Standing Room Only
“Ornaments of the Mind: Needlework and a New England Girl’s Education”
At the Sargent House Museum’s spring lecture, Laura Johnson, Associate Curator at Historic New England, delved into the history of needlework at early 19th-century “female academies” like the Saunders and Beach Academy in Dorchester, and the Rowson Academy in Boston.
Johnson’s talk explored the origins and context of a recent donation to the Museum of a needlework picture depicting Cornelia, daughter of the great Roman general Scipio Africanus, and her children, the Gracchi. Judith Sargent Murray's daughter, Julia Maria, and her cousin Anna Williams presented the picture to Nancy Parsons Sargent in the early nineteenth century. Johnson theorized that the needlework was probably worked at one of the better academies in Boston or its surrounding towns. Julia's cousin Anna studied with Judith's cousin Mrs. Saunders in Gloucester. Although Judith was an early advocate of equal education for women and helped Mrs. Saunders & Miss Beach set up their first school in Dorchester, she did not want to be too long separated from her only child, and so did not want Julia Maria at a boarding school. Clues point toward the lesser-known Payne's Academy on Federal Street, where Julia Maria was a student for several years.
Virginia Pleasants donated the needlework picture. Her niece, Belinda Smith, was on hand to present a brief description of how the piece was handed down through her family. The needlework is now installed in Judith’s bedroom at the Museum.
The needlework piece needs reframing and conservation. It is backed with brown paper that is tearing and backed by cardboard. It needs to be reframed with archival materials. When it is removed from its frame, the need for conservation will be clearer. If you’d like to be a part of preserving this exquisite example of women’s history, please make a donation by sending a check to the Sargent House Museum at 49 Middle St., Gloucester MA 01930. All gifts are tax-deductible.
The Museum opens for the season on Friday, May 24. Tours are available on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays on the hour beginning at 12 noon with the last tour at 3PM. Groups tours are by appointment at other days and times. Admission is $10 per person.