Martha Willson Magruder (1801-1860) finished this sampler in July 1813, when she was twelve years old.


Martha’s sampler is worked with silk thread on a fine “tiffany” linen ground.  It measures 15″ x 13 5/8″, and features two different alphabets; numerals 1 through 14; her name, initials, the month and year; a verse; motifs including pine trees on a stepped terrace, vases or urns topped by birds, small birds inside wreaths, and stylized floral sprays; all surrounded by a flowering vine.  At some point, probably in the early 20th century, the sampler was framed behind glass.  The linen has gone very brown and fragile – and is now transparent enough that the over-long thread tails can clearly be seen, tsk tsk – and many of the silks have darkened, but originally it would have been a vibrant and colorful piece.


Martha was one of ten children born to Martha Willson and Dr. Zadok (or Zadock) Magruder, Jr.  She most likely grew up at The Ridge, a home in Derwood built by her grandfather Colonel Zadok Magruder.  In 1830 she married Rev. Basil Barry of Rockville; their daughter, Martha Rebecca Barry, married Rockville physician Dr. Edward E. Stonestreet (who had studied with Martha’s brother, Dr. William Bowie Magruder).  Martha’s sampler was passed down through the family – it even won a prize for “best antique sampler” at the 1926 Rockville Fair, submitted by great-great granddaughter Martha Williams – until it was donated to MCHS in 1997 by Constancia Williams Allnutt, another great-great granddaughter, and Richard Buckingham, a great-great-great grandson.  It is the only Montgomery County sampler in our collections, though a handful of other Montgomery samplers are known, including several in the collections of the Sandy Spring Museum.

Needlework samplers were teaching tools, and also served as displays of proficiency.  Young girls in the 18th and 19th centuries were expected to learn the practical skills of sewing and needlework along with their basic letters and numbers.  “Marking” samplers like Martha’s included stitched alphabets and numerals, techniques which would be used later in life when marking household linens.  Other practical and decorative stitches (not just cross-stitch) were often included, along with inspirational verses; names of family members, teachers, or schools; and images as diverse as buildings, animals, flowers, people, and even maps. A wide variety of works fall under the heading “sampler;” for example, compare this July 1813 piece, made by nine year old Juliana Latrobe, to Martha’s more fanciful work (check out the overlarge bird perched on the flower, below), finished at the same time.


These skills could be taught at home, but many young women learned needlework and sewing at school.  Though samplers vary widely, girls taught by the same teacher or in the same school might produce similar works.  In the 2007 book A Maryland Sampling: Girlhood Embroidery 1738-1860, Gloria Seaman Allen looked at a large number of samplers – including Martha’s – to trace some of these teacherly influences.  (Several images from the book, and useful appendices listing identified samplers, can be found on the website


Dr. Allen notes that Martha’s sampler is a bit of a mish-mash (my word, not Dr. Allen’s), with design elements borrowed from both the Quaker style and the “building” samplers popular in neighboring Frederick County.  As for the verse, religion and friendship were both common themes, as noted by Ethel Stanwood Bolton and Eva Johnston Coe in their 1921 book American Samplers. Martha’s verse:
t2117-6     Friendship’s a pure a Heav’n descended flame
    Worthy the happy region whence it came
    The sacred tye that virtuous spirit binds
    The golden chain that links immortal minds
can be found, unattributed, on page 23 of Miscellanies, Moral and Instructive, in Prose and Verse; Collected from Various Authors, for the Use of Schools, and Improvement of Young Persons of Both Sexes (Philadelphia, 1787 – read it here); though it’s not the most popular poem ever written, an internet search shows that these lines were used in a few other works, crafty and literary, during the early 19th century.

Montgomery County had several schools for young ladies in the early 19th century, many of them in the Quaker community of Sandy Spring. Some wealthier girls attended seminaries in Georgetown, Baltimore, Frederick, or Philadelphia.  Martha Willson Magruder was not a Quaker, and the school she attended – if any – is unknown. However, it seems likely that her sampler’s design came from a teacher or tutor, as there are at least two similar pieces out there.  An undated sampler by Jane Alexander of Montgomery County (in a private collection) features the same border, terrace of pine trees, stylized flowers, birds-in-wreaths, and central urn.  The other piece was recorded in 1921, in Bolton & Coe’s survey; worked in 1807 by Barbara Laird of Bladensburg, Md., while studying at an unidentified school in Georgetown, this sampler included the identical “Friendship” verse and very similar-sounding decorative elements: “Rose border. At bottom, vase in center with fuschia, and vases on either side with roses; terrace with pine trees; bushes on either side with birds.”  What’s the connection, then, between these three girls – other than the probable, if unidentified, needlework teacher?  That’s the next step in the research.

t2117 name and date

Martha’s grandfather the colonel and her son-in-law the doctor had many accomplishments, though perhaps today they’re remembered most for the buildings named in their honor (a high school and a small museum, respectively).  Unlike them, Martha Willson Magruder Barry is not terribly well-known outside of her family and the Beall-Dawson House docent corps… but nonetheless Martha put her own name on something she made herself, something that proclaims her skills, and has lasted for 200 years.  And there’s something to be said for that.