Published: September 18, 2001
SPRINGFIELD, MASS. – A selection of late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century furniture is on display at the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum through March 31, 2002 in the exhibition, “.”
The exhibition features approximately 35 examples from the museum’s permanent collection, including chests of drawers, tables, chairs, sideboards, desks and children’s furniture, that was made in this area. Also on display are a number of antique carpentry tools.
Little furniture made before 1700 still exists, and none to date can be positively identified as being made in Springfield, which at that time encompassed most of the surrounding towns and parts of Connecticut. It is difficult to identify those very early furniture makers because they did not specialize in furniture, nor did they call themselves furniture makers or cabinetmakers. Instead, they were known as carpenters, joiners and turners. Carpenters and joiners also built houses and other structures, while turners worked with lathes to produce turned spindles.
Early Springfield records show a number of carpenters and joiners working in the town. The Pynchon account books contain numerous references to carpenters building houses or other buildings, and the probate inventories of some of the town’s residents contain tools indicating that the people were carpenters.
Some of those most frequently mentioned are Joseph Leonard and brothers Jonathan and David Morgan, who lived and worked in Springfield in the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries. However, their names cannot be linked to specific pieces of furniture from the Springfield area.
Conversely, there are several pieces of late Seventeenth or early Eighteenth Century furniture that have histories of ownership on Springfield families but that cannot be connected to a particular carpenter. Among the earliest pieces displayed is a Windsor armchair made around 1790 by an unknown joiner. It belonged to Abijah Hendrick (born 1761) of Wilbraham, Mass., who enlisted in the Revolutionary Army at age 16 and who later served to guard the stores and arms at the Springfield Armory.
Meanwhile, other towns in the Connecticut Valley and in other areas of New England are associated with distinctive styles of furniture or with the names of specific cabinetmakers, such as the Chapin family in Hartford and the Goddard and Townsend families in Newport.
However, there is a fair amount of documentary evidence of cabinetmakers working in Eighteenth century Springfield. Account books kept by area residents contain records of purchases made from local cabinetmakers.
The most complete body of evidence on Eighteenth Century cabinetmaking in Springfield is found in the ledger of Solomon Lathrop of West Springfield. Lathrop was born in 1759, started his business in 1781, and died of consumption in 1787. During his brief career he made a variety of furniture including tables, chairs, candlestands (which he called “candlestools”), high chests, bureaus (which he spelled “buroe”), and tea tables.
To supplement his income, he worked at housebuilding, and he even built birdhouses for one customer. The ledger shows that most of his furniture was made of cherry, and he was buying wood from area farmers as well as from two suppliers in Becket. Lathrop sold most of his furniture to local residents, but some of it was shipped down the Connecticut River for sale.
The turn of the Nineteenth Century also heralded a sudden increase in the number of cabinetmakers working in the Springfield area and in the written evidence about these cabinetmakers. Most importantly, it becomes easier to trace cabinetmakers working in Springfield following the publication of the city’s first newspapers, The Massachusetts Gazette or The General Advisor, in 1784, and the Federal Spy, in the 1790s.
One of the most startling pieces of information provided by the newspapers is the large number of cabinetmakers working in the Springfield area; in the years 1800 to 1825, 21 cabinetmakers lived and worked in Springfield and surrounding towns. Clearly, the town’s population increased significantly in the early Nineteenth Century.
The papers also provided a vehicle for cabinetmakers to advertise their craft and to place want-ads for journeymen and apprentices. Some cabinetmakers also began to sign or label their furniture.
For example, the museum owns a number of fine pieces by William Lloyd, the best-documented of the 21 cabinetmakers working in Springfield in the early Nineteenth Century. He first advertised his cabinetmaking business in 1802. He also signed and labeled his pieces, changing the spelling of his name from Lloyde, used from 1802-1810, to Lloyd, used from 1811-1815, when his advertisements abruptly ended.
Springfield-made furniture from the early Nineteenth Century has several common elements. It is usually made of cherry, a popular local wood at the time. Secondary woods, used on hidden parts of the piece, were pine, maple, or sometimes poplar. Much of the furniture is decorated with inlaid designs which are different from those found on furniture made in other parts of the country. For example, an unusual icicle-like inlay appears in pieces made by both William Lloyd and Peletiah Bliss.
Another piece in the exhibit – less aesthetically pleasing, but nonetheless fascinating – is a stand-up mercantile desk dating to about 1850 that was owned by the famous abolitionist John Brown. The desk was used by Brown in his offices in Springfield, where he lived and worked as a wool merchant. Brown is remembered today for his failed raid on the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal, and for his subsequent trial and execution.
At the turn of the Nineteenth Century, most cabinetmaking shops were run by a master craftsman and staffed by several journeymen and apprentices. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, furniture was no longer primarily the province of individual craftsmen, but was being mass produced in factories and sold through warehouses somewhat similar to modern furniture stores.
Most of this essay was excerpted from Springfield Furniture 1700-1850, a catalogue written by Gail Nessell Colglazier and published by the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum in conjunction with the exhibit “Springfield Furniture 1700-1850: A Large and Rich Assortment” (April 27 to December 31, 1990).
The Connecticut Valley Historical Museum is at the Quadrangle, corner of State and Chestnut Streets. Hours are Wednesday to Friday, noon to 5 pm and Saturday and Sunday, 11 am to 4 pm. For information, 413-263-6800, ext. 312.
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