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.


  1. Very interesting to only have one Quaker school quilt, there must have been many more. Love this blog!

  2. Thanks, Barbara. You were my inspiration!