December 29, 2013

Christmas Past

Christmas has passed once again with families all over the world celebrating the day within their own religious, cultural, and family traditions -- that is, if they celebrate Christmas at all.  Many people of the world do not.

The early Quakers did not celebrate religious holidays, believing that every day given by God was special and no single day warranted religious recognition over any other.  Modern members of the Religious Society of Friends may acknowledge Christmas in various ways or not at all, depending on the beliefs and traditions of their Meetings.  Quakers in general, however, have negative reactions to the rank commercialism that characterizes Christmas in America.

Englishman Thomas Nast's drawing titled "Merry Old
Santa Claus" from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons.
Seeking insight into early Quaker attitudes in this country about Christmas and its traditions, we consulted some letters, diaries, and journals written by Quaker women in the 18th and 19th centuries.  It was not surprising to find that the Christmas holiday was seldom mentioned.
The letters of Anna Briggs Bentley (1796-1890), originally from Maryland and living on the Ohio frontier in the early and mid-19th century, occasionally described family activities during late December and early January.  Almost all of her references were to slaughtering farm animals, the bitter cold they were experiencing, the health or ill-health of family members and neighbors, sewing and mending, cleaning, and meal preparations.  No mention was made of the Christmas holiday as something the family acknowledged or marked in any way.
Illustration from 3200 Old-Time Cuts and Ornaments edited by Blanche Cirker.
Anna Briggs Bentley's lack of reference to the Christmas holiday is understandable.  She and her husband were rural Quakers with only occasional need to travel to nearby towns where the population was more urban and where Christmas was publicly celebrated by non-Quakers.  Further, they joined the conservative, Hicksite faction after the schism of 1827 divided the Religious Society of Friends.  The Hicksites followed the traditional teachings of the religion, including refusal to acknowledge or celebrate religious holidays.
The diary of Elizabeth Drinker (1735-1807), on the other hand, provided some references to the Christmas holiday and the new year.
December 31st, 1778
"First day: Went this afternoon to S. Emlen's came home after Night, little-Molly with me, several guns fired off very near us --the Bells ringing according to the old foolish custom of ringing out the old year." (Crane, 89.)
December 25th, 1793
"Christsmass, so call'd, keep't by some pious well minded people religiously, but some others as a time of Frolicking . . . ."  (Crane, 120.)
December 31st, 1794
"Another year past over, and our family mercifully keep't together - How many calamities  have we escaped? and how much to be thankful for.  - Molly Drinker, Sally Smith and John Smith went to Clearfield, they dined there, Henry and Hannah came back with them, they spent the evening at Edwd. Shoemakers, with near 30 young people- 'tis not the way I could wish my Children to conclude the year, in parties - but 'we can't put old heads on young shoulders' . . . ." (Crane, 142.)
Illustration from 3200 Old-Time Cuts and Ornaments edited by Blanche Cirker.
December 25th, 1795
"Called Christsmass day: many attend religiously to this day, others spend it in riot and dissipation.  We, as a people, make no more account of it than another day. . . ."  (Crane, 158.)
December 25th, 1805
". . . . about one o'clock I heard a dull heavy thumping, I could not account for after listening some time I heard musick, then concluded that the first Noise was a Kittle-drum - a strange way of keeping Christsmass . . . ." (Crane, 277.)
December 25th, 1806
"Christsmass . . . . last night or rather this morning I heard the kettle-drum for a long time it is a disagreeable noise in my ears, it was after one o'clock, and at two, I sat up and took a pinch of snuff, which I do not do, but when I feel unwell and uncomfortable - I had sleep't none, nor for some length of time after . . . ."  (Crane, 289.)
Elizabeth's diary entries clearly reflect her attitude toward Christmas while acknowledging that such a holiday existed and was celebrated throughout the city of Philadelphia where she lived. In her urban environment, the existence of the holiday and its traditions could not be ignored, but they were not adopted by her Quaker family.
Elaine Forman Crane, Ed.  The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, The Life Cycle of an Eighteenth Century Woman (Abridged Version).  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.
Emily Foster, ed.  American Grit, A Woman's Letters from the Ohio Frontier.  Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2013.
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December 14, 2013

Literacy, Numeracy and Useful Work

Carol Humphrey, in her book Quaker School Girl Samplers from Ackworth, lists literacy, numeracy, and useful work as the governing themes of early Quaker education for both boys and girls in 18th century England.  These themes were carried out in both home-schooling situations and in Quaker boarding schools established to provide education to children of poor and middle-class families.

Ackworth Quaker Boarding School, c. 1850.  Courtesy of Richard B. Walker

The most famous of these British schools is the Ackworth Quaker Boarding School founded in 1779 and still in operation.  The founding precepts for education at Ackworth were established from the beginning:  "It is proposed that the principles we profess be diligently inculcated and due care taken to preserve the children from bad habits and immoral conduct.  That the English language, writing, and arithmetic be carefully taught to both sexes; and that the girls be also instructed in housewifery and useful needlework."  (Thompson, 17.)

Ackworth School, from a needlework standpoint, is best known for the medallion style samplers completed by its female students - a style that traveled to America in the late 1700s as English families immigrated to the New World.

Sewing associated with "housewifery" was also taught at Ackworth and, by 1821, its female students were producing a prodigious number of sewn items.  In that year alone they produced: 230 shirts, 46 counterpanes, 17 sheets, 32 towels, 10 cravats, 102 night caps, 8 boys' pinafores, 227 pocket handkerchiefs, 3 table cloths, 76 bolster cases, 9 pillow cases, 81 aprons, 120 tuckers, 177 shifts, 29 day caps, 4 pinafores, 6 cushion covers, and 393 pairs of knitted stockings.  (Humphrey, 18.)  This output does not include the samplers mentioned earlier which they undoubtedly made to hone their needlework skills and that have survived to this day in large numbers.

The educational precepts established at Ackworth School were echoed in America where the Quaker practice of educating both their boys and their girls took the form of home-schooling, the use of in-home tutors, and the establishment of boarding schools where the children of Quaker families, both affluent and poor, could receive "guarded" educations reflective of Quaker beliefs.
Teacher Anthony Benezet with some of his students.  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As early as 1754, the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting established a school for Quaker girls under the direction of Anthony Benezet (1718-1784), a noted abolitionist and educator.  In addition to his daytime work at the school, Benezet instructed black children in his home, eventually establishing a school for them with the support of the Religious Society of Friends.

Benezet took the education of girls further than most during the colonial period in America, providing them with instruction in French, Latin, the classics, and literary composition in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic.  The extent to which needlework was part of this education is not known, but Quaker schools later modeled on the success of Ackworth placed high emphasis on the development of sewing skills and other needlework.  Two of these schools were the Aimwell School founded in 1796 in Philadelphia by Quaker Anne Parish and fellow-female Friends, and the Westtown School, founded by Philadelphia Monthly Meeting in 1799 in Chester County, twenty-five miles west of Philadelphia.

Aimwell School was devoted to the education of girls whose parents could not afford to provide them with schooling.  Needlework and sewing were an emphasized part of the curriculum at Aimwell because skill in these areas could help provide its graduates with a means to support themselves and also make them more marriageable.

One quilt made by students of Aimwell School is in the collection of the Historical Society of Moorestown, New Jersey.  Its main inscription dedicates the quilt to teacher Sarah D. Powell in 1847, and attributes its makers to pupils at Aimwell School.  (Refer to our post of November 27, 2012 for detailed information about this quilt and the Aimwell School.)

Members of the American Quilt Study Group examining the Aimwell School Quilt at the
AQSG Seminar held in New Jersey in 2011.  Photo courtesy of Lisa Hammell, Historical
Society of Moorestown, New Jersey.

Aimwell School Quilt, detail of some of the fabrics.  Photos courtesy of
Lisa Hammell, Historical Society of Moorestown, New Jersey.

The Aimwell School Quilt is one of very few 19th century quilts that can be firmly attributed to an American school. We gain more insight into school needlework and needlework instruction from the many and varied samplers sewn by Quaker school girls in both England and America.

The sampler shown below is a reproduction of one in the collections of Westtown School.  It was made by an unknown student at Westtown and descended through the Maule family.  The original may have been made by Mercy Maule, a student at Westtown in 1800 and 1801.  This style of sampler is based on the medallion samplers created and popularized by the Ackworth School in England.

Reproduction of a sampler made at Westtown School in 1801.  Photo courtesy of
The Essamplaire at

Westtown School as it appears today. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Quaker samplers in America were sewn in a variety of motifs from simple mending and darning samplers that displayed the student's skill in needlework used to mark linens and mend clothing, to elaborate figurative samplers displaying alphabets, architectural and outdoor scenes, verses, and even family genealogy.

Most young women in early 19th century America began their needlework training at home by the age of five or six years, and continued to improve and expand their skills throughout their lives.  At Westtown School in the early 1800s, female students usually spent two weeks out of every six developing their needlework skills.  (Needlework was removed from the Westtown female curriculum in 1843.)

Literacy, numeracy, and useful work - all were the focus of early Quaker education for girls as well as boys.  We can be grateful that we have so many examples of the "useful work" young women completed in the form of samplers and their surviving sewing projects such as the Aimwell School Quilt.


Bacon, Margaret Hope.  Mothers of Feminism, The Story of Quaker Women in America.  Philadelphia: Friends General Conference, 1986.

Humphrey, Carol.  Quaker School Girl Samplers from Ackworth. Singapore: Needleprint and Ackworth School Estates Limited, 2006.

Thompson, Henry.  A History of Ackworth School During Its First Hundred Years. London: The Centenary Committee, Ackworth School, 1879.

The Essamplaire web site at

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2013.

December 1, 2013

The Sandy Spring Quilt - Part 3

Research can be a solitary activity but the connections we make with others in the process are particularly rewarding.  Investigation of the Sandy Spring Quilt resulted in many miles, in-person visits, and much correspondence, especially with Joanna Church, the Collections Manager of the Montgomery County Historical Society, Rockville, Maryland.  She was already familiar with the historical community whose names are inscribed on the Sandy Spring Quilt.  In our shared quest to discover why the Sandy Spring Quilt was made, she observed several links between the quilt's signatories.

Sandy Spring Quilt, detail of  block.  Inscription almost illegible, interpreted as
"Albina O. Stabler".  Photo by Joanna Church.  Courtesy of the Montgomery County
Historical Society, Rockville, Maryland.
Most inscribed identities had connections to the Religious Society of Friends; most were residents of the town of Sandy Spring, Maryland, at the time of the quilt's making; and, many appear in records of the town's clubs.  Actually it is fair to say that in 1858 the people of Sandy Spring were crazy for clubs!
One such club was the Mutual Improvement Association, the oldest continually meeting women's association in the United States.  It first met on May 1, 1857.  The organization's objective was to "elevate the minds, increase the happiness, lighten the labor or add to the comfort of one another, our families or friends."
Sandy Spring Quilt, detail of block inscribed "Belle Miller".  Photo by Joanna Church. 
Courtesy of the Montgomery County Historical Society, Rockville, Maryland.

They had quilting parties and rag balls where men and women "socialized over tea and cake, sewed strips of cloth together, and then wound them into balls for rug weaving."  They also had a Farmer's Club, reading circles, and a debating society that met for a while at the Fair Hill Boarding School for Girls.
One debating society participant was Anna Farquhar.  She was one of eleven Fair Hill students or alumna whose names appear on the Sandy Spring Quilt.  She was also a wonderful letter-writer.
Anna Farquhar (1834-1917).  Photo courtesy of the Sandy Spring Museum,
Sandy Spring, Maryland.
On "1st day evening, 1858" Anna Farquhar wrote to "My dear Eliza": "Do tell me thy candid opinion about admitting gentlemen.  I heard this evening that some of the ladies said they would not attend if any gentlemen came, but I do not know whether there is any truth in that.  I really want to know what thee thinks of it.  Is not this a neighborhood of clubs just at this time?  The young gents seem very much interested in their debating society and I hope it may flourish, but would thee not like to put on an invisible cap and hear some of [their] speeches [ . . .]  I would give anything in reason to hear them."
One month later, in February of 1858, Anna had some news to share with her cousin.
"I hear Robert Stabler went up to Loudoun to see Hannah Taylor, and perhaps that will be the beginning of a change, but please do not tell anyone I said so, for I have a great objection to spreading such reports.  It would be very pleasant to have Hannah among us, for I think she is a first rate girl."
Hannah Boone Taylor Stabler (1835-1922).  Photo courtesy of
the Sandy Spring Museum, Sandy Spring, Maryland.
Anna need not have worried that she was spreading unfounded gossip.  Hannah Taylor and Robert Stabler were married in 1858.  The descendant whose correspondence first suggested the origin of the Sandy Spring Quilt was their great-granddaughter.  The inscription "H.B. Stabler" (Hannah Boone, maiden name Taylor, Stabler) appears on the quilt along with the names of Hannah's mother-in-law, two of her nieces-by-marriage, and at least four (possibly five) of her sisters-in-law.
Sandy Spring Quilt, details showing inscriptions.  "Ellen Stabler" and "Sarah Miller, Alex"
(probably short for Alexandria, Virginia).  Photos by Joanna Church.  Courtesy of
the Montgomery County Historical Society, Rockville, Maryland.
Following their marriage, Hannah and Robert M. Stabler settled in the "lovely old homestead", Edgewood II.  The daughter of Jonathan and Lidia Taylor of Loudoun County, Virginia, Hannah came "to Sandy Spring as a young bride, [and] there were few personalities among us who held so warm and a secure a place in the community."  The couple were "especially and much beloved by children, and the atmosphere they created can best be understood by the speech of a child who once said it seemed to her "the sun was always shining at Edgewood!"
Portions of this post were adapted from an article first published by the American Quilt Study Group.  See Robare, Mary Holton.  "Cheerful and Loving Persistence: Two Historical Quaker Quilts."  In Uncoverings 2007, edited by Joanna E. Evans.  Volume 28 of the Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group.
Special thanks to Lucy Pope of the Sandy Spring Museum and Joanna Church, Collections Manager of the Montgomery County Historical Society, Rockville, Maryland.  See and visit Joanna's blog at
"Sandy Spring Museum Capital Campaign for the New Library Archive" (Sandy Spring Museum, 2006).
Allen, Gloria Seaman and Nancy Gibson Tuckhorn.  A Maryland Album: Quiltmaking Traditions, 1634-1934. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1995.
Anna Farquhar "letters".  Papers of the Brooke Family, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.
Kirk, Annie B.  Annals of Sandy Spring or Twenty Years History of a Rural Community in Maryland, Vol. IV.  Westminster: The Times Printing Company, 1929.