Susannah's World: A Rare Sampler from the DAR Museum

Written by: Olive Graffam, DAR Museum Curator of Collections/Research Associate
August 23, 2016

I would like to tell you a story, partially recorded in silk and wool threads stitched long ago.           

In 2007 the DAR Museum purchased a rare Iowa sampler – rare because samplers made west of the Mississippi seldom appear on the market. The accompanying packet of information from Amy Finkel, Philadelphia antique dealer, has taken me down different paths of research. Much remains to be explored in the context of both American women’s history and educational history. The research has lead me to learn much about Susannah, the woman who created the sampler.

Susannah McClure, the daughter of William and Cynthia Evans McClure, was born March 9, 1840 in Des Moines County, Iowa Territory. She was the third of 11 children, and the first to be born in Iowa.  Her parents were typical of many 19th century settlers during the westward expansion, moving from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Illinois before finally arriving in Des Moines County in 1839, seven years before Iowa statehood.

Susannah was two years old when she fell ill with scarlet fever, one of the most virulent and common 19th - century diseases.   Susannah survived, but she would never hear again.  When she was 8, she and her father traveled to Columbus, Ohio for enrollment at the Ohio School for the Deaf.  She was a student at the school for five years before returning home. When the Iowa Institute for the Deaf and Dumb opened in 1855, Susannah entered as a student and ultimately became a teacher.  During those years she completed a sampler and stitched her name followed by “age 18 1858.”  A few years later she met Conrad Zorbaugh, who joined the teaching staff.

Conrad Zorbaugh’s young life was similar to Susannah’s but with significant differences.  Born in York County, Pennsylvania, he was eight years old when he contracted scarlet fever with resulting deafness. The Zorbaugh family emigrated to Canal Winchester, Ohio when he was 11.  German was the only language spoken in his home.  With no educational opportunities, he became a carriage painter, when,  according to his son, Charles Louis Zorbaugh, ”Principal Stone of the Columbus School for the Deaf found him and persuaded him to go to school  though he was a grown man with no education.”  He was a remarkable student and after graduation he was offered a teaching position at the Iowa Institute. 

Susannah and Conrad married August 16, 1865. The school relocated from Iowa City to Council Bluffs where Conrad taught for 35 years.  During those years, three of their seven children died in childhood; a son in 1875, and two daughters in an 1879 diphtheria epidemic.   Of Susannah, her son Charles Louis wrote she was “. . . a woman of naturally quick and active mind, and of a quiet, gentle disposition. …Hers was not an easy life.”  Susannah died in 1920 at the age of 80; Conrad died in 1930. 

Susannah worked her sampler with silk and wool threads on linen in a marking/pictorial format. (The term “marking” refers to numerous alphabets).She inserted names of some school friends among the letters and numerals.  In the lower segment various motifs add color and somehow convey a sense of her girlhood in what was often described as “the Far West.” 

What makes my job so meaningful is getting to learn and share the personal stories behind the objects in our DAR Museum collection. DAR Museum curators are fortunate to discover many of these stories through research right here at the DAR Library. The accessibility of the DAR genealogy resources to us helps tell an even more complete story of the treasures in our collection.

Much of this story and more comes from two books by McClure and Zorbaugh family members.  Both of these books can be found in the DAR Library collection:

McClure, James Alexander.  The McClure Family. Petersburgh, VA: Frank A. Owen, 1914.

Zorbaugh, Charles Louis.  Ancestral Trails:  History of the Zorbaugh family, the Evans family, the McClure family, the Clapp Family.  Zorbaugh: 1941.

A third book A Portrait and Biographical Album of Des Moines County, Iowa contains a biography of Susannah’s brother with details about the McClure family. 

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