As the celebration of New Jersey’s 350th anniversary continues, Morven Museum and Garden in Princeton spotlights an aspect of the state’s history that might otherwise be overlooked. Needlework by 18th and 19th-century schoolgirls throughout the Garden State graces the walls of five galleries on the second floor of Morven, occupying more than 1,700 square feet of the museum.
The landmark exhibit “Hail Specimen of Female Art! New Jersey Schoolgirl Needlework, 1726-1860” is the first to focus on this important and singular contribution to our state’s history. With 151 works on view, the exhibit showcases the vast survey of needlework done by New Jersey girls prior to 1860.
Co-curated by Elizabeth Allan, Morven’s curator of collections and exhibitions, as well as Hunterdon County-based collectors/ historians/authors Dan and Marty Campanelli, and Princeton resident and collector Daniel Scheid, “Hail Specimen of Female Art!” opens Thursday, October 2, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., and runs through Sunday, March 29, 2015.
Morven also will host an opening symposium on Sunday, October 5, at the Nassau Inn in Princeton, with presentations and panel discussions examining the significance of New Jersey schoolgirl needlework and related topics. In addition to the Campanellis and Scheid, speakers include dealers/consultants/researchers Stephen and Carol Huber, Amy Finkel (of Philadelphia-based antique dealer M. Finkel & Daughter), and historian/author Leslie Warwick.
Additional events at Morven related to the exhibit include a presentation by Scheid, “Collecting Needlework (And Other Things),” Thursday, November 6, at 7 p.m., and “So Education Forms the Mind,” presented by the Campanellis, Thursday, March 26, at 1 p.m.
Perhaps because many of the earliest inhabitants of the colony of New Jersey were Quakers, who firmly believed in education, New Jersey residents saw the need to educate their youth — boys and girls alike. Aside from being a decorative art, as well as a practical ability, needlework was taught to young ladies as a way to enhance their literacy skills.
“This exhibit dispels the myth about girls being illiterate,” says Marty Campanelli. “Teachers were not only teaching needlework, they were instructing girls in how to spell and read. Burlington City was premiere in teaching needlework, and there were fine academies in Elizabeth and Newark, too, as well as in rural areas.”
The exhibition and accompanying 187-page catalog creates a lasting record of the best known examples of schoolgirl needlework done during an important period of American history. The needlework — which runs the gamut from plain to elaborate — is “a slice of New Jersey; it tells stories about the people of that era,” says Campanelli.
In the Campanellis’ sections of the catalog, “we didn’t just describe the works, we researched the girls who did them, and they came from all walks of life. We learned that the girls were poor and rich or their families were farmers or merchants. They were of all ethnicities: English, Irish, Dutch, and Swedes, and their ancestors went back to patriots and even a few Loyalists. We also found interesting connections between samplers and learned that certain designs came from the same instructor.”
“There is virtually no published information about these samplers; they’re either in private collections or belong to historical societies who don’t have the resources to publish,” Scheid says. “This exhibition allows us to see the relationships that were established (between the works) by showing needlework produced at the same school, under the same teacher. We have mothers and daughters, sisters, cousins, as well as girls from different generations. These relationships would never have been discovered if not for the research done for the exhibition.”
Organized geographically — with one room dedicated to schoolgirl needlework of Burlington County — the exhibit features works from every region of the state. In presenting examples from different parts of New Jersey, the exhibition reflects the various educational environments that existed, from Cape May to Sussex counties.
“This exhibition is a culmination of months spent identifying needlework in public and private collections,” writes Allan in the preface to the exhibit catalog. “Numerous visits around the state left my co-curators and me impressed by the number of New Jersey needleworks that survive — preserved and cared for by historical societies, museums, collectors, and families. In many cases, they are stewarding the only record of an anonymous life lived over a century and a half ago.”
“It is a particular pleasure to be able to present ‘Hail Specimen of Female Art!’, an exhibition focusing on the artistic endeavors of girls whose lives and efforts are often entirely overlooked,” Allan writes. “The verses they stitched highlight themes of love, death, faithfulness, and respect. The craftsmanship displayed by girls so young reflects a level of diligence, commitment, and patience that is hard to understand today.”
The idea for “Hail Specimen of Female Art!” came from Allan’s interest in the Campanellis’ 2013 book, “A Sampling of Hunterdon County Needlework: the Motifs, the Makers, and Their Stories.” The book features 74 examples of the artistry made by young ladies from all over Hunterdon County, ranging from 1798 through the 1840s.
Residents of Quakertown, the Campanellis had started researching needlework from the area, starting with the Hunterdon Historical Society’s four samplers.
From that things evolved into the couple writing the book about the Hunterdon samplers, which got a boost when the historical society received a grant from the Astle-Albaugh Family Foundation to pay for the printing of the full-color, 132-page book. A well-attended book signing was held at the Deats Memorial Library in Flemington last year, which Allan attended.
“Beth (Allan) came to our book signing, along with a Morven board member, but we didn’t meet them that day because it was so swamped — we sold 300 books in one day,” Campanelli says. “When we finally did meet, Beth said that Morven was thinking of doing an exhibit on needlework and asked if we would we like to be co-curators.”
“We realized that it would be very involved, that we would need to go all around the state to do research,” she says. “We knew Dan Scheid from Princeton, who was also interested in needlework, so the three of us and Beth got started on the project. She told us that any major museum takes some four years to put on an exhibit, and we’ve put this one together in little over a year. It’s been a whirlwind, just wild; we went to the four corners of the state viewing samplers, and also looked at pictures of needlework that people sent us from all over the country.”
Both Dan and Marty Campanelli were born in the Bronx, where both had mothers who were homemakers. Dan’s father was an inspector for an aeronautics corporation; Marty’s worked for Western Electric.
Dan’s family moved to Warren County in the 1970s. The Campanelli family took numerous long and short trips to historical sites in New York, New Jersey, and New England when Dan was growing up, fostering his keen interest in history, especially the Revolutionary War era. Today he gravitates to these sites in the Delaware Valley as sources for his watercolor paintings. He is a nationally recognized watercolor artist whose work is published by the New York Graphic Society and Frames Plus Inc. in Albany.
Marty Campanelli also visited many of New York’s historical sites as a child on school and scout trips, and came to love the early period of the city’s history. She lived in New York City until 1990, enjoying a long career as an art director and graphic designer for Colonial-style decorating publications. She then moved to rural Pennsylvania and then to Warren County, when she and Dan married in 2002. Although they both graduated from prominent art schools in New York City, the Campanellis demurred from naming them. “We were self-made in our fields,” Marty says.
Currently the Campanellis live in a historic home in Quakertown; its earliest section dates back to 1765. Unlike many Baby Boomers whose homes are wired with and for state-of-the-art technology, they prefer to keep modernity out of the house.
“We do all our online research and E-mail at the county library,” Marty says.
Since 2002 they have honed their interests to collecting and researching early American needlework.
“When we married, we brought our love of antiques together,” Marty Campanelli says. “I started researching the historical sites Dan was painting and the research ‘bug’ stuck, and we both began researching items in our home, like samplers and silhouettes — things that had names attached to them and could be researched.”
The Campanellis then focused on needlework and began to research each maker in depth, leading them on many field trips to their home towns up and down the East Coast. They then began writing articles on their sampler research for magazines such as “Early American Life,” and “American Ancestors,” and have given numerous talks and presentations on the subject.
“Most importantly, we see antique needlework as fine art created by schoolgirls, and through these material objects, a whole world of information can be gleaned about the maker, her family, and her surroundings,” Marty Campanelli says. “Often the only remnant of a girl’s existence is her embroidered sampler, or her descendants, if she left any, and sometimes her name chiseled on a grave stone, if it was lucky enough to have survived the ravages of time.”
“We all appreciate the beauty of the samplers as art, but this needlework is not just something pretty hanging on the wall,” Dan Campanelli says. “There’s such history to it — it’s all about the girls and their lives.”
Hail Specimen of Female Art! New Jersey Schoolgirl Needlework, 1726-1860, Morven Museum and Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Opening reception, Thursday, October 2, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. On view through Sunday, March 29, 2015, Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. $5-$6.
Opening Symposium, Nassau Inn, 10 Palmer Square East, Princeton. Sunday, October 5, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. $85 includes reception. Reservations required.
Additional events at Morven include Daniel Scheid presenting “Collecting Needlework (And Other Things),” Thursday, November 6, 7 p.m., and Dan and Marty Campanelli’s “So Education Forms the Mind,” Thursday, March 26, 1 p.m. Sessions are $12-$10, reservations required. 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.