Published: May 27, 2003
By Carol Sims
DEERFIELD, MASS. — Twenty-eight examples of early woodworking installed at Historic Deerfield’s Flynt Center of Early New England Life present a new take on furniture of the Connecticut River Valley by highlighting the critical importance of Windsor, Conn., cabinetmakers. “The : A Connecticut Community of Craftsmen and Their World, 1635-1715” carefully unfolds the evolution of style that emanated from Windsor and continued to flourish and evolve into the now better-known Hadley and Wethersfield styles. These wonderful pieces of early American furniture, admirable for their craftsmanship, are testaments to the hardiness and creativity of the early immigrant settlers. They will remain on view through August 18 before traveling to the Windsor Historical Society in September.
Deerfield’s Assistant Curator of Furniture Joshua Lane, assisted in his research by Donald White, established that there were 205 individuals who practiced a woodworking trade in Windsor from 1635 to 1715. Among those, there were approximately 16 known workshops. Lane has brought together objects attributed to eight prominent woodworkers who were immigrant masters of shop traditions. While records exist of the other eight shops, there are few if any known surviving objects from those shops.
The forms that have most commonly survived are hardy boxes and chests and a few tables and chairs. The chests were typically used to store linens, which would have been much more costly than the chests used to protect them. Beds, standing presses (similar to an armoire) and other forms have yet to be found and are probably no longer extant, although there are records of their creation.
Whereas in politics one might “follow the money,” in furniture Joshua Lane has followed the history of the woodworker families who worked in differing shop traditions. The records of Windsor, Hartford, Hadley, Wethersfield, Hatfield, Springfield and other Connecticut River Valley towns are remarkably intact. Stored in the obscure safety of town halls, records of births, church membership, land grants, marriages, business dealings, probate and other court proceedings shed light on the influence of Windsor upon other Connecticut River Valley styles. The family trees of Windsor’s woodworking families are intertwined in a marvelously complex web.
Whole congregations followed Puritan ministers to American shores seeking religious freedom. After first arriving in Dorchester, Mass., a group of about 40 Puritans and their families settled with the Rev Warham in 1635 in an area north of Hartford along the banks of the important fur-trade conduit of the time, the Connecticut River. They named the new settlement “Windsor,” after a town in England. The immigrants brought traditional English taste to the New World — simple straightforward well-proportioned furniture with flat carved decoration that alleviated its sturdy functionality. These English styles followed the highly wrought designs of Renaissance artists from Germany and Italy in the abstract geometric style known as Mannerism, found also in ceramic decoration, embroidery and engravings.
Foliated Vine Group
Among the immigrant congregation of Windsor was the 21-year-old John Moore (1614-1677), a woodworker from Southwold, Suffolk, in England. Moore became a patriarch of the community as well as a deacon of the church. As a woodworker, he was master of what Lane titles the “Foliated Vine Group.” The name refers to furniture decorated with vines and blossoms carved in shallow relief with flat surfaces. The flowering vines curve and twist in an ordered symmetrical fashion with Mannerist taste that was precisely planned out to make full use of the space.
John Moore left behind a sizeable record of his life. Lane writes in the catalog, “Deacon John Moore was at the center of a nexus of woodworking families that extended through four generations to include the Drakes, Bissells, Loomises, Barbers, Griswolds, Stoughtons and others. Together, these families largely controlled the woodworking trade in the region until the mid-Eighteenth Century.”
Ogee Molding Group
The most successful woodworkers were those who were closely associated with the church and town. Important town and church construction contracts went to woodworkers with connections. One exception was the resourceful Aaron Cook, who after immigrating to Windsor in 1635, never joined the Windsor church or held public office. He moved to Simsbury, and then to Northampton by 1660 where he finally attained “pillar of the community” status. He built Northampton’s meetinghouse, served as captain of its militia (as he had in Windsor) and represented Northampton at the Massachusetts General Court. He left behind records of four marriages, six children and court records of many disputes with his neighbors in Windsor.
The joined chest, circa 1660, attributed to the Hampshire County, Mass., workshop of Aaron Cook, was recently acquired by Historic Deerfield at a Douglas auction. It has a direct line of ownership from Hatfield, Mass., resident Jonathan Morton (1684-1767) and exemplifies the construction, form, ogee (s-shaped) molding and stock preparation of the Cook shop tradition.
Lane observes, “Many of the ornamental and structural features of this chest recur throughout late Seventeenth Century Hampshire County joinery, suggesting that woodworkers trained in, or emulating, the Cook shop tradition spread these style features to the region and adapted them to tulip-and-leaf chests.”
Opposing Gouge Group
Not much is known about the Windsor originators of this group, named for line patterns created by opposing gouges. Three known examples feature complex diamond patterns. The top rail of each chest is decorated with incised lunettes. Lane writes, “…the arcs of the lunettes are laid out with two small opposing compass arcs that are cut freehand with a V-profile parting tool.” Other traits include oversized frame member stock, butted and nailed floorboard, and floor rail joint secured by a single pin.
Trefoil Group Attributed to the Barber Shop Tradition
Not all the woodworkers who immigrated to Windsor were welcomed with open arms. The Barber family came from Bedford, England, where farming practices and ownership differed from those of the prominent families of Windsor. They granted Thomas Barber, Sr, just 30 acres far from the protection of the palisadoed center of town. After trying to eke out a living with little community support, Barber was invited to settle in Northampton, but both he and his wife died in 1662 before he could move, leaving six children. The youngest, his 9-year-old son Josiah, was indentured to Deacon John Moore, and eventually married Moore’s granddaughter, Abigail Loomis.
Two other sons, the 19-year-old Thomas Barber, Jr, and his 14-year-old brother Samuel Barber, inherited woodworking tools from their father and set up their own shop. When no Windsor town construction contracts came their way Thomas Barber, Jr, and his family settled in Massaco (renamed Simsbury in 1672) and built the town’s gristmill, saw mill, meetinghouse and minister’s house. He ended up a wealthy man and community leader.
The distinctive tri-foliate decorations on the Barber chests inspired Lane to categorize them as the trefoil group. The oldest piece attributed to the Barber shop tradition is the Nicholas Hoyt chest of 1655, which was probably made by Thomas Barber, Sr (1614-1662). It was owned by Windsor immigrant Nicholas Hoyt (1662-1655) and then by his son David (1651-1704) who brought the chest to Hadley in 1678 and then to Deerfield in 1682.
Lane observed that Barber Sr’s plane leaned to the right causing a distinctive but subtle curve in his carving. When his son inherited the plane, his carving would have had the same distinction. Two of the Barber chests have these curved plane strokes in their carved decoration. A third chest was more crudely carved than the other two and was possibly made by the younger, lesser-trained Samuel Barber.
Peak Molding Group
This style, named for the angled, convex, “peaked” moldings about one-inch wide that appear in its examples, is attributed to the Rockwell family that came to Windsor in 1635. One representative piece in the show is a joined chest with very little decoration, making it the simplest in the exhibition. It carries traces of old paint that would have once been a vibrant colorful design. The milk-based paint that was commonly used to embellish furniture of the period was prone to oxidation and has all but disappeared. Identifying features include mortise and tenon joints secured with two pins, “except the joint between the unusually narrow side muntins and top and floor rails, which are secured with a single pin.”
The Guilloche Group
Commissioned to build the pews, pulpit and window casements for Windsor’s First Church, William Buell (1614-1681) had a reputation for good finish work that led him to other commissions, such as doing finish work for the Springfield, Mass., meetinghouse. Lane chose “guilloche” to refer to the carved intermeshed rosettes that decorate Buell’s rather large boxes.
The Calligraphic Group
The colorful blue and peach paint on the box used to illustrate this group make it a standout. Although not original, the choice of color is probably accurate said Lane. He notes that it is carved in a style characteristic of England’s South West Country. The box belonged to Elizabeth Bissell and the initials EB are prominently carved in a flowing calligraphic style with asymmetrical flourishes, leaves and flowers. It is attributed to the Drake family, quite likely by Jacob Drake, Elizabeth’s uncle, on the occasion of her marriage in 1682. Lane writes, “Some of the principle carved elements of the ‘EB’ box may prefigure ornamentation characteristic of Hampshire County joinery.”
Serrated Foliate Group
The Stoughton family was very active in the Massachusetts Bay Colony before Thomas Stoughton, Jr, moved to Windsor in 1635. His grandson, Thomas Stoughton IV (1662-1748), helped establish a second church on the east side of the river in what was to become East Windsor. The Stoughtons “provided expensively carved case furniture to some of the region’s wealthiest families,” writes Lane in the catalog. He continues, “The products of the Stoughton joinery shops would serve as the prototype for the so-called ‘sunflower’ group of case furniture traditionally attributed to Wethersfield worker Peter Blin.”
“New England Joined Furniture and Its English Context” a $75 daylong public symposium highlighting Historic Deerfield’s collection of early American furniture, will be offered on Saturday, June 14, at Historic Deerfield featuring “English and Continental Context of Seventeenth Century Joined Furniture” lecture by Robert Trent; “Chests of Central and Coastal Connecticut” lecture by Martha Willoughby; “The : A Connecticut Community of Craftsmen and Their World, 1635-1715,” gallery talk by Joshua Lane, assistant curator of furniture, Historic Deerfield, and Donald White, research associate, Historic Deerfield; and a demonstration, “Wet-wood Joinery Methods, Tools and Technique” by Robert Tarule, Goddard College. For information about the symposium, call Joan Morel 413-775-7201.
While modest in size, “” provides an opportunity to see these magnificent artifacts of early American culture in an intimate and intelligent presentation. The Flynt Center is also exhibiting “Telltale Textiles: Quilts From The Historic Deerfield Collection.”
The exhibition catalog, written by curator by Joshua Lane, with Donald P. White as research assistant, will be available mid-June by calling the museum store at 413-775-7170. For information, 413-774-5581 or visit www.historic-deerfield.org.
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