March 2009 | In October 1955 the Boston Herald decried the sale of heirlooms from a late seventeenth-century house in Duxbury, Massachusetts, that had descended in the family of John (1599–1687) and Priscilla Alden, the Pilgrim lovers immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) in his 1858 epic poem The Courtship of Miles Standish.1Promoted by Longfellow and other Gilded Age writers and artists, Plymouth—where the Mayflower landed in 1620, the Pilgrims settled, and the first Thanksgiving was celebrated—came to symbolize America’s romanticized crusade to enshrine its preindustrial past.2 After George and Martha Washington, the Aldens were the colonial revival’s number one power couple.
That Plymouth and nearby communities on Massachusetts’s South Shore, neighboring Cape Cod, and the outlying islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard were in the forefront of the antiquarian movement makes it all the more surprising that Harbor and Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710–1850, an exhibition that opens this month at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, is the first methodical study of the region’s early furniture. “It is hard to say exactly why scholarship lagged,” says show organizer Brock Jobe, professor of American decorative arts at Winterthur. “Focused interest in the Pilgrims and their seventeenth-century milieu, the lack of major museums and universities in the region, and the lack of major population centers were factors. You could also argue that the area lost its sense of distinct identity after Plymouth Colony was absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.”
As early as 1800 a handful of objects associated with the Pilgrims had come to be prized as relics. The most famous was an armchair owned by Elder William Brewster (1567–1644), Plymouth’s first religious leader. Replicas, such as the example of about 1880 to 1900 on loan to the exhibition from Historic New England, were common.
In 1865 Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) shrewdly predicted that scrubby, windswept Cape Cod, so inhospitable to farmers, would one day beckon travelers.3 And, indeed with antiquing and antiquarians came heritage tourism. It is perhaps little wonder, then, that by 1928, six years after the fledgling Magazine Antiquespublished a photograph of bidders vying for farmhouse treasures on a Cape Cod lawn (Fig. 5), collector Wallace Nutting (1861–1941) declared southeastern Massachusetts picked over: “the old colony has been searched until it is the least likely of any region to yield old furniture,” he wrote.4 With Harbor and Home, Jobe and his colleagues prove Nutting at least half wrong. Though estate sales and migration have swept away much valuable physical evidence, more clues remain, tucked away in the Cape Cod cottages and Greek revival mansions lining the waterfront from Provincetown to Edgartown and on the mainland in houses from Hingham in the north to Fall River in the south.
Lanky and affable with a boyish grin, Jobe, a native Virginian, was introduced to Massachusetts furniture as a student in the Winterthur program in the early 1970s by Benno M. Forman (1930–1982), a charismatic teacher and scholar of American decorative arts. “He literally pushed me into the study of Boston furniture. For me, it was a brave new world,” says Jobe, whose thesis documented the city’s furniture industry between 1725 and 1760. “I spent an extraordinary summer doing research and was introduced to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I eventually worked for both.”