by Sarah Berlinger, Technician
The Fairbanks House, located in Dedham, Massachusetts, is notable not only for its age, but for its impressive collection of American crafts and memorabilia. The house, whose first rooms were constructed around 1640, is believed to be the oldest surviving timber frame house in the United States. As a historic house museum, the Fairbanks House endeavors to fully represent the lives and time periods of different groups of Fairbanks family members who have occupied the house over the years. Included in those representations are various crafts and works of art created by the family over the years.
In 2008, Museum Textile Services conducted an initial survey of the collection of samplers in the house that were created by members of the extended family over the years; the collection includes samplers from 1763 to 1830. Thanks to a Tru-Vue Optium Conservation Grant through the American Institute for Conservation, we were able to conserve seven samplers for the Fairbanks House in 2011.
For young girls and teens, samplers served several purposes. They provided the opportunity for girls to work on their embroidery technique, something every woman needed to possess. Samplers also provided something to keep girls occupied during the day. Many of the samplers in the Fairbanks collection were done by girls around 11 years old. Some of the samplers were very simple; they contained renderings of the alphabet and numbers, a few examples of different stitches and borders, and sometimes a name. Others included elaborately embroidered scenes and designs, as well as poetic tributes.
One of the most endearing qualities of samplers is the mistakes they possess. For example, in the first line of the stanza in the 1798 sampler below, the "w" of "anew" would not fit within the border, so the stitcher, eleven year old Betsey Fairbanks, added the letter above the word. The same thing was done in the third line with the word "high." A larger image of this sampler can be found here. Such missteps only increase the charm of these needleworks.
Conservation efforts for the samplers included removal from acidic backing boards and adhesives, vacuuming, and some repairs to embroidery stitches. Some of the samplers that merited such attention were wet cleaned using deionized water. After removal from old boards, we constructed new cloth-covered mounting boards. The samplers were stitched to their new boards around the perimeter and at strategic points in the interior of the sampler. All the samplers were given new frames with Optium UV-filtering Acrylic. Conservation on a majority of the samplers was completed in time to be returned to the house for the Fairbanks family reunion in August.
Conserving objects with such a rich family history and artistic context is always a wonderful opportunity, and we're grateful to the Fairbanks House for letting us do our part to help preserve these small treasures for future generations of the Fairbanks Family to enjoy.