the boys sat on one side of the room, the girls on the other.5 Upon graduation, the wealthier students
were often sent to private boarding schools. Hopewell girls traditionally went to study at Mr. Price's school in
West Chester or Mr. Hamilton's in Philadelphia,6 occasionally progressing to Bristol College or Samuel Gummere's,
both in Burlington, New Jersey. As genteel young ladies of fashion, they were instructed in dancing, riding, French,
and Latin.7 Philadelphia, about fifty miles from Hopewell, was certainly considered the center of fashion, and
it was there that Sarah Elwell was sent to boarding school.8 As with many Philadelphia samplers, Sarah Elwell's
embroidery is embellished with designs frequently associated with eastern Pennsylvania and the mid-Atlantic states.
Such motifs as the ribbed fence and the deeply terraced lawn are reminiscent of samplers attributed to schools
near Baltimore and the Delaware River Valley. The apple tree to the left of her beige silk house is an imaginative
addition to this finely worked embroidery. But Quaker motifs also abound. The stylish wreath of flowers enclosing
Sarah's name, the fine, precise letters of her boxy alphabet inscribing the verse and maxim, and the scattered
initials representing fidelity to her siblings, Samuel, Hannah, and Christiana, are all identified as Quaker.9
Recently, two identical samplers have emerged that were unquestionably worked under the same instruction. One was
stitched by Mary Florence in 1826, and the second by Isabella McDonald in 1829. The schoolmistress who designed
the format for these charming samplers is still unknown. She may well be the woman who taught at the prestigious
Hamilton School in Philadelphia, where many Hopewell girls were known to have completed their education. 10 Sarah
Elwell married Benjamin Crispin (1797-1877) in 1838. They had at least two children. Sarah died at the age of eighty-two.
1. Joseph E. Walker, Hopewell Village: the Dynamics of a Nineteenth-Century Iron-Making Community (Philadelphia,
PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966),329.
2. Elmer Garfield Van Name, The Elwell Family, 17th- and 18th-Century Southern New Jersey (Haddonfield, NJ, 1963),25,26.
3. Van Name, Elwell Family, 25.
4. National Park Service, pamphlet, H opewefl Village (Hopewell Village National Historic Site, PA). See also Walker,
Hopewell Fillage, 347, 348, 381.
5. Walker, Hopewell Village, 351, 352, 353.
6. An advertisement in Poulson's American Daily Advertiser, March 27, 1815, has been brought to my attention by
Betty Ring. It states that Hamilton Academy, in the village of Hamilton, one mile west of Philadelphia, was opening
on the first day of April, with Ennion Williams as superintendent. This may have been the "Mr. Hamilton's
school" to which Walker referred. Boarders were accepted in the "separate apartments of two adjoining
houses," at a cost of $190 per year. Among the primary branches of instruction for girls was plain and ornamental
needlework. I am indebted to Mrs. Ring for her kind assistance. 7. Walker, Hopewell Village, 355, 356, 35
7. See also letter from Elizabeth Barde to Sarah A. Brooke, February 12, 1837 (Hopewell Papers, Stokes Collection,
Hopewell Village National Historic Site, PA). In 1830 and 1831, expenses for Caroline and Marie Brooke came to
$112.49 for twenty-four weeks' schooling with Mr. Price.
8. Walker, Hopewell Village, 322, 356, 357.
9. Van Name, Elwell Family, 25, 26. While no date of death is recorded for Thomas and Martha Ann, the absence of
their initials on Sarah Ann's sampler would suggest that they died before the sampler was worked in 1826.
10. The whereabouts of the sampler worked by Mary Florence is unknown. Isabella McDonald's sampler is illustrated
in Sotheby's, New York, catalogue, Fine Americana, 4338, January 3D-February 2, 1980, lot 1306. Once a part of
the collection of Emma B. Hodge of Chicago, the McDonald sampler may have been exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute
of Arts exhibition of the Hodge Collection, April 1921 (see Bulletin of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, April
1921, vol. 10, no. 4: 25-28).
11. Van Name, Elwell Family, 26.
Ruth Troiani, Pound Ridge, New York, March, 1980
Exhibited and Literature: LACMA, pp. 119-121, fig. 57
STEPHEN & CAROL HUBER
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