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History of the Balch School



Mary Balch's School has produced one of the largest group of fine schoolgirl samplers and embroidered pictures of the sampler period. Located in Providence, Rhode Island, the school seems to have been started by Sarah Balch after the death of her tailor husband. Experience with the tailoring may have been very valuable to Sarah and her daughter Mary. Mary assisted her mother and soon took over the running of the school, and it is under her supervision that the school gained its outstanding reputation.

Mary's epitaph proclaims that she started the first "female academy" in Providence, and the earliest sampler from the school is dated March 1785. This sampler reflects the Newport background of the Balch family, with its elegant people and use of flowers and birds. The striated arches enclosing a setting with a building and people will become one of the hallmarks of this school

Though the Balch School's most important embroideries were done in a rented house in the Constitution Hill area, Mary decided in 1800 to build a house on George Street where she could take in boarders and enlarge the school. Before this, girls from out of town had to room elsewhere. This move began a very active time, for the school enrollment rose to fifteen to twenty boarders and sixty to eighty day students. Students included young boys, girls at all ages, and some ladies in their twenties. Students might stay long enough to execute a single piece of needlework or remain for a large portion of their girlhood, as did orphaned Sally Sabin -- who entered in 1805 and left just before her 1814 marriage at age fifteen.

Many of the Balch samplers are characterized by the use of an imposing floral border, usually a vine growing from double handled vases with various flowers. One very charming thing about these samplers is their frequent use of Providence's public buildings, many of them found at Rhode Island State College (now Brown University). Silver threads were also economically used, usually in the costumes of figures. Frequentlv used stitches are the rococo, rice, diagonal cross, split, Oriental and diagonal darning.

In 1825, Mary Balch's health became impaired and though she lived another six years, the school was probably run by her cherished adopted daughter, Eliza Walker, who maintained the school for about ten years after Mary's death. This was one of New England's most famous needlework schools, and we are fortunate indeed to have as a legacy so many works from hands Mary Balch taught so expertly.

~Source: American Needlepoint Guild, Inc.*