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.


Here’s a Ball for Baby

Cleaning house during the Firestone Renovation led to the discovery of treasures like this one.   To be truthful, Ian and I didn’t know what it was.  But it couldn’t be described more fully until we figured it out, taking advantage of the opportunities presented by internet searching to follow leads and make connections.

Cotsen 31857

Cotsen 31857

I’ve been working on processing collections material that needs to be moved out of a space that will be demolished during the renovation. Much of this material is unprocessed, otherwise under-described, or not accessioned. It’s been tedious work, but I’ve managed to blow the dust off some great items and uncover some diamonds in the rough.

One such surprisingly delightful item has been Baby’s Ball (pictured above), which I came across the other day. It’s a stuffed textile ball which includes a nursery rhyme accompanying 6 lithographed illustrations. The initial record for the item didn’t have much information. But after some careful sleuthing, Andrea and I were able to discover a lot about this Victorian baby toy.

Each illustration is accompanied by 2 descriptive lines of verse, one above and one below the image. We started our investigation when Andrea noticed that this nursery rhyme was vaguely familiar:

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“Here’s a ball for baby, nice and soft and round / here’s the baby’s hammer, hear the baby pound / here’s the baby’s soldiers, standing in a row / here’s the baby’s trumpet, hear the baby blow / don’t take the ball away, to make baby cry / here’s the baby’s cradle, to rock baby by”

At first, we found several versions of the rhyme on the web, but no attribution or history. It was most commonly referenced as a finger play, a nursery rhyme or other simple song that one also performs with hand motions. Itsy Bitsy Spider is probably the most familiar example. Frustratingly, though the song appears so well known, we couldn’t locate it in any of our reference books on early nursery rhymes.

But then we finally hit pay dirt! Andrea found that the original version of the nursery rhyme is attributed to Emilie Poulsson in her book, Finger plays for nursery and kindergarten (Boston : Lothrop Publishing Company, c1893) under the title “All For Baby”. This book, it just so happens, is in the Cotsen collection:

finger plays cover

Front cover, 86551


page 38


Page 39


Page 40

Though we were able to learn more about the ball’s verse by locating a related item from Cotsen’s own collection; this didn’t help use discover any information about the toy’s manufacture. That information came from a much less likely source: eBay.

While looking for information on our Baby’s Ball, I stumbled across an auction listing for: Antique Dated 1900 Art Fabric Mills Cloth Rag Doll BABY’S BALL Rare Uncut NR yqz. At first it didn’t look pertinent. But after scrolling down the page I realized that the item for sale was an original uncut cloth pattern sheet for the very same ball now in our collection. From this eBay listing, we were not only able to learn about the manufacturer and dates of the item, but that it was probably stitched together and stuffed at home, after the purchase of the uncut sheet.

Below, I’ve Included 2 pictures from that eBay listing for reference. But you can click on the link above to see the original listing which includes more pictures of the uncut sheet.

Uncut sheet for Baby's Ball

Uncut sheet for Baby’s Ball

Patent and manufacturer

Patent and manufacturer

We started with no information on a cute Victorian cloth ball and a vaguely familiar nursery rhyme. We ended up with a fully described Baby’s Ball (New York : Art Fabric Mills, 1900) which borrows (liberally) from a well-known finger play originally written by Emilie Poulsson in her book Finger plays for nursery and kindergarten, just 7 years before the pattern for the ball was patented. In short, it was a fun day at Cotsen doing research on collections material.

Purely for your edification, I’ve embedded a video performance of the finger play as well:

This video comes from the YouTube channel WCCLS Birth2Six, where a few more finger plays have also been acted out.