, Gloucester, MA

April 11, 2013

Education and embroidery

Museum installing new needlework at free program

By Gail McCarthy
Staff Writer

---- — The education of girls in New England in the decades after the United States became a new nation will be the topic of a special event at Gloucester’s Sargent House Museum, along with the unveiling of a gift to the museum.

The public event takes place Sunday, April 14, at 2 p.m.; the program is titled “Ornaments of the Mind: Needlework and a New England Girl’s Education.”

The Sargent House Museum, at 49 Middle St., is readily seen from Gloucester’s Main Street. The house was built in 1782 for Judith Sargent Stevens (1751-1820), a philosopher, writer and an early advocate of women’s equality. After her husband died, she married John Murray, the founder of Universalism in America after he moved to Gloucester.

Guest speaker will be Laura Johnson, associate curator of Historic New England, who will present a lecture on “female academies” of the early 19th century founded by such women as Judith Sargent Murray, Judith Saunders and Clementina Beach.

“Female education was an essential component of Judith Sargent Murray’s understanding of the promise of the Enlightenment and the principles of equality and justice that formed the intellectual basis of the new republic,” according to a press release. In that era, girls learned reading, writing and arithmetic as well as how to paint in oil and watercolor and do needlework.

Barbara Silberman, president of the Sargent House, said the museum recently acquired an excellent example of this intricate needlework. The piece was originally presented to Nancy Parsons Sargent by her nieces Anna Williams and Julia Maria Murray, the latter Judith Sargent Murray’s only child. The needlework was handed down through the Sargent family and donated by Virginia Pleasants. Her niece will discuss the Sargent family connections.

The work is based on a painting by Angelica Kauffman (1740–1807). The composition depicts Cornelia, a model of what the ancient Romans called “civic” motherhood. In the image, Cornelia, a Roman mother, is with another matron who shows off her jewels; and when this woman asks to see Cornelia’s gems, she brings out her two sons, claiming that they are her true treasures, according to a blog about the image.

A Gloucester native daughter, Judith Sargent Murray was a product of the age of Enlightenment and the American Revolution. Scholars note that she was one of the first writers to extol the virtues of “republican motherhood,” which was the practice of mothers teaching their children the new ideals and values of the early American republic.

“Mothers in Rome were responsible for teaching civic values to their children, and that was one of (Judith Sargent Murray’s) basic tenets and she believed that was a mother’s responsibility in the new republic of America. She articulated this before other people did,” said Silberman. Today’s scholars cite Murray as a leading feminist of her time.

It is not entirely clear what group of girl students did the needlework, but it is certain that it was done in the early 1800s, before 1822. However, in the bottom of the frame it is noted that it was given to Nancy Parsons Sargent by her nieces, one of whom was Julia Murray.

“It’s a tangible connection to Revolutionary War history in Gloucester and the ideas of the revolution,” said Silberman.

Judith and her daughter moved to Boston when her daughter was of school age because her second husband had been called to Boston to establish a Universalist church there.

After the talk, the needlework will have its official installation in Judith’s bedroom, next to the writing closet, at the museum. The public is welcome at the lecture as well as the unveiling and installation of the piece. A free will donation is suggested.

Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3445, or

If you go What: "Ornaments of the Mind: Needlework and a New England Girl's Education," a program and gift presentation. When: Sunday, April, 14, at 2 p.m. Where: Sargent House Museum, at 49 Middle St., Gloucester. How much: Free, but donations accepted.