Map sampler of Boston Harbour

Work'd by Sally Dodge at Mrs. Rowsons , BOSTON HARBOUR, Medford, Mass., Feby. 27 1800.
Needlework in silk floss on silk satin ground, ca. 24"h x 20"w at edges. Narrow tab stitched along left edge at an early date, possibly for framing. The whole stitched to modern backing and housed to museum standards in a period molding.

A lovely map sampler of Boston Harbor, and one of only two known.

This sampler was embroidered by one Sally Dodge, a student at Susanna Rowson’s Academy in Medford, Massachusetts. Betty Ring’s Girlhood Embroidery devotes several pages to the Academy:

“Boston’s most celebrated girls’ school of the Federal period was opened in 1797 by Susanna Haswell Rowson, an English-born novelist, playwright, and actress who performed with her husband in several American cities before retiring from the stage at the age of thirty-five. Despite the disadvantage of a recent career in the theatre, this clever and hard-working woman quickly gained respect as a teacher, and her school was well patronized until her retirement in 1822.” (Ring, p. 88)

Rowson ran her school in Boston until 1800, at which time she moved it to Medford, teaching there for three years before moving on to Newton and finally back to Boston, where she remained until she retired.

Like many schools of the day Rowson’s curriculum included the copying of maps, giving students the opportunity simultaneously to develop their artistic skills and geographic knowledge. Most must have been executed in pen and ink or watercolor, as according to Ring only two map samplers from her students are known, both nearly-identical pieces depicting Boston Harbor (see p. 90). One of the two was executed in 1799 by a Lydia Withington and is held by the Bostonian Society. Sally Dodge’s sampler offered here is the other, and is in fact illustrated by Ring on page 90 (Unfortunately there were several girls of that name in the Boston area at the time, and without Rowson’s records it is not possible to determine her identity.)

Ms. Dodge’s lovely work is executed in at least eight shades of silk floss on a cream silk ground (The embroidered colors have held nicely, though the ground is toned to a moderate gold.) It depicts Boston Bay and Harbor from Hull and Hingham as far north as modern-day Winthrop and Revere, names many coastal towns and dozens of the harbor islands, and even includes a tiny street plan of Boston. The map is very similar to one that appeared in the June 1775 Pennsylvania Magazine, though there are differences in a few place names and the treatment of shoals in the harbor (For example, “Mistick R.” is now “Malden R.,” and “Smelt R.” has been changed to “River to Braintree & Weymouth.)

At top right a small banner bears the “Boston Harbour” title, below which is a compass rose surmounted by a smaller eagle bearing arrows and an olive branch. What really “makes” the sampler, however, is the large and colorful cartouche at lower left. This features a central panel with the legend “Work’d / by / Sally Dodge / at / Mrs. Rowsons / Medford / Feby. 27 / 1800.” A large eagle perches atop the panel, bearing in its beak a banner with the “E Pluribus Unum” legend and flanked left and right by flags and implements of war. These symbols transform the meaning of the piece from something merely parochial to an image emphasizing Boston’s central role in the creation of American nationhood.

In all, a terrific “cartifact” and a great rarity: The vast majority of early map samplers depict England or the British Isles, while a very few depict American subjects, and only the two mentioned by Ring depict Boston.

Betty Ring, Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers & Pictorial Needlework 1650-1850, pp. 88-93, illus fig. 94. Skinner Auctions, American Furniture & Decorative Arts-Aug. 11, 2013, lot 472. Further background from Jane C. Giffen, “Susanna Rowson and Her Academy,” in Antiques, September 1970, pp. 436-440 (illustrating the Lydia Withington needlework on p. 437).


Ground toned from cream to gold where exposed to sun an a few minor horizontal splits. Some soiling in margins and edges a bit ragged, not visible when framed.