The Caroline Hite Sampler: A Tale of Friend and Faux

by Amy Finkel


As far back as the 1980s, I considered the sampler made by Caroline Hite in 1841 to be iconic within the world of antique needlework. It is a wonderful, pictorial piece that is dominated by a large depiction of an officer on horseback - Washington crossing the Delaware - and entitled the same at the bottom of the sampler. Betty Ring and Davida Deutsch illustrated it in their article, “Homage to Washington in Needlework and Prints,” published in the February 1981 issue of The Magazine Antiques (plate XV, “present location unknown”). They included specific information about a very similar sampler, made in Somerset County, Pennsylvania one year later, in 1842, as well as the print source for the image. Additionally, the book, Samplers, by Susan Mayor and Diana Fowle, part of the Poster Art Series (Studio Editions LTD, London, 1990), included a large format print of Caroline Hite’s sampler as plate 35 (photo courtesy of Christie’s, New York). Over the years, we have seen many instances of pages from this Poster Art Series book framed and hung on a wall as if they were indeed samplers. These printed images measure anywhere from 8 to 11 inches in each dimension and when framed, can be somewhat effective.

Flash forward to January, 2014: Sotheby’s Important Americana auction included as lot 288 in their printed catalogue Caroline Hite’s extraordinary sampler, and I was absolutely delighted to see that it was back on the market. Rather than classifying it as the Pennsylvania sampler that it is, it gained some misinformation: the assigned genealogy to a Virginia maker and attribution to a school in Georgetown, District of Columbia. Notwithstanding the erroneous reference, it was Caroline’s sampler. At the time, I was committed to be the successful bidder at the upcoming auction. I made arrangements to view the sampler prior to the public opening of the auction preview, precisely to examine it closely and to get my ducks in a row for the sale. I took a train to New York a few days after the New Year holiday and then a taxi to Sotheby’s. My unhappy assessment and disappointment upon seeing it in person was immediate – it was a framed page of the poster art book! Much smaller than the actual sampler, it measured 9 inches square (the catalogue included this measurement in their description but I assumed that this was a typo). The fact that it was a print not a sampler had somehow escaped the Sotheby staff. I broke the news to them and they saw the problem immediately; they removed the “sampler” from the upcoming sale. In fact, before my train returned to Philadelphia, Sotheby’s pulled this lot from their online version of the auction’s catalogue.

Imagine my surprise when two years after that, Caroline Hite’s sampler appeared in a Christie’s auction catalogue! It was lot 199 in the Mr. and Mrs. Max R. Zaitz Collection, January 22, 2016. Again I took a train to New York, but this time I was rewarded. This time, it was truly the actual sampler in all its glory – measuring 17 inches by 18 inches, not the 9-inch square of the printed page, and just wonderful in person, with the portrayal of General Washington in his uniform sitting on his glorious horse dominating the sampler. It has a fresh, folky character and was beautifully made; the color and contrast add to the aesthetic appeal. I was smitten. Christie’s description of the sampler was partially wrong as they somehow assumed that Sotheby’s identification of Caroline Hite as a Virginia girl born 1822, died 1883 and with family ties to President James Madison was correct, but at least it was the original sampler. On the day of the auction, I was the high bidder and purchased the sampler on behalf of a private client. It sold for $30,000, including the auction’s buyer’s premium.

I then set out to do the proper genealogical research to reunite Miss Hite with her true identity. This was an easy project because the aforementioned 1981 article in The Magazine Antiques compared the Hite sampler to one made by Julia Imhoff of Somerset County, Pennsylvania, approximately 70 miles east and south of Pittsburgh. The Imhoff sampler is published in The Pennsylvania Germans: A Celebration of Their Arts 1683-1850 by Beatrice B. Garvan and Charles F. Hummel (Philadelphia Museum of Art and Winterthur, 1982).

Born on August 20, 1829 (note that the stitches that specified the last digit of the year of her birth were picked out), Caroline Hite was one of nine children born to John Hite (1798-1853) and Catherine (Kennedy) Hite (1799-1860) of Stoystown, Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Biographical Review Volume XXXII Containing Life Sketches of Leading Citizens of Somerset and Bedford Counties Pennsylvania (Boston, 1899), informs us that the Hite family in that area began with Caroline’s grandfather, Conrad Hite, a butcher, who was one of the very early settlers of Stoystown. The family was originally from Germany, having emigrated circa 1710. Caroline’s father, John, was a blacksmith and then innkeeper of the Hite Hotel. In 1852, Caroline married a merchant, Josiah Zimmerman (1825-1886), and they remained in Stoystown. They had at least two children, sons John and Hezekiah. Caroline died on February 8, 1903 and is buried at the International Order of the Oddfellows Cemetery along with many family members.

The print source used by both samplermakers, Caroline Hite and Julia Imhoff, was identified by Ring and Deutsch. Entitled, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” this was published by Humphrey Phelps, 336 Bowery and 157 Broadway, New York, August 1, 1833. George Washington sits on his horse looking ahead, his face in three-quarter view and he holds a telescope in his right hand.

It has been my pleasure to have worked with this outstanding sampler and to help set the record straight. Caroline Hite’s sampler will remain a favorite of mine for many years to come.