Evidence of Accomplishment: Learning, Painting and Needlework at Susanna Rowson's Ladies' Academy, 1797-1822

Jane Nylander, Historic New England

Tuesday, March 9, 2010Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pmGould Theatre, Palace of the Legion of Honor
Legion of Honor
Needle work by Caroline Jackson

Needle work by Caroline Jackson at Mrs. Rowson’s Academy. Old Sturbridge Village

Sampler by Martha Bird Knapp

Sampler by Martha Bird Knapp at Mrs. Rowson’s Academy. Old Sturbridge Village

In the fall of 1797, an accomplished young married woman left an acting career and opened a school for young ladies in Boston. Over the next 25 years, Susanna Rowson took hundreds of young women into her own family as day and boarding pupils. There she provided them with well regulated manners and morals, and made sure they were well prepared to be successful and influential wives and mothers.

The paintings and embroideries produced by Mrs. Rowson’s pupils were often copied directly from English prints; their subjects reflect a knowledge of contemporary fiction, the works of Shakespeare, classical mythology, geography and the Bible. Others illustrate Patriotism (personified) and pride in the young Republic, while some memorialize deceased family members. Production of these pieces required fine motor skills, patience, determination and a father willing to pay for the costly materials. Sprightly conversation and reading aloud helped to pass the considerable amount of time necessary to complete a project. Mrs. Rowson’s firm hand and helpful guidance encouraged these young women to complete ambitious projects while, at the same time, acquiring the hand skills and intellectual curiosity that would serve them well throughout their lives.

The lecture will be illustrated with images of schoolgirl art produced at Mrs. Rowson’s academy and some of the prints and maps used as design sources. In addition, pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Rowson, their various homes and some of their pupils will expand our understanding.

Jane Nylander is a graduate of Pembroke College, of Brown University, and the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture. She began her career as the curator for the Historical Society of York County (Pennsylvania). From there, she returned to New England, where she served as curator and director of the New Hampshire Historical Society, in Concord, for more than 20 years; senior curator at Old Sturbridge Village, in Massachusetts; director of Strawbery Banke, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; president of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England), in Boston, of which she is now president emerita.

Mrs. Nylander’s service has extended far beyond the historic preservation organizations and museums she has served. Her teaching appointments include longstanding relationships with Boston University and the University of New Hampshire. The many organizations that have benefited from her stewardship as a trustee and/or advisor include the New Hampshire Historical Society, Historic Deerfield, Strawbery Banke Museum, The Decorative Arts Trust, Mount Vernon, Fort Ticonderoga and the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization, at her alma mater in Providence, Rhode Island.

Mrs. Nylander’s research interests and publications have explored New England social history, women’s roles and domestic interiors through decorative arts, textiles, clothing and lighting. She has spoken to the ADAF in 1989 on “Portsmouth Interiors and their Furnishings, 1760-1820” and, in 1997 on “Glimpses of Everyday Life in New England, 1750-1850.”

Mrs. Nylander’s voluminous publications include Fabrics for Historic Buildings (1977, 1980, 1983, 1990) which was incorporated into Fabrics and Wallpapers for Historic Buildings, with Richard C. Nylander (2005); “Textiles in the Connecticut Valley,” in The Great River (1985); “Bed and Window Hangings in New England, 1790-1850” in Upholstery in America and Europe (1987); Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home, 1760-1860 (1993); co-authorship of Windows on the Past: Four Centuries of New England Homes (2000); and “Preserving a Legacy” in The New England Family (2002). She also wrote the introductions to Bed Hangings, edited by Abbott Lowell Cummings (1994) and Cherished Possessions (2003). Mrs. Nylander’s many contributions to The Magazine Antiques include “New Hampshire Cabinetmakers and Allied Craftsmen” (1968); “Susanna Rowson” (1970); “Chandeliers in Federal New England” (1972); “Stocking the Asa Knight Store” with Frank G. White (1975); “Some Print Sources of New England Schoolgirl Art” (1976); “Textiles at Old Sturbridge Village” (1979); “Henry Sargent’s Dinner Party and Tea Party” (1982); “Little Rugs” (1993); and “Treasure Houses: Some House Museums Owned by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America” (2007).

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Share your needleworks, samplers, watercolors and calligraphy, items that were meant to be displayed—-and admired—-as demonstrations of a young lady’s accomplishment.


Gould Theatre, Palace of the Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, San Francisco. Enter at the west side lower level near the café, or through the main entrance for day-time events.