Made by a Child: A Sampler of Siblings’ Names Stitched in 1778.

An exhibition catalogue of eighteenth-century embroidery would probably pass by this small sampler, which records information about a family in the English Midlands 1767-1787, just purchased for Cotsen. It is simply a list of names enclosed in a narrow, simple border unaccompanied by alphabets, mottoes, architecture, birds, and swirling vines in more bravura examples designed by school mistresses for their pupils.

Joan Oughton, the dexterous young needlewoman, signed at the bottom so posterity would know that she lived in Birmingham and finished the piece in 1788.   She used just three stitches–outline, cross, and tent—and a quiet and harmonious palette of blue-gray, black, gold, and silver silk thread on linen.  The tiny stitches are so regular that the embroidered words and numbers are beautifully legible.  It  lacks the name of a teacher or school, an indication that she worked it as part of lessons to master plain and ornamental needlework, an key component of girls’ education.

Perhaps Joan sewed it as  a  memorial to her sisters and brothers, similar to writing out family members’ names, dates of birth and of passing on a blank leaf in the family Bible. Her mother was almost continually pregnant between 1766 and 1786, bearing eleven children, seven of whom survived infancy.   Joan’s brothers were Thomas Smith, who lived only a week in June 1767, James Harwick born in 1779, Samuel in 1781, and Timothy in 1783.  The oldest girl Elizabeth was born in 1768, Maria, in 1770 and passing away at age eight,  Harriet in 1772, Joan in 1773, Catherine in 1774, Ann who was alive the summer of 1778.  The last girl was a second Maria born in 1786 and living eleven months later. The detail below shows the lines for the first Maria, Harriet, Joan, Catherine, and Ann.

Using Joan’s record of her brothers and sisters, I tracked down very promising candidates for their parents in Ancestry Library (there was no family tree that brought all these Oughtons together as related).  Christopher Oughton was the brood’s father.  Son of Timothy Oughton, he was born April 14th, 1747, and baptized in Lichfield, Staffordshire.  His wife was a Maria, but her maiden name and the date of their union didn’t seem to be documented.

How Christopher support his growing family?  Birmingham directories of tradesmen list a Christopher Oughton at   How did Christopher support his growing family?  Luckily he can be found in Birmingham directories of tradesmen between 1751 and 1775 at fashionable 22 Church Street as a peruke maker–a more elegant term for someone who makes wigs.  Someone in this line of work frequently also cut and dressed hair, sold perfume and pomades, etc.  Christopher added a second, more unusual line of work around 1785—that of pawnbroking.

Joan’s somber tribute to her brothers has proven to be a little piece of family history worked on linen and a very welcome–and unusual–addition to Cotsen’s small group of samplers among the textiles.


The History of Christmasses Past: A Christmas Tree Made of Yew Boughs

Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, is now believed to have introduced the custom of displaying indoors decorated yew branches at Christmas from her native Mecklenberg-Strelitz in northern Germany, not her grandson Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria.  What exactly Charlotte’s Christmas “trees” looked like is harder to document.  The nicely illustrated articles on-line show many versions of Victoria’s family gathered around a table-top tree in a brilliantly illuminated room, but none of Charlotte’s holiday decorations.

What might be a variation on the decorated yew bought appears in an early nineteenth-century German book of plates about domestic life, which was added to collection some time ago. The caption and note at the end for the 12th plate describes Christmas as a special time for children, who look forward to receiving presents.   There are indeed gifts in evidence—someone will be receiving a new dress–but they are laid out on a table around which the family has gathered.   The little ones have edged closer to the tree in the corner to admire it.  Look closely, and you’ll see that the “tree” is actually several boughs arranged in a container resting on a stool.The book in which the plate appears is something of a mystery.   It has no title page or names of the publisher or engraver on the plates and the dealer who sold it to Mr. Cotsen was unable to find any record of it.  Luckily it was signed and dated 1813 by a girl, but it could be a little earlier.   Cotsen has other German plate books illustrating scenes from children’s lives from this period and many are bound in wrappers of glazed colored paper, which serve as the title pages.   If this book was issued in that format, one of its owners could have removed the wrappers and rebound it in the pretty paste paper boards.   A big patch of paper covers up more writing on the pastedown endpaper.  Perhaps if it were lifted, it would be possible to find more clues about who owned it and what its title might be.

None of this is going to scotch the legend that table-top trees were around in Martin Luther’s day…