BOSTON. The word brings to mind Beacon Hill, baked beans, and the Red Sox—but perhaps not antique furniture. Yet during its early history, Boston attracted many of the finest woodworking craftsmen in America. Perched on a strip of land jutting into Massachusetts Bay, the flourishing seaport depended on artisans to build ships, homes, and furniture. Today, aside from Old Ironsides, all the vessels are gone, and most of the colonial architecture has been replaced. The furniture, however, has survived in quantity and throughout the past century has been passionately pursued by collectors and curators. This volume explores the products of the community over two hundred years—from 1700 to 1900.
The idea for the book emerged in January 2010, when seventeen curators, conservators, and scholars gathered at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to explore the possibility of organizing a conference on Boston furniture. Nearly forty years had passed since the last consideration of the subject, a two-day program cosponsored by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and the Museum of Fine Arts. That event took place on May 11 and 12, 1972, and culminated in the publication of a conference report, Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century, by the Colonial Society in 1974. A fresh look at Boston furniture was long overdue. Winterthur offered to host the conference and the Colonial Society to publish the results.
Conversations among friends can lead in surprising directions. Soon after the January meeting, additional ideas surfaced and, with them, came an interest in enlarging the project. The focus expanded to all of Massachusetts. Within a year, eleven institutions had agreed to collaborate on an astonishing array of activities. Joining Winterthur, the Colonial Society, and the Museum of Fine Arts were the Concord Museum, Fuller Craft Museum, Historic Deerfield, Historic New England, Massachusetts Historical Society, North Bennet Street School, Old Sturbridge Village, and Peabody Essex Museum. The ensuing discussions, often hosted by Dennis Fiori, President of the Massachusetts Historical Society, gave birth to “Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture.” Participating institutions agreed to celebrate the rich furnituremaking traditions of the Bay State from the Pilgrims to the present day. To help coordinate the project, Diane Garfield joined the team, deftly guiding the planning sessions and working behind the scenes to bolster collaboration and stay on schedule. In keeping with the consortium’s original goal, the commemoration began with a conference on Boston furniture. From March 6 to 8, 2013, Winterthur’s annual Furniture Forum examined “New Perspectives on Boston Furniture, 1630–1860.” An exhibition of fifty outstanding pieces of Boston furniture from the Winterthur collection accompanied the symposium. The sold-out program, attracting more than three hundred participants, not only inaugurated the project in stunning fashion but also paid a well-deserved tribute to the past. The first speaker, Jonathan L. Fairbanks, had guided the development of the 1972 conference. At the Furniture Forum, his splendid overview of furniture scholarship over the past forty years set the stage perfectly for what was to follow.
By the fall of 2013, a full slate of programs was underway in Massachusetts. Eight exhibitions addressed topics ranging from Connecticut Valley furniture of the late eighteenth century (Historic Deerfield) to studio craft made in Massachusetts during the last twenty-five years (Fuller Craft Museum). Publications accompanied many of the exhibitions. Kemble Widmer and Joyce King mined a set of recently discovered account books for new insights into the career of one Salem cabinetmaker. Their impressive efforts yielded In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould for the Peabody Essex Museum. Gerald W. R. Ward coordinated the production of a concise volume, The Cabinetmaker & the Carver: Boston Furniture from Private Collections, for the Massachusetts Historical Society. Jeffrey Brown and Pat Warner oversaw the publication of Made in Massachusetts: Studio Furniture of the Bay State. Shorter articles in various magazines and journals documented every exhibition. Several symposia, online publications, and more than one hundred programs added further luster to the project. The state of Massachusetts joined the festivities, with the governor proclaiming September 17, 2013, as Massachusetts Furniture Day. A website, www.fourcenturies.org, offered an organizing umbrella for the entire project. Its calendar kept visitors informed of every activity. For nearly two years, a spotlight shown on Massachusetts furniture, and with it came newfound recognition for the craft achievements of the state.
Two lasting contributions have occurred since the conclusion of programs within the Bay State in 2014. The first, a database of Boston furniture, had long been a dream of Brock Jobe. It became a cornerstone of “Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture,” but with the understanding that events and exhibitions took precedent. Not until the late summer of 2013 did planning begin for the Boston Furniture Archive, a searchable online resource documenting furniture made in the Boston area from 1630 to 1930. Winterthur agreed to house the website and hired Sarah Parks to manage the process. A team of volunteers and interns undertook the time-consuming task of locating Boston pieces in trade publications, auction catalogues, and in public and private collections throughout the country. After two years of preparation, the site went live in September 2015 (www.bostonfurniture.winterthur.org) and will continue to expand as more Boston furniture is identified and photographed for the Archive.
The second achievement is this volume, Boston Furniture, 1700–1900. Its nineteen essays expand upon papers presented by the authors at the 2013 Winterthur Furniture Forum. J. Ritchie Garrison’s opening article sets the scene by offering a broad overview of Boston’s craft community. Woodworkers operated within a challenging environment, shaped by global and regional trade as well as local demand for their services. Some mastered the system, but many did not. As Garrison notes, “Boston’s best furnituremakers made beautiful objects, but many of them struggled to make a living.”
The next nine articles explore eighteenth-century topics. Edward Cooke examines the advent of dovetailed cabinetry in Boston during the first quarter of the century. Focusing on two Boston shops, Cooke charts the impact of English immigrant craftsmen and the appeal of the latest London fashions in the creation of new forms of Boston furniture. The next essay, coauthored by Tara Cederholm and Christine Thomson, investigates japanning, a Western imitation of Asian lacquer introduced to Boston by London-trained decorative painters. Through careful study of the exotic scenes covering Boston japanned furniture, the authors attribute a key group to one immigrant, Robert Davis (d. 1739).
During the 1730s, while japanners applied flamboyant ornament to case furniture, chairmakers adapted a popular English design into an American classic. Emblematic of a style often described as Queen Anne today, the Boston chair relied on a graceful outline of S-curves for its appeal. Gregory Landrey chronicles the process of building the form, based on an analysis of surviving chairs as well as his own efforts to construct a pair in the traditional manner. In a second essay on chairs, Philip Zimmerman considers the complicated history of a grander version of this sinuous style. An influential article published in 1996 reattributed a distinctive group of chairs with claw feet and carved shells from New York to Boston. Zimmerman revisits the documentation for the change and concludes that, for some examples in the group, a New York origin is still warranted.
No object better represents eighteenth-century gentility than the tea table. In Boston, one maker introduced an original pattern with a rectangular top edged with bold, turreted corners. Brock Jobe and Allan Breed survey six examples, trace their origins, and through a study of the construction and condition of the group demonstrate that one table is a fake.
Three subsequent articles address the latter half of the eighteenth century through a craftsman, a consumer, and a specific piece of furniture. Kemble Widmer identifies the work of a single, superbly talented Boston artisan who excelled at chairmaking during the 1760s and 1770s. John Tyler explores the household furnishings of a famous patron, Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson. In 1765, amid the hysteria over the imposition of the Stamp Act, an angry mob looted Hutchinson’s venerable home. Built in the 1690s, the grand, three-story structure served in Hutchinson’s day as a dramatic symbol of Royal authority. Following the destruction, the governor prepared a detailed inventory of his losses, which becomes, through Tyler’s insightful analysis, a window into the global taste of an affluent merchant and public official. Gerald W. R. Ward probes the multiple meanings of one form in colonial Boston: the desk. A symbol of commerce and learning, desks also provided a system for individuals to achieve order, to organize and retrieve information, and in the process gain control over their lives.
The next two essays address everyday furniture that bridges the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nancy Goyne Evans recounts the development of the Windsor chair industry in Boston. Imported Windsor chairs from Philadelphia and Rhode Island dominated the Boston market initially. Local production continued to lag during the Revolutionary era. Not until the mid 1790s did the number of specialists begin to climb, and the output of Boston Windsor seating reach sizable numbers. With this growth came the introduction of the region’s best known Windsor creation: the Boston rocker, a high-backed rocking chair with a tablet crest.
During the early nineteenth century “fancy” painted chairs rivaled Windsors in popularity. Michael Podmaniczky examines the career of Boston’s most famous maker of fancy furniture, Samuel Gragg, who moved to Boston in 1801 and offered fancy chairs as well as “bamboo” Windsors. Gragg holds a special place among craftsmen because of his patented “elastic” chair of 1808. The distinctive bentwood form resembles an ancient “klismos” chair in outline, but features an un-classical painted peacock feather on the back. For Gragg, the chair was a triumph, but far from a commercial success. Podmaniczky taps a rich cache of recently discovered Gragg family papers to shed new light on a well-known figure.
Samuel Gragg struggled throughout his career, while his contemporary, the woodworker William Munroe, achieved a fortune. David Wood discloses the secret of Munroe’s success; it is a story of transformation from traditional craftsman to industrialist. Munroe trained as a cabinetmaker in a time-honored manner, serving apprenticeships in the Boston area and later opening a shop in Concord, where he made clock cases for his brothers. At first, he prospered, but by 1812, conditions were different, as he later notes in his autobiography:
finding that I could not dispose of so much furniture as I could make with my own hands, Business of every kind extremely bad; Clocks fast going out of fashion, My family expences at the same time increasing, etc., I found that unless I could start some project whereby I could earn money faster—I should, in a few years at most, even if I should have my health, be poor.
After trying his hand at several enterprises, he turned to the manufacture of pencils. The new venture saved him and ultimately made him wealthy.
The remaining seven essays cover a century of dramatic change. Boston expanded rapidly, its population rising from 24, 937 in 1800 to 61,392 in 1830, and eventually to 560,892 in 1900. With this growth came an unparalleled rise in furniture production and technological innovation. One of the first to study Boston furniture during the earlier portion of this period was Page Talbott, who in 1975 wrote a groundbreaking thesis, “The Furniture Industry in Boston, 1810–1835.” Talbott’s subsequent publications revealed the range and sophistication of Boston’s furniture in the late classical style. In this volume, she reminiscences about the meandering path of her research journey during the past forty years.
Building upon Talbott’s trailblazing efforts, four scholars delineate the contributions of three significant Boston establishments of the 1810s and 1820s. Morrison Heckscher documents the history of a sideboard signed by its maker, Benjamin Bass Jr., an obscure figure who died at the age of 44 in 1819. His estate inventory lists hundreds of pieces of furniture and thousands of parts for constructing chairs. The scale of Bass’s business was sizable and his work, judging by the sideboard, of exceedingly fine quality. Indeed, as Heckscher notes, Bass deserves to be discussed in the same breath with the acclaimed artisan, Thomas Seymour.
Robert Mussey and Clark Pearce chronicle in detail the impressive achievements of Isaac Vose. Working on his own by 1789, Vose developed an extensive operation, which he continued until his death in 1823, one of the longest runs of any cabinet firm in Boston. He catered to the most affluent and most prominent. His name became a symbol of quality, growing even further in stature when he hired Thomas Seymour as shop foreman. Vose further bolstered his business by taking on his son, Isaac Jr., a merchant-entrepreneur, who began to import stylish household goods from abroad.
Richard Nylander traces the lengthy career of another versatile artisan engaged in both importation and domestic production, John Doggett. Trained as a cabinetmaker in the 1790s, Doggett worked initially in Roxbury and later in Boston, specializing in both locations in carving and gilding. He and his workmen produced a vast assortment of custom frames for paintings, prints, needlework, and mirrors, but his interests extended beyond gilded frames and looking glasses. In his Repository of Arts, he displayed grand travelling pictures which the public paid to see and sold Old Master paintings and prints imported from Europe. Modelled on fashionable establishments in London, Doggett’s gallery placed him in the forefront of the art scene until about 1825, when he transformed the space into his “Looking Glass and Carpet Warehouse.” The change, however, did not bring an end to his framing business. He continued to offer prints, paintings, and frames until his retirement in 1850.
As the nineteenth century progressed, the piano increasingly became a mainstay of a fashionable parlor. For young women of means, learning to play the instrument was an essential component of their education. And for the family, the form demonstrated their cultural refinement and sophistication. In the Boston area, a vibrant pianomaking industry arose that ranked among the largest in the country. Darcy Kuronen surveys the output of more than a dozen makers over a forty-year span, stretching from Benjamin Crehore in the 1790s to Jonas Chickering in the 1830s.
The final two essays examine the marketing and manufacture of furniture during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Kelly Hays weighs the impact of popular magazines, domestic advice books, and exhibitions on furniture sales. Publications such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and trade fairs sponsored by the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association became vehicles for disseminating fashion and innovation. As Hays notes, “buyers no longer needed to visit a cabinetmaker’s shop or showroom to learn about goods; they might rely on an advice column in a magazine, or illustrations in a book, or the comments of critics on works displayed at the latest mechanics’ fair.”
Nancy Carlisle focuses her gaze on two individuals, John A. Ellis and A. H. Davenport, whose careers document the changing nature of the furniture business. Though trained as a traditional cabinetmaker, Ellis foresaw the benefits of expanding his operation and by 1860 had created a factory in East Cambridge which employed more than one hundred workers. Steam-powered circular saws, planers, and jig saws facilitated furniture production. Ellis hired a designer from Paris and published a catalogue of his offerings. Business boomed, but it all ended suddenly with Ellis’s untimely death in 1869 at the age of 47. Unlike Ellis, A. H. Davenport never served an apprenticeship as a woodworker; instead he worked as a clerk for a furniture manufacturer. His company prospered through Davenport’s sound management, savvy marketing, and ample ambition. He maintained a commitment to quality, made possible through a highly skilled workforce. Working collaboratively with prestigious architects H. H. Richardson and McKim, Mead and White, the Davenport firm gained a string of impressive commissions, including the 1902 redecoration of the White House. At the end of the century the firm ranked among the most significant in the country.
A great many individuals, including our dedicated authors, deserve heartfelt thanks for their contributions to Boston Furniture, 1700–1900. As a part of “Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture,” this volume owes its existence to all those who supported the larger collaborative venture. We are most grateful for the generosity of the following donors: Irfan Ali and William Coady, the Americana Foundation, two anonymous contributors, Mr. and Mrs. James P. Barrow, Laura Beach and Joshua Kalkstein, Mr. and Mrs. Kenyon C. Bolton III, Anne and Peter Brooke, Mrs. Elizabeth Campanella, Mr. Steven M. Champlin and Ms. Mary Beth Cahill, Paul T. Clark, Mrs. I. W. Colburn, Frank and M.L. Coolidge, Wendy A. Cooper, Ms. Julia D. Cox, Mr. and Mrs. David D. Croll, Dennis Fiori and Margaret Burke, Dr. and Mrs. Josef E. Fischer, Freeman’s, Diane Garfield and Peter L. Gross, MD, Gary R. Sullivan Antiques, Inc., Barbara and Robert Glauber, H. B. Ebert Charitable Foundation, Mrs. Martha Hamilton, Mr. and Mrs. Donald E. Hare, Mr. and Mrs. James B. Hawkes, Bill and Cile Hicks, Mr. and Mrs. James F. Hunnewell Jr., Brock W. Jobe, Mrs. Josiah K. Lilly, Jonathan B. Loring, The Lynch Foundation, Sara and Forbes Maner, Mr. and Mrs. G. Marshall Moriarty, Mr. and Mrs. L. Michael Moskovis, Northeast Auctions, Robert and Elizabeth Owens, Nancy and George Putnam, Dr. Margaret B. and Mr. John C. Ruttenberg, Ruth P. Ryder, Ms. Sudie Schenck and Mr. Steve Goodwin, The Seminarians, Mr. and Mrs. Roger T. Servison, Skinner, Inc., Joseph Peter Spang, Jennifer and Matthew Thurlow, Mr. William W. Upton, and Mr. and Mrs. Neil W. Wallace.
The Colonial Society of Massachusetts merits special acknowledgment. Society President Donald R. Friary and Editor of Publications John W. Tyler have demonstrated unwavering support and considerable patience to the editors of the volume. As the scope of the book expanded, the number of illustrations increased, and progress at times slowed to a crawl, the Society’s commitment never altered.
With more than 460 images, Boston Furniture, 1700–1900 represents the single largest repository of published pictures of the city’s furniture. The daunting task of locating, ordering, and organizing those images fell to Lynn McCarthy. Her dedication and attention to detail has resulted in a far better book. She dealt with more than 130 institutions and private collectors, seeking out the best possible pictures and in many cases scheduling new photography. We appreciate the cooperation of every owner, none more so than the Winterthur Museum, which generously agreed to photograph nearly thirty objects specifically for the book. Susan Newton, Coordinator of Photo Services at Winterthur, guided the process, working in tandem with photographers James Schneck and Laszlo Bodo. Three other institutions—the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Historic New England, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—warrant special thanks for answering innumerable requests and fulfilling a steady stream of orders. We acknowledge as well the excellent contributions of numerous photographers, both institutional and freelance, including Jeff Allen, David Bohl, Laura Wulf, and especially Gavin Ashworth, who carried out two weeks of photography at sites throughout Massachusetts as the editorial process drew to a close.
Bringing consistency to the disparate styles of nineteen papers is a formidable challenge. Mary Ellen Wilson carried out the assignment of copy editing the book with sensitivity and patience, striving at every step to maintain the voice of each author. This beautiful book’s final design and typography are the product of the graphic skills of Paul Hoffmann. Forty-two years have elapsed since the Colonial Society’s publication of Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century. As editors of this volume, we are thankful for the opportunity to reconsider this subject and expand upon it in the Society’s second volume devoted to Boston furniture.
BROCK JOBE &
GERALD W. R. WARD