Elisabeth Gebler's Book: A 1788 Warning to Book Thieves



     During a recent visit to the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I found the above book once owned by Elisabeth Gebler. Always gracious, the folks at the Society allowed me to photograph the book and gave me permissions to share on Passed Time. I showed the final page in the book to my teenager and the written admonishment actually elicited one of those rarely seen teen smiles. Who was this Elisabeth Gebler who warned would-be thieves to think twice before lifting her book?


    It will not surprise any genealogist, but originally a couple of candidates vied for attention.1 As found on Geni.com an Elizabeth (Breidenhart) Gebler was born sometime between 1736 and 1796.2 She married John Frederick Gebler, but no wedding dates were given on the site. After more research, I finally found their marriage date. The couple was wed at the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia on August 25, 1796.3 As the first inscription in the book was written by Elisabeth Gebler in 1788,  Breidenhart has been removed as a contender for the book's owner.

    Another possibility might prove exciting, especially for those interested in early American needlepoint. Should the book prove to be hers, Philadelphia resident Ann Elizabeth Gebler (1770-1824) was 18 when she wrote the inscription. In 1788, she was still a young girl and not yet a Philadelphian of note, but that soon changed.  In 1793, artist Samuel Folwell (circa 1765-1813) married Ann Elizabeth Gebler. That same year, they opened the Samuel Folwell School of Philadelphia or Folwell's Young Ladies' Drawing School.

     As exciting as the opening of a new and promising venture was, the event was also undoubtedly tense, as 1793 was the year in which Philadelphia suffered a yellow fever epidemic.  In spite of the epidemic, some of the business sector plowed forward, including Folwell's Young Ladies' Drawing School.5   Although the school was opened for its fall semester, not all members of the Gebler family escaped the epidemic unscathed. Part of the family was felled by the disease prompting Philadelphia publisher Matthew Carey (1760-1839) to write,

    The scourge of yellow fever has fallen with extreme severity in some families...of Godfrey Gebler's family no less than eleven were swept off the face of the earth."6

      Yet, the Folwell's collaborated and with their combined skills and guidance, students of the school produced remarkable needlework (see below for links to images). Their business acumen was honed as well. In Girlhood Embroidery, author and expert Betty Ring claims the sheer number of surviving examples suggests the school was immensely popular between 1800 and 1820.7 

       As for our purposes, the question remains--was the Elisabeth Gebler who owned this book part of the Godfrey Gebler family? Was Ann Elizabeth Gebler Folwell the owner of the book? The clues the book provides are ambiguous. The inscription date matches Ann Elizabeth Gebler Folwell's dates, so we have that. Furthermore, Gebler tells us that "Philadelphia is my dwelling place," providing a location. The names match, but recycling names was standard and more candidates bearing the moniker of Elisabeth Gebler might surface. 

     The book is printed in German with a 1749 Zurich imprint. Gebler is certainly a German surname suggesting Pennsylvania German ownership.8 Although, Gebler was undoubtedly not the book's original owner, she must have had knowledge of the German language or, at the very least, an appreciation for the publication. Otherwise why bother warning thieves off?  In the original inscription she uses the Germanic spelling of her name "Elisabeth," but on the final page she uses its English equivalent, "Elizabeth." These details may prove to be only minutia, as many of our ancestors tended to be cavalier with spelling.  Yet, Gebler clearly knew English for her final missive is written in that language. This suggests someone who was comfortable in the predominately English portions of Philadelphia, but also someone who easily moved within the Pennsylvania German subculture.

     Despite the wealth of circumstantial evidence surrounding Gebler's identity--it is circumstantial.  I am not confident enough to say the book definitely belonged to Ann Elizabeth Gebler Folwell, but she is a worthy candidate. Perhaps one of our readers can clarify her identity. Whoever Gebler might have been, her prose brought a smile to a teenager's face. Even more importantly, perhaps Gebler ignited a spark of appreciation for our heritage as she was personalized and not only a name and scribbled date. As for poor Isaac Bickhart? His story will have to wait for now.  On this day 228-years-ago...Best, Pat

 1Undoubtedly, more possibilities exist, but these were two originally fit the parameters set by the date and location provided by Gebler. As stated, "Eliza" Breinhart Gebler is no longer a candidate. 

 2Geni: Elizabeth Gebler

3Busch, Clarence M. Record of Pennsylvania Marriages Prior to 1810. Pennsylvania Archives, Second Series, Vo. 8. Page 762.

4Ring, Betty. Girlhood Embroidery:American Samplers & Pictorial Needlework, 1650-1850. Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. page 378.

5 Powell, J.H. Bring Out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793. University of Pennsylvania Press, June 2014. Page 94.      Ibid. page 387.

6 Petri, Jr. William A. Presidential Address America in the World: 100 Years of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Page 2.

7Ring. Page 387

 8 Pennsylvania Germans (sometimes called Pennsylvania Dutch) immigrated to America prior to 1800. 


As Promised, Fun External Sources:

DESIGNED AND PAINTED BY SAMUEL FOLWELL (1770-1824), WORKED BY AMELIA WRIGHT BARNARD -A Silk Embroidered Picture of the Barnard Family of Philadelphia

DESIGNED AND PAINTED BY SAMUEL FOLWELL (1770-1824), WORKED BY AMELIA WRIGHT BARNARD. Buy and collect contemporary or modern art, old masters, jewelry, wine, watches, interiors, prints, and music at Christie's auctions.

Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society | Preserving the culture of Mennonite-related faith communities in Lancaster County

Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society has added a new field trip to the 2016 schedule of events. Get a new view of historic sights in Lancaster and Lebanon with the upcoming field trip, "The Trail of Greenywalt's Boys."

Samuel Folwell | Embroidered Picture | American | The Met

During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, Elizabeth Folwell ran an embroidery school in Philadelphia that was unrivaled in popularity. This popularity may have been due to the talent of her husband, Samuel, who designed large dramatic memorials and other Neoclassical scenes for the girls to embroider

Philadelphia Museum of Art - Collections Object : Embroidered Picture

Mrs. Mary Esher Embroidered Picture

Plays With Needles: March 2015

Blog of Susan Elliott where she shares her life through her needlework and photography.

The American Revolution

After George Washington's sudden death on December 14, 1799, a flood of memorial portraits, poetry, music, and art dedicated to his memory promoted the new fashion for mourning in the young republic. Female academies and boarding schools for teenage girls adopted the fashion by adding mourning prints and designs to be copied in silk and painted pictures to their curriculum.


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