Harbor & Home

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

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.”Jobe is best known for his 1993 book Portsmouth Furni—-ture: Masterworks from the New Hampshire Seacoast. The Ports——mouth project convinced him of the necessity of thorough fieldwork: assembling groups of furniture allowed him to see broader patterns of design, construction, consumption, and use. Before the idea of the comparable Southeastern Massachusetts Furniture Project had taken shape, he told an audience in New Bedford in March 2003 that a careful assessment of the region’s furniture was needed. “Suddenly, I knew I couldn’t resist taking on the subject myself,” he recalls.

Since the infancy of American decorative arts scholarship, advances have been made by gifted enthusiasts driven by curiosity and passion for their material. Jobe recruited several such individuals as research partners: Derin Bray, a recent Winterthur graduate now with Northeast Auctions in New Hampshire; Jack O’Brien, a Massachusetts teacher and Americana specialist affiliated with Leigh Keno Traditional/Modern in New York; and Gary R. Sullivan, a Sharon, Massachusetts, antiques dealer who had quietly collected information on local makers of clocks and their cases for twenty-five years. Boston conservator Robert D. Mussey Jr., the author of The Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour (2003), vetted many of the team’s discoveries.

Intensive fieldwork conducted mainly in 2005 and 2006 took the team to 70 towns, 120 private collections, and 100 historical organizations. The New Bedford Whaling Museum and the Nantucket Historical Association had the most remarkable public holdings of southeastern Massachusetts furniture, but small museums such as the 1749 Spooner House, administered by the Plymouth Antiquarian Society, yielded unexpected treasures as well. One was a mahogany dressing table of about 1760 to 1775, probably acquired by the Plymouth merchant Ephraim Spooner soon after his marriage in 1763.5

Finding objects with local histories also required tapping into the long memories of pickers, the discreetly assiduous foot soldiers of the antiques trade. “One of our great joys was meeting the dealer Henry Brownell and others like him, who shared their stories and insight into local craftsmanship,” Jobe says. “Henry bought from old families in the region. He knew where everything in his house came from, and everything came from within twenty miles of Fall River.” Eight of Brownell’s finds (see Fig. 4) are illustrated in the catalogue to Harbor and Home, a lasting tribute to the lifelong dealer who died early last year.

The researchers canvassed Plymouth, Bristol, Barnstable, Nantucket, and Dukes Counties, an area roughly the size of Delaware. They concluded that, influenced by a web of family, religious, cultural, and commercial ties, southeastern Massachusetts craftsmen in the eighteenth century looked to the major cabinetmaking centers of Boston and Newport for stylistic direction. Broadly speaking, artisans in the port towns of the old Plymouth Colony, from Scituate to Plymouth and along Cape Cod, were attentive to Boston styles (see Fig. 14), while Bristol County residents, especially those along the Taunton River or in the border towns of Swansea, Rehoboth, and Dartmouth (see Fig. 13), were attuned to Newport. Perhaps not surprisingly, the team noted that the furniture made in southeastern Massachusetts tended to be simpler than the high-style products of Boston and Newport. In addition, they found that early residents often supplemented their furnishings with imported goods not only from those cities but also from elsewhere: windsor chairs from Philadelphia, fancy chairs from New York, and clocks from England and the Continent.

“But people often did not know what they had,” says Jobe of their search. “We were able to provide context, which was key to making identifications.” In all, the researchers located more than two thousand objects, some previously unknown, and compiled a list of more than one thousand artisans, indexed in the accompanying exhibition catalogue. Casting such a wide net imposed its own huge demands: in all, 140 pieces of furniture were photographed at improvised sets in Sharon, Hingham, Taunton, and Orleans in 2006 and 2007. Serendipitous events led to major breakthroughs. “In 1988 I bought a really wonderful tall-case clock with works made by Joshua Wilder of Hingham,” says Sullivan. “I paid what was a pile of money at the time and had to sell it because I couldn’t afford to keep it. Inside the hood, the dial mat was inscribed ‘Abiel White Apr. 2d 1823 maker.’ I checked my references and found that nothing had been written about White. That got me really interested in learning more about him and other makers of clock cases.”

In October 2004 Sullivan skipped a Red Sox World Series playoff game to hear Jobe speak at the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society, a lecture also attended by Mussey, the Cape Cod collector and researcher Bill Maurer, and the clock scholar and author Paul J. Foley. In an informal conversation afterward, Jobe learned of their research and discovered that Abiel White and Abner Hersey (1773– 1849) had apprenticed with Stephen Badlam Sr. (1751–1815), one of Boston’s foremost cabinetmakers. Sullivan urged Jobe to be on the lookout for examples of White’s and Hersey’s work.

Lightning struck a month later. Flipping through a catalogue issued by Carmen D. Valentino, a Philadelphia dealer in rare books and manuscripts, Jobe stumbled on an advertisement for White’s account book. Afraid that the crucial document might slip through their hands, Sullivan, who selected the clocks for the exhibition and catalogue, purchased the account book and provided Winterthur with a copy. “The existence of an account book of a known cabinetmaker working in southeastern Massachusetts opened up a whole new avenue for research and documentation,” says Jobe. “Although nearly a dozen such books for southeastern Massachusetts woodworkers survive, White’s is of special importance because it records the activities of someone who worked nearly full time in the furniture trade, making literally thousands of pieces over the course of his career.”

“We found more groups of things than I originally thought we might, but very few pieces were signed,” says Jobe. “After examining hundreds of pieces of furniture, we could separate some of them into groups and link them to their makers through a study of furniture construction details, inscriptions, and woods.” After exhaustively reviewing the documentary evidence—including town histories, court records, deeds, probate materials, and newspaper advertisements—O’Brien and Bray were able to limn detailed portraits of six artisans: White, Lemuel Tobey (1749–1820) of Dartmouth, Simeon Doggett (1738–1823) of Middleborough, Ebenezer Allen Jr. and Cornelius Allen of New Bedford, and Samuel Wing (1774–1854) of Sandwich.6

Sullivan, who began repairing broken furniture from his parents’ attic at fifteen and became a full-time antiques dealer three years later, made some of the project’s most important findings, tracing the activities of the Bailey family of Hanover (see Fig. 1), which over three generations shaped southeastern Massachusetts’s vibrant clockmaking industry by training nearly one-third of the 115 clockmakers who worked in the area before 1850. The Baileys are credited with introducing the South Shore’s signature form, the dwarf clock, which first appeared in the shops of John Bailey II and his brother Calvin Bailey (1761–1835) by 1810. The form came to be closely associated with the Bailey apprentice Joshua Wilder, who, often working in consort with White, created some of the Federal era’s most beautiful timepieces (see Fig. 11).

One key revelation made in the research for the project-—first detailed in the pages of Antiques in May 2007—is that the Bristol County brothers Ebenezer and Cornelius Allen were nephews of the celebrated Newport cabinetmaker John Goddard (1724–1785), who likely took Ebenezer as his apprentice.7 Goddard’s influence is clear in a mahogany chest-on-chest of 1785 to 1790 the researchers found to be signed by Cornelius Allen (Figs. 12, 12a). A careful study of its design, construction, and markings (including the signature) not only helped them to identify other Allen pieces but was crucial to establishing Newport’s dominant influence throughout the region.A major discovery was made just as the catalogue for Harbor and Home was going to press. A late eighteenth-century bonnet-top high chest of angular proportions and crisply carved detail resembled furniture from New London County, Connecticut. But after a handful of related pieces surfaced, the team concluded that it was almost certainly the work of a Scituate area craftsman. Its surprising mix of influences has prompted further investigation by Sullivan and Jobe, whose latest findings will appear in an article in the May 2009 issue of Antiques.

The objects illustrated here offer a taste of what the exhibition has to offer. Arranged on two large second-floor galleries at Winterthur, it includes ninety pieces of furniture along with a colorful assortment of paintings, portraits, sailors’ art, ship furniture, maps, prints, and photographs—altogether a remarkable blend of the broad trends and individual discoveries Jobe and his team were able to document in their multiyear investigation. “One of Harbor and Home’s major contributions is to open the door to some very intriguing objects that otherwise might not be seen. This is not a survey drawn from the collections of the country’s largest decorative arts museums,” Jobe observes, adding that when he first contemplated a major study of southeastern Massachusetts furniture, he wondered whether he would have enough material. Knocking on doors and poring through storerooms and attics have convinced him and his fellow scholars that they have barely scratched the surface. “These projects have a way of living forever,” he says. “I hope that Harbor and Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710–1850 focuses attention on the region and brings other pieces out of the woodwork. Avenues for further research abound for all with the interest to pursue them.”

Harbor and Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710–1850 is on view at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware from March 21 through May 25, 2009. It then travels to Nantucket, where it may be seen at the Nantucket Historical Association’s Whaling Museum from July 2 to November 2. 

In conjunction with the exhibition, Winterthur is hosting the 2009 Sewell C. Biggs Furniture Forum on Thursday and Friday, April 16 and 17, sponsored by Skinner, Boston. For more information call 800-448-3883 or visit winterthur.org/calendar.

1 “Auctioneer’s Hammer Strips Home of John, Priscilla Alden,” Boston Herald, October 8, 1955. 
2 As early as 1769 a men’s social group, the Old Colony Club, gathered to celebrate the landing of the Pilgrims. The Pilgrim Society was founded in 1820 and created a permanent museum in 1824. On Nantucket, Eliza Ann McCleave created a private museum in the late 1830s. The Old Colony Historical Society in Taunton, Massachusetts, was chartered in 1853 and a similar organization appeared in Rehoboth in 1884. See Brock Jobe, “An Introduction to Southeastern Massachusetts and Its Furniture,” in  Brock Jobe, Gary R. Sullivan, and Jack O’Brien, Harbor and Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710–1850 (University Press of New England, Hanover, N. H., 2009), pp.  25–26. 
3 Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1988), p.  214. Thoreau made four trips on foot across Cape Cod in the mid-nineteenth century and published an account of his experience in 1865. See Jobe, “An Introduction to Southeastern Massachusetts and Its Furniture,” p. 25. 
4 Wallace Nutting, Furniture Treasury (Old America Company, Framingham, Mass., 1928–1933), vol. 1, Pl. 856. 
5 See Jobe, Sullivan, and O’Brien, Harbor and Home, p. 226, Pl. 78.
6 Jack O’Brien and Derin Bray, “Shaped by the Sea: Cabinetmaking in Southeastern Massachusetts,” ibid., pp. 27–38. Additional contributors to the catalogue include Dennis Carr, Karin Goldstein, Forbes Maner, Nicholas Schonberger, Laura Simo, and Martha Willoughby.
7 See Jack O’Brien, “A New Bedford masterpiece,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 172, no. 6 (May 2007), pp. 138–145.

Laura Beach writes extensively about antiques.