Much More than Mourning

To the memory of Lucy C. May1961.161 -- 2

Needlework Picture

Made: Possibly New Hampshire, c. 1800

Materials: Silk, metal threads, paint, glass

On display at the Nichols House Museum

To see this object in the Nichols House Museum online collection, search for 1961.161 here.


A Multi-layered Artwork

Look closely at this piece of needlework embroidery. At first glance, it is a depressing scene. A young woman grieves for her siblings —Thomas (10 days old), Lucy (4 years, 8 months), and Abiel (6 weeks). However, to early nineteenth-century eyes, this piece was much more than a reminder of human mortality.[i]  Although the artist is anonymous, this advanced needlework offers insight into early nineteenth-century American society, including the education available to women, patriotism in the new country, and even how local economies were affected by female schools in their communities.

Nineteenth-century Female Education

The young woman who made this piece likely attended a school where she learned fancy, decorative embroidery. Around 1800, many female schools opened around the country to teach well-to-do young women music, painting, and embroidery alongside literature, geography, and other subjects (depending on the school teacher’s curriculum). Creating a needlework picture, such as this one, showcased the student’s skill and patience with a needle and thread — not only with basic stitches, but with fancy embroidery, too.[ii] She would be well-prepared to decorate her future home’s textiles and family’s clothing.

1961.161 -- 2 detail urnAmerican patriotism and classical imagery

Girls spent months completing needlework pictures with subjects and motifs reminiscent of classical and/or religious designs. The mourning scene, with common motifs such as urns, a weeping willow tree, and female mourners in long white dresses, were inspired by ancient Greece and Rome, which were popular democratic symbols in the new American republic.[iii] The refined figure of the young woman who values family was a respectable, appropriate, and common image of its day. Its popularity began with similar images that commemorated the death of George Washington in 1799, an event which sent the whole country into mourning.[iv] The image pervaded popular culture and was used as inspiration for family mourning pictures such as this one.[v]

Social Refinement

Proud parents hung their daughters’ schoolwork in the parlor, signaling to visitors (and potential suitors) that the family was prosperous enough to send their daughter for extra schooling.[vi] The family also showcased their daughter’s skill, emphasizing the importance of education in their lives.

Mixed Media 1961.161 -- 2 detail windmill

The skillful embroidery of this piece is its central achievement. However, there is more here than embroidery, and more than one set of hands. Before the embroidery was completed, the pattern was initially drawn, painted, or printed onto the cloth, and student and teacher worked on the design and color choices. After the needlework was completed, other artisans helped to finish the piece. A local portrait painter likely added the painted background, face, and floral details after the embroidery was finished, as seen by the blue paint on the stitched windmill and roof in the lower left corner. The frame was also made especially for the piece by a professional framer. This popular style of a gilded frame with black and gold reverse-glass painting highlighted the light colors of the needlework. Because its production involved purchasing silk threads from the store and hiring painters and framers as well, this one needlework hints at the school’s centrality in its local economy. And of course, the parents had to pay extra for the project’s materials and labor!

Overall, this piece is much more than a memorial to the untimely passing of the May children. It exemplifies a time in American history when needlework was at the intersection of female education, patriotism, and community.


[i] Betty Ring. Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers and Pictorial Needlework 1650-1850. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1993. “The majority [of mourning needlework pictures] appear to have been made as a record and a decoration, rather than an expression of current grief, and they were the result of fashion rather than melancholy.” 21.

[ii] A modern-day tutorial on different embroidery stitches:

[iii] Fenimore Art Museum blog on the trend of mourning pictures painted in watercolors:

[iv] For information on the national mourning period after George Washington died, please see and

[v] For an example of a similar piece in the American Folk Art Museum: and to see their wider collection of early American needlework:

[vi] To see the type of Federal-era rooms needlework like this would inhabit, check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s article and pictures: