Some of the finest and most elaborate American schoolgirl needleworks were done by students of Mary Balch of Providence. This pictorial sampler, with its vivid, jewel-like colors, intricate stitching and complex composition stands out as a particularly superlative example and demonstrates not only the talent and ability of its maker but also the sophistication of female education in the late eighteenth century.
BETSY WARDWELL'S PICTORIAL SAMPLER AND THE MARY BALCH SCHOOL
By Glee Krueger
Betsy Wardwell's handsome sampler demonstrates the strong sense of color and design practiced by pupils of Mary Balch's boarding and day school in Providence, Rhode Island. This richly colored sampler of 1797 has its roots in the needlework stitched in Newport where the Balch family had lived. Mary's mother, Sarah Rogers (18 October 1735-24 July 1811), was the daughter of shipmaster Captain James Rogers (c.1713-1777) and his wife, Charity Brayton (b.1716). Sarah married Timothy Balch (1725-1776), a tailor from Boston, at Newport's First Congregational Church on November 29, 1757. Six children were born in Newport before the family moved to Providence during the British occupation. Sadly, Timothy died on April 11, 1776, leaving the 41-year old Sarah a destitute widow who accepted financial aid from the town of Providence.
The precise date Sarah and her daughter Mary started to teach is unknown, but the earliest sampler is dated March 25, 1785 made by Abija Hall. At this time, the school was conducted in a rented house at the corner of Shore Alley and North Main Street in the area of North Providence called Constitution Hill. This is the location where Betsy Wardwell embroidered her sampler. By the second Monday of August 1801, Sarah and Mary occupied a new house at 22 George Street. The first Providence directory of 1824 notes, "Balch Miss Mary, boarding school, 22 George."
Because the school flourished for more than 45 years, there are many variations in design, from naturalistic to stylized and combinations of the two. From about 1788 to 1799, specific buildings are introduced, such as the Old State House, Providence College, the Providence Court House, the First Congregational Church and the First Baptist Church. During the years 1796 and 1797, the Balch samplers tend to be more stylized and naturalistic floral borders give way to simple eight-petal flowers worked in Queen's stitch. These flowers emerge from blue double-handled vases. The background is covered with black diagonal-pattern darning stitches. Inside the borders are two Doric columns topped by round finials and seated birds. The columns are spanned by a broken arch. In the opening is a heart with two birds. A pair of trumpeting angels completes the area.
Within the two columns are three panels. The topmost one has four figures, trees, a stag, and assorted sheep. The middle tier has a brick dwelling with elegant fence and six trees each with a bird. Below is a band with two standing couples and trees accompanied by black sheep and a black dog. Seven samplers dated 1796 and 1797 share many of these elements, but the closest in design is the work of another Betsy: Betsy Davis, whose 1797 sampler is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (fig. 1). Another distinctive sampler of 1796 is worked by Lydia Gladding and was exhibited in the 1987 New York show at the Museum of American Folk Art as part of the late Theodore H. Kapnek's collection. It appeared again in the major study Let Virtue Be a Guide to Thee: Needlework in the Education of Rhode Island Women, 1730-1830, cat. 52, pp. 142-143.
For more information on needleworks from the Balch School, see Sotheby's Parke-Bernet, The Theodore H. Kapnek Collection of American Samplers, January 31, 1981, lots 45 and 46; Glee Krueger, A Gallery of American Samplers: The Theodore H. Kapnek Collection (New York, 1978), pp. 13, 14, 18, 19, and 90 (figs. 37 and 37a);
Glee Krueger, New England Samplers to 1840 (Sturbridge, MA, 1978), pp. 21-28, 199-201 (figs. 42, 43, 37-57); Betty Ring, Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers & Pictorial Needlework 1656-1850 (New York, 1993), pp. 176, 178-187 (figs. 199 and 206, endpapers); and Betty Ring, Let Virtue Be a Guide to Thee: Needlework in the Education of Rhode Island Women 1730-1730 (Providence, 1983), pp. 67, 71, 97-205 (figs. 6, 12, 51, 52, 53 and 76).
--Glee Krueger, October, 2006
Born in Providence in 1785, Betsy (Elizabeth) Wardwell was the eldest daughter of Deacon Stephen Wardwell (1754-1839) and his wife, Mary Snow (1762-1825). She married John Dunwell (d. after 1836) on July 20, 1812 and the following year gave birth to a son, James P. Dunwell (1813-1892). After her death four years later, her husband remained in Providence and appears in both the 1824 and 1836 city directories (James N. Arnold, Vital Records of Rhode Island, 1636-1850 (Providence, 1891-1912), vol. 17, p. 256, vol. 18, pl. 396; The Providence Directory, 1824, p. 27 and 1836, p. 43). As indicated by a partial label on the backboard, her sampler was later owned in Sandwich, Massachusetts.
This pictorial sampler survives in a remarkable state of preservation, surviving not only with the brilliance of its colors but also shedding light on period finishing techniques. When the sampler was purchased from John Walton in 1976, it was taken to the conservation lab at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for examination. The later frame was removed revealing the untouched condition of its treatment prior to framing: Loose ends of the needlework had been looped through the backboard and sandwiched in between was a folded page of the January 26, 1797 edition of the newspaper, The United States Chronicle (fig 2). It is believed that the original purpose of the newspaper was to prevent the sampler from touching the wood and coming into contact with its acidic surface, which would have hastened the loss to the black and brown threads. The newspaper is now preserved in double-sided archival frame and the sampler housed in a period frame (purchased from Joe Kindig) with UV-filtered plexiglass and an inert museum-quality board placed between the sampler and backboard. The frame has a thick enough fillet to ensure that the glass does not come in contact with the sampler.