Sunday, October 27, 2013

Silk Roads: Mapping Federal Boston at Mrs. Rowson's Young Ladies Academy

Lydia Withington, Boston Harbour, 1799
The Bostonian Society
It was one of those chance moments when circumstances bring us unexpected delights. I had recently completed an article centered on a young woman of the early Republic, Myra Montgomery of Haverhill, New Hampshire, who had studied at Susanna Rowson’s Young Ladies Academy in Boston. (1) (For more: Myra was in Boston to complete her silk embroidery. (As of this writing, I still hope to locate the piece that she crafted, as well as those of her two older sisters, Mary and Ann, but that is a story for another time.)
I had an opportunity to attend a very special antique show and no doubt you can imagine the thrill when, turning a corner I was facing an embroidery of Boston Harbor, c. 1800.  I immediately recognized it as a product Mrs. Rowson's Academy.  It then dawned on me that I had also seen a closely related work at the Bostonian Society: Lydia Withington’s silk map of Boston Harbor, completed in 1799 when she was 15 years. (2) The piece that now perched before me was Sally Dodge’s embroidered map, completed at the Female Academy the following year. (3) (It was sold at auction at Skinner, Inc. in August 2013 and is now available again from Boston Rare Maps.)
Courtesy, Boston Rare Maps
Both pieces are striking and feature silk thread embroidery, which is worked on silk as well. They are quite delicate, and you can see patches in both maps of shredded, split silk and losses to the support. Exposure to light has not been kind. It is not surprising that objects of this composition are quite ephemeral. The attempt at geographical accuracy was strong.

That they come from the same source is clear. They share the conventional Federal motif of a majestic eagle and the vantage point is identical, as are the spellings of towns and bodies of water (“Boston Harbour”). What may not be as evident at first glance is the distinctive shift in the subject matter selected and what were deemed “acceptable” topics for a young lady’s education in the early republic. Mrs. Rowson,  well-known as the author of Charlotte Temple had also published two books on geography—An Abridgement of Universal Geography (1805) and Youth's first Step in Geography (1811)--and clearly imparted her knowledge to her pupils. And, it appears, the parents (who were footing steep costs for tuition, extra lessons and supplies) found the shift from inward-oriented religious and family samplers to those which looked out upon a larger world were quite comfortable with this shift in ideas about a proper education for young women. It was, historically, a significant moment in post-Revolutionary America.

I do not believe that the two works have been shown together, and, so, I invite you compare, contrast and cogitate on these beautiful (but extremely fragile) maps and what they may represent regarding changing ideals of women’s education.

Contacts and Sources:

1. Kimberly S. Alexander, “Myra Montgomery’s World: Haverhill, Boston and Beyond” Historical New Hampshire, volume 67; Nos. 1& 2, Fall-Winter 2013.

2. Lydia Withington:

3. Sally Dodge:
Link to Skinner Sale of Sally Dodge Boston Map, 1800
Contact Information for Boston Rare Maps
Michael L. Buehler

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