Embroidered Learning

I had to learn two very different skill sets as a girl: needlepoint and geography. Who would have thought that at one time, girls were expected to learn the two together? What an unexpected interdisciplinary education!

needlepoint, solar system, quilt, cartography, history, needlepoint, embroidery
Solar System Quilt (1876)
Wool, cotton, silk.
Made by Ellen Harding Baker
Source: National Museum of American History

Among the women in my family, right up to my generation in the 1970s, needlework and yarn work were considered part of a girl’s education. Cross-stitching, needlepoint, embroidery, crocheting, knitting, darning, quilting – I had my own set of embroidery hoops, knitting and crochet needles, a range of needlepoint needles and a rainbow of thread by the time I was 10. And yet, my grandmother was disappointed that my lace-making skills had been completely neglected – a real shortcoming on the part of my mother, who to my knowledge never finished a single project. Mom hated every stitch, but it was just something she had been expected to do – and she expected me to have the same skills.

needlepoint, globe, cartography, history, needlepoint, embroidery
A Map of the World from the Latest Discoveries (c. 1790-1815)
Silk embroidery on silk backing.
Made by Mary Ann Wood.
Source: George Glazer Gallery

What else did we have to learn? Geography. Specifics for the United States, generalities for every place else. I still know my Fifty Nifty United States song to help memorize all fifty states in the Union – drilling the names of the capitals and main rivers of each state was a prerequisite to finishing fourth or fifth grade. I remember enjoying poring over our Atlas of the World, a massive tome that required its own shelf. Back then of course, it was all drawn maps on printed paper, not satellite images on a screen.

But if needlepoint and textile abilities have always been expected of girls – as much to keep them busy as for practical reasons – then geography and education were out of their reach for a very long time.

A book I discovered after seeing the globe below explains how the two unlikely subjects came together. Judith A. Tyner’s book, Stitching The World: Embroidered Maps and Women’s Geographical Education, describes how

From the late eighteenth century until about 1840, schoolgirls in the British Isles and the United States created embroidered map samplers and even silk globes…that were designed to teach needlework and geography. (…)The events of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries stimulated an explosion of interest in geography. The American and French Revolutions, the wars between France and England, the War of 1812, Captain Cook’s voyages, and the explorations of Lewis and Clark made the study of places exciting and important. (…)In this light, map samplers and embroidered globes represent a transition in women’s education from ‘accomplishments’ in the eighteenth century to challenging geographic education and conventional map drawing in schools and academies of the second half of the nineteenth century.

needlepoint, globe, cartography, history, needlepoint, embroidery
Globe sampler (1815)
Ink and silk embroidery on silk and wood.
Made by Ruth Wright,
Westtown, Pennsylvania
Source: Common Destinations

I’m assuming that boys of the period were simply given pencil and paper to learn geography – then as now, I have a hard time imagining them being given a needle and thread and expected to make a map.

At any rate, the good news is that these artefacts survived, and offer us a wonderful window both into women’s crafts, and the history of cartography.