What was your proudest memento from your time at school? Is it the catapult you built for your physics class? The research paper that earned you an A? Your high school diploma? For many schoolgirls in New York in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was their needlepoint. Helping to hone skills in everything from manual dexterity to public communication, needlepoint projects were a staple of city schoolhouses, and often proud objects kept and cherished throughout a woman’s life.
In 1787 the New York Manumission Society founded the New York African Free School, dedicated to giving free black children an education equal to that available to any white child. In 1791 the AFS added a female needlework instructor, and in 1820 16-year-old student Rosena Disery created this sampler to display her needlework skills, which will be displayed in the DiMenna Children’s History Museum. The work features the verse “Truth” from the poem “Self-Love and Truth Incompatible” by Madame Guyon, which reads:
O Truth, whom millions proudly slight;
O Truth, my treasure and delight;
Accept this tribute to thy name,
And this poor heart from which it came!
The poem selection suggests Disery was taught in an environment that encouraged independent thinking for girls. Guyon was the leader of a religious movement in France known as Quietism, which advocated keeping the mind still and calm so God’s supposed messages could become clear. The poem was translated into English by William Cowper, a critic of slavery who became known for his poem “The Negro’s Complaint.” Whether or not Disery knew of the people behind the poem is unclear, but Disery’s education at the AFS served her well; she went on to marry a successful caterer who owned a house at 133 Wooster Street in Manhattan, and was financially stable enough at the time of her death to leave her son a $12,000 inheritance.
Schoolchildren rarely need to display proficiency in needlework to graduate school, but the skill and dedication Disery needed to complete this work can resonate with students today, showing them what they have in common with students in the past and how far education has come. The concentration needed to complete a work like this is akin to everything from learning cursive to completing an Algebraic proof, though you’ll rarely find those framed in a museum. Then again, that catapult would look pretty nice in an air-controlled display case.