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Textiles from samplers to baby bonnets reveal participation—and exclusion—in American democracy and culture

This week, we're exploring how participation—people joining together to accomplish shared goals—shapes American life by exploring our textile collections. Earlier this week, I shared with you the touching story of a quilt sewn by a Sunday school group for Civil War soldiers. Today, I want to share a few other objects that hint at stories of participation and its sometimes complicated flip side—exclusion.

1. Americans helped French women rebuild war-torn communities through needlework

Photo of embroidery with scene of airplanes flying over a cityscape

During World War I, French women embroidered detailed cross-stitched tableaux depicting soldier figures, flags, and coats of arms. While battles raged, these women fought to maintain their livelihoods and rebuild their war-torn communities. The embroidered items were sold in America through the Society for Employment of Women in France, and the money from their sale went back to the women and their families in France. Their contributions went beyond textiles, however. They also took to the fields during the summer and tended crops.

See cocktail napkins with coats of arms of Allied nations and learn more about these brave women.

2. Americans bought Belgian lace to provide war relief

Photo of white lace tablecloth on black background

When the German army invaded Belgium (a neutral country) in August 1914 in preparation to invade France, the British navy blockaded Belgium's harbors in order to cut off German supply lines. This presented a major problem as Belgium depended on imports for 80% of its food supply. Herbert Hoover set up the Commission for Relief in Belgium, negotiated food deliveries, then worked on an agreement allowing the importation of thread and the exportation of lace made with the thread. This effort helped thousands of Belgian lace makers earn money for food for their families. Throughout the Allied countries, people bought generously of these "war laces" to help support the Belgians.

Browse through our impressive collection of World War I laces in our online object group.

3. Young women created samplers to showcase their skills and record family history

Photo of sampler with text, floral decor, figure, building, two birds, and small mammals (sheep?)

Our objects often reveal interesting details about the lives of notable figures in American history; for instance, we know what was likely on George Washington's desk to help him write in the evenings. But the lives of regular folk are sometimes less easy to picture unless, for example, they left behind a purse stuffed with primary source documents that historians can use to better understand their biographies.

This is why I love samplers. Often made by girls as young as seven or eight whose names might have otherwise been forgotten or lost to history, samplers help us understand how girls were prepared for their roles in family and community life. For example, a sampler made by one M.A. Hofman provides a glimpse of what public school education was like for a young girl in Pennsylvania in the 1840s—and how education differed for male and female students.

Before woman suffrage passed in 1920, women were often barred from participating in many aspects of political life, but some samplers hint at other avenues of participation that women were able to take advantage of. Betsy Bucklin's 1781 sampler defies British rule to express faith in George Washington, a rare glimpse into the political thinking of a young woman during the Revolutionary War. Of course, it's hard to know how much choice a student had in selecting the message and design of her own sampler, but even if this message was part of an assignment, I still find it interesting for the time period. Some women used their needlework and skilled handling of sewing machines to support their families, using tools like these. Though they may seem small and quaint on the surface, samplers did leave a little mark on history. At least two of our samplers (one by Elizabeth Holland, the other by Esther Tincom) include the following rhyme: "When I am dead and gone and all my bones are rotten, I leave this sampler behind, I may not be forgotten."

Photo of sampler

Explore the samplers in our collection and see what you can learn about how some girls and young women participated in their families, schools, churches, and communities.

4. Exclusion, business success, and cultural identity were woven into the Lee family textiles

White top and trousers with patterned hems and no sleeves

After immigrating from Guangdong Province, China, to San Francisco in 1881, Lee B. Lok (1869–1942) moved to Chinatown in New York City. He found work at the Quong Yuen Shing & Co. general store. By 1894, he became head of the store and upgraded his identity papers from "coolie" to "merchant," a change that allowed him to avoid restrictions imposed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which barred the entry of Chinese laborers who had not already been in the United States. He was able to return to China to marry Ng Shee around 1900 and then return to New York. Living above the store at 32 Mott Street, the couple raised seven children.

Lee went on to found the Chinese Merchants Association and become a prominent member of the Chinese community in New York—a great example of community participation—but U.S. laws barred him from citizenship.

Photo of bonnet with colorful floral designs. It covers the child's neck and has two ears on top, like a dog or other mammal. Tied with a red ribbon under chin.

From the trunk Ng Shee brought with her from China to New York to the baby bonnet she made for her only son, the Chinese American textiles in the Virginia Lee Mead Collection tell powerful stories of cultural identity.

5. Quilts raised funds for community causes

Photo of quilt

Complete with an American flag and an appliquéd and embroidered fire engine marked "Yale 1," this quilt is marked "Ladies' Donation / to the Fireman's Fair / Yale Engine Co. No. 1 / South Reading / July 1853." This quilt, so carefully worked, is an example of efforts by women of South Reading, then a small rural New England town, to work together to provide for their community. A new engine house was erected in South Reading, Massachusetts, in 1853.

From how they were made to how they were interpreted by those who wore or saw them, textiles offer much to explore when we think about participation in American life. Are there treasured textiles in your family history—perhaps a wedding gown made from unusual fabric, a military uniform, or quilt that raised funds for a special cause? Do these perhaps have tales to tell of participation or exclusion in American democracy and culture? Share your stories in the comments below or on social media. To follow the conversation, check out our #AmericaParticipates website and our posts on FacebookTwitterInstagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr.

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department. Patri O'Gan, Leah Tams, Jordan Grant, Madelyn Shaw, Doris Bowman, Virginia Eisemon, Karen Thompson, Timothy Winkle, and Nancy Davis contributed to this blog post.