Today, needlepoint samplers that were done by students – many of them age 10 and under – at Mary Balch’s School can fetch over $100,000 at Sotheby’s auctions; they fill Pinterest pages and have had starring roles on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow. At its heyday, the school – founded by Mary’s mother, Sarah, in the 1780s after the family left Newport when the city was under siege during the Revolution – had over 100 students, many of them boarders, and was one of New England’s best known and respected needlework schools through to its closing in the 1840s. One of the factors that distinguish the work done at Balch’s school, in addition to its technical sophistication, is its subject matter: Balch’s students were unique during this period in their depiction of architecture, including buildings designed by John Holden Greene.
What purpose did these needlepoint artworks serve? At the time, young girls would receive the most basic tutoring in reading and arithmetic before being placed (if they were from families with means) in schools that taught “female accomplishments”: music, watercolor painting, comportment and sewing. Sewing was an important skill as married women were expected to sew clothes and linens for her family. Needlepoint work laid the foundation for this work, but it also showed off the accomplishments of a young girl to prospective suitors – the best work was often framed and hung in the parlor.