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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Birth Records of Burlington County, New Jersey


A remarkable group of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century birth records has survived. Attributed to the “New Jersey Artist,” the twenty records were created for fourteen prosperous families of English descent living in Burlington County, New Jersey. Beginning in 1677, Burlington County was settled by members of the Society of Friends. In 1745 they comprised 50 percent of the county’s population––more than in any other county in the state.1 Of the families whose birth records are attributed to the artist, eight were members of the Society of Friends, four families show no evidence of ever being Friends,2 and it is unclear if the remaining two families were members of the Society, since only one member of each couple was raised as a Friend.3 The birth records show a beautiful and colorful world, full of fantasy and leisure, far from the stereotypical image of Friends dressed in somber colors toiling on their farms, as shown in such paintings as The Residence of David Twining by the painter and Society of Friends minister, Edward Hicks (1780–1849).

The birth records were created between 1753 and 1806 in a consistent format. Although attributed to the New Jersey Artist, it is possible that more than one artist created them.4 Based on stylistic features they can be divided into three groups that roughly correspond to three time periods. Group one dates from 1753 to 1777 and are mostly from central and northeastern Burlington County (Mount Holly and Hanover Townships). Group two dates from 1774 to 1788 and are from central and western Burlington County (Rancocas, Evesham, and Mount Holly Townships). Group three dates from 1791 to 1806 and are from eastern Burlington County (Pemberton and Hanover Townships). There is thus a possibility that three different artists were involved, with the first two artists’ productions overlapping for three years.

Fig. 1: Group One. Birth record for Abraham Jones, 1753. Paper and ink, 10 x 12 inches. Courtesy Private collection.

Group one contains five birth records, that of Abraham Jones (1753–1799) (Fig. 1); John Mason (1767–?) (Fig. 2); Caleb Lippincott (1772–before 1805); Charity Earling (1774–?) (Fig. 3); and Sarah Campion (1777–?) (Fig. 4). Samuel Jones (1727–1783), the father of Abraham Jones, was not a Friend. He served in the New Jersey militia in the Revolution and probably in the French and Indian War. Abraham’s birth record, the earliest dated example (1753), includes a depiction of a dozen soldiers dressed in the uniforms of that war. The fifer, drummer, and bandleader are dressed in contrasting white uniforms. John Mason, Caleb Lippincott, and Sarah Campion were members of the Society of Friends. All of these records have an undivided picture space in the third band and all have very complex dividers between the sections and around the margin of the perimeter.

Fig. 2: Group One. Birth record for John Mason, 1767. Paper and ink, 7¼ x 9¼ inches. Inscribed “Nothing I ask but which include/Of all thy earthly power/Let me kneel and pray/That I may live today.” Courtesy Monmouth County Historical Association.
Group two contains seven birth records, all for members of the Society of Friends. These records have the picture space subdivided into three sections, and have much simpler dividers and perimeters, which may reflect harder economic times during and immediately after the Revolutionary War. They include the birth record of Martha Hillier (1774–1850) (Fig. 5); the two almost identical records of Elizabeth Wills (1776–1842) (Fig. 6) and Mary Jones (1781–?), which illustrate Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Grapes”; and the records for Richard Campion (1782-?) and for Martha Hillier’s four first cousins: Mary Hillier (1777–1854) and her deceased brother, John Hillier (1778–1779), together on one record; Isaac Hillier (1780–1806) (Fig. 7); and Elizabeth Hillier (1788–1860) (Fig. 8).

Group three includes eight birth records, but only one appears to have been a Friend. Each has the pictorial band undivided as in group one. The earliest record in this group is for John Budd Goldy (1791–1864). Mary Brooks, who lived one day in 1793, and her mother, Sarah Brooks (1773-1793), is fragmentary. The record of Ann Lippincott (1797–1826) (Fig. 9) features her parents in a fantasy garden.5 Four records are for the Shinn family: Elizabeth Shinn (1795–?) (Fig. 10); Caleb A. L. Shinn (1797–1880) (Fig. 11); Sarah Shinn (1802–?) (Fig. 12); and Abigail B. Shinn (1805–?).6 Like Caleb Lippincott’s record in group one, Caleb Shinn’s shows a hunting scene taken from an English print, In Full Chace, based on a painting by James Seymour (1702–1752).7 Elizabeth Shinn’s record is remarkable in that it includes her parents, Joseph and Mary Shinn, and some of their furniture, including a pair of Chippendale four-drawer chests and a fan-back Windsor armchair. The birth record of Sarah Shinn features what may be the seven-year old Sarah and her mother, Mary. The last record is for Samuel R. Stiles (1805–1806) (Fig. 13), and shows a saddled horse tethered to a tree (perhaps symbolizing Samuel’s death).

Fig. 3: Group One. Birth record for Charity Earling, 1774. Paper and ink, 7¾ x 9¾ inches. Inscription: “What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!/How Sweet their Memory still/But they have left an Aching Heart/The World can never fill.” William Cowper (1731–1800). Courtesy Winterthur Museum.

The Burlington County birth records appear to be unique for the Society of Friends and also unique for New Jersey records as they feature colorful scenes that include people. In all but four of the records the subject’s family appears, sometimes with other people. Only one other school of New Jersey birth records shows people.8 Three records made for families who were not Friends show family members seated in chairs (figs. 3, 10, 13). Group one has couples separated by an intervening scene, while in group two, three of the five records show more closeness and less formality between the couples. This trend continues in group three, where couples are often arm-in-arm. Twelve records have elaborate vases of flowers, and ten have animals such as a pet parrot, a squirrel, a caged bird, dogs, and horses. Some have wild birds or foxes going after grapes. In other New Jersey schools animals are limited to occasional birds.

Fig. 4: Group One. Birth Record for Sarah Campion, 1777. Paper and ink, 81⁄16 x 915⁄16 inches. Courtesy Winterthur Museum.

Fig. 5: Group Two. Birth record for Martha Hillier, 1774. Paper and ink, 7⅞ x 9¾ inches. Inscription, “Perhaps this my Name, and Age may Shew/When I am Dead, and in my Grave below.” Courtesy collection of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.

Fig. 6: Group Two. Birth record for Elizabeth Wills, 1776. Paper and ink, 7⅘ x 9⅗ inches. Inscription, “No vain Discourse shall fill Our Tongue,/Nor Trifles vex Our Ear,/ Infinite grace shall be Our song, /And God rejoice to here [sic].” Hymn 53, The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts. Courtesy Winterthur Museum.

All the records divide the pictorial space into three or four horizontal bands. Usually, elaborate borders divide the sections and frame the birth record, but in group two all seven have much plainer dividers and borders (figs. 5 – 8).

The top band always contains the name of the subject in large, usually solid black, block print letters, with the initial letters about three times the size of the remaining letters. In two cases (Ann and her half-brother, Caleb Lippincott), the subjects’ names are elaborately crosshatched. Flowering branches are always present in the first band, often sprouting from the upper left and right margins and sometimes from the initial letters (figs. 2, 4, 6 and 7).
Fig. 7: Group Two. Birth record for Isaac Hillier, 1780. Paper and ink, 7½ x 9½ inches. Original frame. Courtesy Private collection.

The second band always contains the name of the parents and the date of birth. Contrary to the Friends’ usage of numbering the month, groups one and three, and two of group two, list the name of the month. Group two’s seven records are for Friends’ members. Five of these records either shorten Anno Domini to ADomini (figs. 7– 8) or omit the expression entirely (fig. 6). Three records fully conform to Friends’ practice and number the months, with March being the first month of the year (according to the Friends’ calendar) (figs. 6 and 8), suggesting that the artist of group two was also a Friend.

The third band almost always contains people and vases of flowers, and frequently animals across the whole width of the birth record. However, in group two, six of seven records divide the third band into three subsections with vertical dividers (figs. 5, 6 – 8).

Fig. 8: Group Two. Birth record for Elizabeth Hillier, 1788.
Paper and ink, 7½ x 9½ inches. Original frame. Courtesy private collection.
The fourth band, present on twelve of the records, contains an instructional non-Friends text by Isaac Watts (1674–1748) (figs. 6, 9, 10 and 14). Group one has two records that confine the text inside a central stepped box (figs. 2 and 3), while four records omit the band entirely, (figs. 1, 4 and 8). The fourth
band is empty in three of the records in group two (fig. 7). In group three, text is always present in the fourth band (figs. 9 to 13).

It is uncertain if all the birth records were made at the time of birth or years later. Caleb A. L. Shinn’s birth record (fig. 11) has a watermark that reads “C. Austin,” indicating that the paper was manufactured in Mount Holly, Burlington County, after 1803.9 Caleb was at least seven years old when his birth record was made. In two cases (Hillier and Shinn families), several children in the same family had birth records, raising the question of whether the records were done after each birth, or as a group after the birth of the last child in the family since they are similar in style.

Fig. 9: Group Three. Birth record for Ann Lippincott, 1797. Paper and ink, 8 x 9⅞ inches. Inscription, “Great God is this our certain Doom/And are we yet secure/Still walking downward to the Tomb/And yet prepar’d no more.” From Isaac Watts, Hymns and Spiritual Songs 1715. Courtesy American Museum of Folk Art.
Friends’ birth records are unknown outside of Burlington County, with one known exception: A monochrome birth record from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, made in 1802 for George Ivins (1794–1850) (Fig. 14) by C. Reynolds, aged 73. The Ivins family was originally from Burlington County and moved to Falls Friends Meeting in Bucks County shortly before 1800. Mainly text, it is similar to samplers made at the Friends secondary school, Westtown School, founded in 1799 in Westtown, Pennsylvania, about forty miles from Burlington County. It is notable that this record was created when George Ivins was eight years old and does not use the numeric month as Friends’ documents generally did. This birth record shares some of the same characteristics as the Burlington County records: the name is in block, double-height decorative capital letters, with flowers and leaves sprouting from the letters; it has elaborate borders of flowers and diamonds between the horizontal sections and around the perimeter; and verses from Divine Songs for Children by Isaac Watts, published in 1715, as on three of the Burlington County records. It is possible that the Ivins family saw Burlington birth records and asked C. Reynolds to make something similar but in the more restrained style of Pennsylvania Friends’ needlework.

Fig. 10: Group Three. Birth record for Elizabeth Shinn, 1795. Paper and ink, 75⁄16 x 10¼ inches. Inscription, “He smiles and cheers my Mournful Heart/And tells of all his pain/All this says he, I bore for thee/And then [he smiles again.].” Text from Isaac Watts (1674–1748). Courtesy, collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, there was a growing emphasis on Friends to be “plain” in their behavior as defined by the Rules of Discipline of the Philadelphia Meeting of Friends issued in 1797 and reissued in 1806. In 1804 a committee defined appropriate images for the students to copy at Westtown.10 Since most of the purchasers were Friends, the dictates likely contributed to the end of these decorated birth records, a notion that is reinforced by the last Friends birth record, dated 1797.

Fig. 11: Group Three. Birth record for Caleb A. L. Shinn, 1797. Paper and ink, 7¼ by 9 inches. Inscription, “When in the slippery paths of youth/With heedless steps I ran/Thine arm unseen conveyed me safe/And led me up to man.” Joseph Addison (1672–1719). Courtesy private collection.

Fig. 12: Group Three. Birth record for Sarah Shinn, 1802. Paper and ink, 8 x 10⅛ inches. Inscription, “I know my roving Heart will Err/Unless thou be my guide/Warn me of my every foe and Snare/And help me near thy Side.” Courtesy
collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Fig. 13: Group Three. Birth record for Samuel R. Stiles (1805–1806). Paper and ink, 7¼ x 9 inches. Inscription, “No more pleasant Child is seen/To please its Parents Eyes/The tender plants so fresh and green/Is gone into Eternity.” Courtesy private collection. Fig. 14: Birth record for George Ivins, 1794. Paper and ink, 6 x 8 inches. Text from Isaac Watts (1674–1748). Courtesy private collection.

The authors express thanks to David B. McGrail for his article in New Jersey History (Spring/Summer 1987), which brought to public attention New Jersey illuminated documents, saving them from oblivion. Thanks also to James E. Hazard who assisted in the genealogical investigation.

Leslie and Peter Warwick are collectors living in New Jersey and are the authors of several articles on nineteenth-century American folk art paintings, needlework, and stoneware.

1. Peter O. Wacker, Land and People, A Cultural Geography of Pre-Industrial New Jersey: Origins and Settlement Patterns (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1975), 183.

2. Those that show no evidence of Society of Friends membership were the families of Daniel Earling, Samuel Jones, Jacob Stiles, and John Goldy.

3. Friends could be expelled for marrying out of the faith, swearing, debt, and unacceptable clothing. See Rules of Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of Friends Held in Philadelphia, by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1843.

4. David B. McGrail, “Late Eighteenth- and Eary Nineteenth-Century Illuminated New Jersey Documents: An Introduction and a Checklist” in New Jersey History (Spring/Summer, 1987): 59.

5. Arney Lippincott (1742–1806) commissioned two birth records, one when he was a Friend (for his son, Caleb Lippincott, b. 1772) and one when he was “out-of-Unity” (i.e., expelled) (for his daughter, Ann Lippincott, b. 1795). Arney Lippincott married his first wife, Rebekah Atmore, in 1761, when he was a Friend at Mount Holly. When Rebekah died, he remarried in 1779. His bride, Elizabeth Evans, was not a Friend, and so he was declared “out of Unity.” When Elizabeth Evans died, in about 1793, Lippincott married Lydia Shinn, with whom he had a daughter, Ann.

6. Mary Lippincott, the first child of Arney Lippincott with his first wife, Rebekah Atmore, married Joseph Shinn, who appears not to have been a Friend. They commissioned the birth records for their children, Elizabeth, Caleb, Abigail, and Sarah.

7. Nina Fletcher Little, Little by Little, Six Decades of Collecting American Decorative Arts (New York, E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1984), 92.

8. John Spangenberg of Easton, Pennsylvania, did several records for Warren County, New Jersey, families, which show people.

9. Thomas L. Gravell and George Miller, A Catalogue of American Watermarks, 1690–1835 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1991), 22.

10. At the Friends school in Westtown, inappropriate images in students’ books triggered a reaction that banned these images. In the Governing Committee notes for July 3, 1804, it is recorded that “The Visiting Committee have lately discovered that several exceptionable pieces have latterly been copied by the scholars in their books. In order to prevent the like occurrence in future” several members were appointed to “examine the pieces they now copy and Endeavor to collect there from, with such other pieces as they may approve, a suitable selection for the purpose and the teachers are desired to prevent the children from copying any pieces that have not been Examined and approved by the Visiting Committee.” These images were considered “to be contrary to the Rules adopted for the Government of the School” and contrary to Friends plainness.