"Stitching the Solar System: Science as Needlepoint, 1811"
March 20th, 2013
In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, girls in the UK and the US used needle and thread to embroider images and text onto pieces of fabric that were called “samplers.” Samplers, which could be quite intricate, were meant to promote basic literacy and to teach patience and carefulness.
Unlike many samplers, which featured botanical, Biblical, or domestic themes, this unusual pre-printed fabric from 1811 depicts a surprisingly scientific subject: the arrangement of the solar system.
While girls and women would have found it quite difficult to pursue scientific careers in 19th-century England (the anomalous example of astronomer Caroline Herschel notwithstanding), several popular authors of the time published science books that included girl readers in their intended audiences. Astronomy and natural history were particularly common scientific topics in children’s literature, since authors could relate the information to children’s everyday lives.
This sampler includes a verse from Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” which begins “These are they glorious works, parent of good.” Although we’re accustomed to thinking of scientific and religious education as incompatible, before the controversy over evolutionary theory, which began in the mid-nineteenth century, such conflicts were much more easily resolved. Within certain parameters, instruction in science could be used to reinforce lessons about religion, morality, and God’s plan.
Whoever was working the sampler didn’t get very far with it. The only part of the design that’s been completed with thread is the box around the date.
The blog of the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood, where the sampler is held, has an excellent post about the piece and its historical context.