Section Two: Schoolgirl Maps, Embroideries, and Penmanship Exercises


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The education of young women in early-nineteenth century New England was intensely visual and graphic, as well as applied. In addition to learning history, literature, composition, arithmetic, geography, and classics, female students were also expected to prove their artistic accomplishments in penmanship, needlework, embroidery, and artistic design–often through painting and drawing and decoration. The creation of elaborate hand-drawn maps, like those on display in this section of the gallery, became an increasingly important part of this applied visual education by the 1810s, bringing together geographic and historical knowledge, as well as penmanship, artistry, and accomplishment. As historian Susan Schulten explains, “From the 1790s to the 1830s, students aged twelve to sixteen—primarily but not exclusively female—drew, painted, and stitched elaborate and enduring maps as part of their education in academies, seminaries, and other independent schools. Some maps were copied and traced, while others were freehand efforts guided largely by the grid of longitude and latitude.”

During the antebellum period, separate male and female academies and seminaries were founded up and down the Eastern Seaboard, as the demand for education grew exponentially in the young republic. Geography was a foundational subject for both boys and girls, as it was thought to contribute to both literacy and citizenship. Many of the young women studying at such academies went on to become teachers, and may have brought map drawing and decorative practices with them into other schools. Elaborate hand-drawn maps began to go out of fashion in the 1830s and 1840s, as increasing numbers of illustrated geographic textbooks and printed classroom maps and charts became more widely available. We have a growing collection of schoolgirl manuscript maps, atlases, and penmanship exercises at the Osher Map Library. Those on display in this exhibition were primarily produced in New England—as far away as Vermont and Connecticut and as close by as the Misses Martins School in Portland and the Cony Female Academy in Augusta.


Abigail Bishop Putnam
[Penmanship Exercise], 1801-1805
Osher Map Library Ephemera Collection
http://oshermaps.org/map/53702

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Abigail Bishop Putnam
[Penmanship Exercise], 1801-1805
Osher Map Library Ephemera Collection
http://oshermaps.org/map/53700

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Abigail Bishop Putnam
[Penmanship Exercise], 1801-1805
Osher Map Library Ephemera Collection
http://oshermaps.org/map/53699

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The three penmanship exercises on display here: “On Modesty,” “Select Sentences,” and “On Virtue, On Sympathy,” were all rendered by Abigail Bishop Putnam (1790-1829) of Medford, Massachusetts. These three examples are part of a larger set of six penmanship exercises completed by Putnam between 1801 and 1805, between the ages of eleven and fifteen, the culminating triumph of the group being “On Virtue, On Sympathy,” dated June 1805, and featuring a bower of roses emanating from two remarkably colored and detailed Doric columns.

Abigail Bishop Putnam was born into wealth and privilege in Danvers, and the fine laid linen paper used for these exercises is indicative of her family’s stature. Her mother, Abigail Bishop, was Abigail Adams’ niece, and her father, Archelaus Putnam, was a doctor and Harvard graduate. Her parents married later in life for the era (he was 46, she 33), and Abigail lost them both at a relatively young age. When Archelaus died in 1800, Abigail’s mother moved the family to Medford. It is possible that Abigail studied at Susanna Rowson’s Academy, which briefly relocated to Medford between 1800-1803. These exercises remind us that in the early years of the Republic, females who had access to education largely hailed from well to do white families.

Penmanship was a common subject in both male and female academies, but whereas men were taught writing for mercantile purposes, women were taught fashionable handwriting for ornament, correspondence, and calling cards—one practical, and the other an exemplar of polite accomplishment like the embroideries featured elsewhere in the gallery.


Mary Brooks Hall
Map of the World from the Latest Discoveries, 1810
Osher Map Library Sheet Map Collection
https://oshermaps.org/map/53740

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Susan Bartlett
The World, 1823
Osher Map Library Sheet Map Collection
http://oshermaps.org/map/965

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Like many of the young women featured in this exhibition, Mary Brooks Hall and Susan Bartlett both came from prominent New England families. Miss Hall was the daughter of Nathaniel Hall, an American Revolutionary War veteran, and Joanna Cotton Brooks. Hall’s map depicts a late-eighteenth century world view and includes indications of James Cook’s voyages. This same dual hemisphere world view, with the inclusion of Cook’s voyages, is also featured on many embroidered maps made by women in Great Britain and the United States during this era.

Miss Bartlett’s paternal grandfather, Josiah Bartlett, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and later, a Governor of New Hampshire. Created in 1823 in Warner, New Hampshire, Bartlett’s map is a more contemporary view. Even though she is depicting the world, her inclusion of patriotic imagery related to the United States, such as the eagle holding the olive branch and the wreath of wheat similar to the design of early one cent pennies, indicates a growing sense of national identity in this era.


Hannah Comstock
A Map of the World, 1815
Osher Map Library Sheet Map Collection
http://oshermaps.org/map/53070

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Hannah Comstock’s dual hemisphere map of the world was completed in Danbury, Connecticut, in the fall of 1815, and is based on Hondius’s “Nova Totius Terraum Orbis.” Born in 1798, Comstock would have been seventeen when she completed this map. Perhaps more so than any other map on display in the gallery, Comstock’s map shows the clearest connection between embroidery exercises and map making exercises in the education of young women. If one looks closely at the decorative elements of Comstock’s map, the carefully rendered floral and botanical motifs resemble embroidery, and the thick outlines around the continents on her dual hemispheres appear as if they were stitched, rather than rendered in gouache. The fanciful blue ribbon bows that tie her flowers together resemble the embroidered bows on Mary Swan’s sampler. It is likely that Comstock chose the flowers she included in her bower carefully, as flowers held specific meanings in nineteenth century America. For example, the violets at the top of the composition symbolize modesty and faithfulness, two qualities that were often emphasized for young women of this era.


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