04 May 2013

Which State House is it?

Who follows The Essemplaire newsletter? April's email announced that they now sell the Cynthia Burr sampler kit (the original sampler is pictured on the right).

Their description of the kit offers background information about the original 18th century sampler, which is in their collection. They write,

Cynthia Burr was one of Mary Balch’s students. The central building is the State House which is found on a number of other samplers worked under Mary's tutelage, it's either the State House in Newport or Providence.

I have an inclination that the building in the center is the Providence State House and not the Newport State House, which locals call the Colony House. Here's why...

Detail of the State House from the Cynthia Burr sampler. Which State House is it?

Here are photos of the properties in debate:

 The 1739 Colony House in Newport, RI.

The c.1761 State House in Providence, RI.
Image from the Rhode Island Historical & Preservation Commission website.

From first glance, it appears that the Newport Colony House is a closer match than the Providence State House. But when learning about the State House's architectural history, it didn't always look like this. The Rhode Island Historical & Preservation Commission website explains, "Before the present tower on the west fa├žade and the wing on Benefit Street were added in the nineteenth century, the Old State House bore a striking resemblance to the Newport Colony House." The illustration below, also from their website, helps show what the building originally looked like:

When comparing the three side-by-side...

...there are many architectural similarities which actually makes it less straightforward to distinguish which property is represented in the sampler.
The back of the Colony House.
  • Both have a modified version of the 12 over 12 double hung windows. 
  • Both are constructed from brick with a grand double door entrance. (The medieval-influenced door is my favorite feature of the Colony House).
  • Both properties have side chimneys; the photo of the Colony House at the right better illustrates this.

However the Newport Colony House has one feature that's missing from the Providence State House which is not depicted in the sampler: it has dormers. Knowing that dormers were generally a 19th century modification to older buildings, I suspect that this might be a later addition.

Looking back at the Essemplaire sampler description, they describe Cynthia Burr as being a student of Mary Balch. When searching the Rhode Island historic newspaper database I learned that...

Mary Balch died in November 1800 at 34 years old, so she was born in 1766 and her maiden name was Mary Stillman. Providence Gazette, November 19, 1800

She was married to Nathaniel Balch in 1789.
Providence Journal and Country Gazette, December 26, 1789

Detail of the restored Colony House window, July 2010.
While I didn't come across an ad for Mary's needlework school, I think it's safe to conclude that she was probably a Providence girl since these ads ran in the Providence newspaper and not the Newport newspaper. If that's the case, it would be more likely that her students' samplers take inspiration from their surrounding landscape and not the architecture on an island relatively far away.

The Providence State House versus the Newport Colony House. Which building do you think is represented?

To learn more about the Old State House visit the Brown University website; to read about the Colony House visit NewportHistory.org.

September 2015 Update: 

My research from the historic newspapers does not take into account that there were several Mary Balchs living in Rhode Island and the one referenced in my clip above is not the same Bach from the needlework school, so naturally it's not a strong source for interpreting which state house is depicted. However I still believe it to be the Providence State House. : )


  1. I vote for the Providence's Old State House; the central "eyebrow" of the Colony House is distinctive and not present in the sampler.

    For more on Mary Balch, check out Betty Ring, esp. Let Virtue Be a Guide to Thee. Worldcat shows these holdings: http://bit.ly/Yzn6jj or you can buy a copy for $275. http://bit.ly/18pdMjR

  2. Thanks for the lead on the Betty Ring book, I've always wanted to get my hands on a copy!

    1. I know a library that can set you up! Also, my office. :) You will love it.

      See esp catalog no. 36, Eliza Waterman's sampler of the State House, Providence. (page 124 of Let Virtue be a Guide to Thee). The black window is distinctive. Private Collection when the book was published.

  3. Hi Mrs. Hancock! I wanted to let you know that I nominated your blog for a Liebster Blog award! You can read all about it at my blog here: http://clearwatercottage.blogspot.com/2013/04/liebster-award-nomination.html I just love reading about all of your sewing adventures! ~Loni

    1. Thank you Loni, that was so sweet of you! I enjoy following your blog as well!

  4. Hello,
    I've done extensive research on the Mary (Polly) Balch school of Providence, R.I. It is news to me that she died on November 19, 1800. She never married and this is documented in Betty Ring's numerous books. Her tombstone also recalls your inaccuracy, and she lived from Feb. 9, 1762- Jan. 5, 1831, which meant that she lived far longer than 30 years. I am curious to look at those Providence Gazette articles. I know, facts are stubborn things.
    My very best,
    Rachael Goldman, The College of New Jersey

    1. Hi Rachael, Thanks for sharing your insight! The research process in historic costuming is one of the best parts of my hobby and I always enjoy learning new things. I've taken your point into consideration with the update I added to the post above. Cheers!


Your feedback is appreciated. :)