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"While her fingers o'er this canvas move"

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

"Jesus Permit the Gracious name to stand As the first efforts of an infant's hand And while her fingers oe'r this canvas move Engage her tender heart to seek thy love With thy dear children let her share a Part And write thy name thyself upon her heart"

Ten-year-old Flavia Field Stebbins stitched those words on a sampler in 1810. It was a typical young girl's stitchery practice piece, with the alphabet in script, then upper and lower case letters, then numbers, then a pious verse. The same unattributed poem appears on another sampler in the collection. It has also been found on a sampler from Hanover MA, and a cousin of Emily Dickinson used it on a sampler she made! Near the bottom, she proudly signed her work "Wrought by Flavia Field Stebbins, Long Meadow July 23rd, 1810."

Flavia was born in Longmeadow on December 23rd, 1799. Her parents were Lucy Colton Stebbins and Doctor Benjamin Stebbins. Flavia had an aunt Flavia, and her grandfather's first wife was also called Flavia. Flavia, not a common name today, was quite common then. Its origin means "golden, or blonde." I wonder if little Flavia was fair-haired? Sadly, her mother Lucy died in 1804 when Flavia was not quite five years old.

Simple samplers such as this one, called "marking samplers," were made by young girls to practice their stitchery skills as well as their letters and numbers. They were not intended to be framed or displayed like the more elaborate pieces created at girls' schools like the Misses Patten school in Hartford, or the Abby Wright school in South Hadley, MA. Nevertheless, many of these simple marking samplers were preserved as treasured mementos, and the Longmeadow Historical Society is lucky to have several in its collections. Many of these samplers contained the alphabet and letters like Flavia's, but others included family tree information or educational virtues.

Detail of Eunice Storrs' sampler showing family tree information

Eunice Storrs

Huldah Laird's sampler including educational virtues

Experts in the textile arts can often identify where a sampler is made by certain characteristics like the color of the background cloth or features such as birds, houses and animals. The verses stitched into the cloth often included some admonition for good behavior or warning about the dangers of everyday life.

Irinda Colton (private collection) "To Day We Live toMorrow I may Die"

Needlework skills were important to the young girl, as she would be expected to mark her linens, sew her clothes and perhaps even weave her own yardage.

Flavia grew up and married Russell Underwood, of Chicopee, MA, a furniture maker.

Since beginning this story, I have created a database for all of the Longmeadow samplers in the Historical Society's collection, and photographed them. More research is needed on all of the makers. Coincidentally, this project resulted in learning of a Longmeadow sampler in a museum in Oregon, and another at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, NY. We know of others in private collections that we would like to add to the database...

if you have one, or know of one, will you share your information and a photo?

Most of these simple marking samplers were done by 10 or 11-year-olds. Could you do as well when you were that age? This author made a simple counted cross-stitch sampler in her youth. My parents proudly framed it, though I thought it was a pretty amateur effort!

Contributed by Betsy McKee, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member

Originally published March 31, 2022

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