What are these curious blocks in our textile collection?

By Sheryl De Jong
Photo of a stamp. There is a raised floral design, somewhat stylized. Parts that are not to be stamped are flush and not raised.

In the museum's textile collection are over 400 of these curious blocks. What were they used for and when did they come to us? 

Photo of a stamp. There is a raised floral design, somewhat stylized. Parts that are not to be stamped are flush and not raised.

Stamp with raised design. Design includes swirly portions and very geometric, straight lines.

During the late 1850s and 1860s these blocks were used to stamp embroidery and braiding patterns on fabric. Fancy goods stores as well as individuals owned these blocks. A fancy goods store would stamp designs for you to embroider or to attach braid to a garment.

In Godey's Ladys Book of August 1859 the following ad appeared: 

Embroidery Stamps—We have frequently received orders from our patrons for embroidery stamps, but could not until recently procure an article that we could recommend. We have just received from the manufactory of Alfred Peirce, Massillon, Ohio, a set of his celebrated stamps, which, for durability, beauty, and cheapness, surpass anything we have seen. In our opinion they richly deserve the popularity they enjoy. They are adapted to silk as well as French embroidery, and will stamp upon any materials, with blue or white ink, with great accuracy. . . . There should be a set of Peirce's stamps in every town and village in the county. . . . Mr. P. will furnish stamps at $6 per dozen. Stamps made to order, from any pattern that may be sent.

There are two nightgowns that came with the block donation that were stamped and embroidered. They are made of white cotton fabric and embroidered with white thread. They have center front openings with buttons and buttonholes down the entire length. The blocks used to stamp the designs are pictured with the nightgowns.

White fabric gown with stamped pattern. The stamp that made the pattern is sitting on the fabric for example. The patter is small clusters of leaves.

White gown top with sleeves and neckline. Stamps and stamped patterns.

Four hundred and four blocks were donated by Edna Plummer in 1950, which she said belonged to her great-grandmother, who lived from 1804 to 1890. Without any first or last name it has been difficult to find her, but a recent search revealed she is Phebe Smith, born May 10, 1804, in Johnstown, New York. She married William T. Norris and they had two daughters. In 1837 they moved to Missouri and in 1843 settled in Chicago, Illinois. Sometime between 1860 and 1870 they moved to San Jose, California, to be near their daughter Sarah, who had married Thomas Plummer, Edna's grandfather.

It is not known when Phebe acquired the blocks, but she probably used them in Illinois and then took them with her to California. It also is not known if she owned a fancy goods store and used the blocks to stamp the designs for customers. It is very unlikely that she would have owned that many blocks for her own use.

A hand-colored ambrotype of Phebe Smith Norris is in the collection of the Princeton Art Museum.

Black and white photo of woman in fancy gold frame. Her hair is parted down the middle. White collar and black dress. Serious expression.

Maybe she embroidered the cuffs for her dress and used some of her blocks.

Phebe would not have made her own blocks, but would have purchased them from a block maker. To make one of these stamping blocks you had to have a piece of wood with the end grain up. The wood would be soaked overnight. A pattern was placed on the top and then narrow strips of metal were pounded evenly into the wood. The strips of metal could be copper, pewter, zinc, or brass. Then when the wood dried it firmly held in the metal. All the strips had to be pounded into the same height or it wouldn't stamp correctly.

Other ads in issues of Godey's Lady's Book mentioned the blocks could be used for braiding as well as embroidery. The designs that form a continuous line were used for braiding. It was fashionable to add braiding to plain fabric to dress it up.

There are many examples in Godey's Lady's Book of dresses, nightgowns, blouses, etc. with braiding on them. Here is an example of a skirt and jacket with braiding.

Black and white illustration of woman in dark black dress with wide sleeves. Text: "Mourning Robe."

The block donation also included a pillow sham with braiding and the block used for the braiding pattern on the border.

White fabric with flourish-y designs in red thread

These blocks went out of use in the 1880s when Briggs & Co. patented an iron-on method to transfer a design from a piece of paper to a piece of cloth. These patterns eventually became available to everyone at a lower cost, so there no longer was a need for the bulky blocks. Phebe’s descendants treasured her blocks and kept them for another 60 years after her death before donating them to the National Museum of American History in 1950.

Sheryl De Jong is a volunteer with the museum's textile collection.