Lady Fingers

M. Finkel & Daughter

Antiques dealer Amy Finkel's love affair with Colonial and Federalist samplers, those little linen rectangles painstakingly embroidered by young girls to prove they were wellborn and well-educated, began shortly after she joined her father's Philadelphia firm, Morris Finkel Antiques, 23 years ago. Now a stylish woman in her early forties, she is the doyenne of M. Finkel & Daughter and a leading purveyor of samplers stitched by American schoolgirls.

"What puts Amy Finkel in the forefront of dealers in this country is the amount of research she does on each piece she acquires," says Rhett Pernot, executive director of the Burlington County Historical Society, New Jersey. A tireless sifter through diaries, town records, letters, receipts, and family histories, Finkel learns as much as she can about each young needleworker--when and where she lived (most samplers are signed and dated), and above all, where she learned to embroider.

From the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries, daughters of the well-to-do middle class were sent to special schools to become "genteel young ladies" adept at fine needlework. "Skilled schoolmistresses with excellent reputations could demand high tuition for these all-girl boarding schools," says Finkel, and collectors still debate whether schools in the South had as expert teaching as those in New England.

"After learning the basics," according to Finkel, "the girls made utilitarian samplers, their own little memory aids to help them duplicate certain stitches. Then they advanced to floral borders, alphabets, inscriptions, and more sophisticated forms. These included family records, dates of birth and death, renderings of the house they lived in, and sometimes even people." Hung over the mantel in the place of honor, the samplers were the equivalent of report cards, explains Finkel. "They showed that a young girl was prepared to manage the domestic duties of a household, to embroider initials on valuable linens, and repair family textiles with complex weaves."

Among the beguiling samplers in Finkel's current collection of about 70 is one where the embroiderer, on reaching a certain age, reworked the stitching to give herself a later date of birth. Another, skillfully stitched by 11-year-old Ann Edwards in 1826 ($55,000), depicts in quite vibrant colors a large, two-chimneyed house. In front, surrounded by oblivious sheep and swans, a giant rooster towers over a man aiming a gun at a fox. "The most charming samplers are the most innocent," remarks Finkel.

Sampler prices depend on age and provenance. Finkel's examples range from $800 for a simple alphabet to more than $200,000 for a Massachusetts townscape that was worked by 11-year-old Mary Russell in 1791. Extravagant sums for the work of schoolgirls? Not according to Finkel, who is charmed by their sweetness, impressed by their talent, and entertained by their verse.

M. Finkel & Daughter is located at 936 Pine Street, Philadelphia. For further information: 215-627-7797; fax 215-627-8199.