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Cabinetmaking In America - 17th And 18th Century

By Ethel Hall Bjerkoe

( Article orginally published May 1952 )

When the Mayflower dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor, December 21, 1620, twenty men went ashore to begin the construction of temporary shelters. Among these men was the first furniture maker in the New England colonies - John Alden. Listed on the ship's passenger roll as a carpenter and kept busy in the con.stx+uction of cottages, a storehouse and a common house, very soon he must have turned his attention to the making of furniture. The Mayflower was a small boat ninety feet long and twenty-four feet wide. It carried 102 passengers in, addition to the necessary crew. Obviously, there could have been very few pieces of furniture brought over on this trip. Then, too, most of these pioneers were simple people and many had spent long years in Holland so that in all likelihood their possessions would not have been on the ample side - only the bare necessities.

It is a matter of record that certain pieces of furniture arrived in Plymouth on the Mayflower, and without doubt these included a number of chests. Chests were almost certain to have been of the greatest importance in these early days. They were used for transporting clothing and bedding and in the new home filled a real need as a piece of furniture - table, seat or for storage. Undoubtedly, the majority of these chests were of plain boards. However, in the early inventories we find mention of "joyned" chests. This would refer to those made by a craftsman who joined his furniture by means of mortise and tenon and who used the method of dovetailing, pinning and glue rather than the board and all construction requiring much less skill. Whether one or more of these "joyned" oaken chests arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 is problematical.

Next in importance to the chest was the cupboard - court, livery and press. These were of the Elizabethan type then popular in England. The few brought to this new country by the early settlers were soon being copied with a distinctly local touch added which distinguishes them today from, those made in England. By the early years of the 18th century, these cupboards were no longer fashionable, their place taken by the space-saving builtin type.

At this time chairs were far from common even in the homes of the great in England. Forms (narrow benches) and stools were the common seats. The wainscot chair, a survival from the Elizabethan period, was so called because of its paneled back. At times the sides 'were paneled as well as below the seat rail to the feet. One of the finest chairs of this type, still in existence, was made by Thomas Dennis who was working in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in the third quarter of the 17th century. Like much of the furniture of this period, it is made of oak. The stiles and rails are richly carved with guilloches and strapwork, the panels with flower and leaf. Pieces of furniture known~ to have been made by Dennis indicate that his work was much richer in carving than any cabinetmaker of his time in New England. Although the majority of these wainscot chairs made in this country were of oak, walnut was also popular for their construction.

Governor Carver of Plymouth owned a chair which, it is assumed, came with him on the Mayflower and this became the model for the so-called Carver chair, an elaborately turned example, sometimes with arms, sometimes without. It usually had a rush seat. Not unlike the Carver chair is the Brewster; more elaborate, often with a wooden seat, and with spindles below the seat. Other chairs, of this 17th century in New England were the Cromwellian with seat and back upholstered in leather, turkey work or fabric; and curved slat backs of various kinds. The earliest tables in New England were trestle tables with removable tops - large and small. Soon, however, tables of various sizes, both square and oblong, made their appearance, as did the Pate-leg which originated in England during this Jacobean period. The rather ingenious settle-table also appeared in this seventeenth century.

In the early days of the colonies, the bed was simply a wooden frame of several kinds and 'when the word "bed" is used in old inventories or wills, it refers to the bed pallet, draperies and coverlets, not to the wooden frame.

Although the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth were simple people with few possessions, the Puritans who established the colonies around Boston were generally persons of higher economic status. They were from the west of England and without doubt brought with them much furniture and other household goods. Soon after their arrival we find them exchanging the products of the New World - particularly "clapbords" and furs - for many household furnishings and comforts from both England and Holland.

Any furniture brought from England by the early eolonists was of oak in the Jacobean style still showing the influence of the earlier Elizabethan. Soon, however, the colonists were constructing furniture of native woods - including oak - copying the English pieces in the colony or building various pieces from memory. Ash, hickory, maple, cherry, chestnut, pine and other wood's are found in the earlier examples of furniture made in the New World.

In 1629 a second Mayflower arrived in Plymouth and among its passengers was Kenelm Winslow, listed as 'coffin maker", a term synonymous in those days with joiner. Cabinetmaking in 17th century England was a very specialized job and most craftsmen were called carpenters or joiners. It is probable that Winalow and Alden worked together in the construction of cupboards and other pieces of furniture. Some of their work is today in various museums; some identified, and some still awaiting verification.

In the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, there is the so-called Prince-Howes Plymouth cupboard, made sometime between 1660-1670. It is thought that this was made by Kenelm Vfinslow assisted by John Alden. The Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts in New York City also has a Plymouth Court Cupboard of the same period and without doubt made by the same workmen as the Prince-Howes. Both Alden and Winslow lived until 1672 and doubtless, working together, constructed many pieces of furniture still in existence. Another furniture maker, the maker of the wainscot chair described above, who carried on the tradition of Winslow and Alden was Thomas Dennis of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Since he was working as late as 1700, more existing pieces have been definitely attributed to him.

Other men known to have been working at this time in Massachusetts (and naturally there were many whose names will never be identified) were:
John Davis who carne to Boston on the ship "Increase" in 1636
Samuel Dix who arrived in Boston, 1637
Roger Mason who was working in Boston in 1635
Henry Messenger listed as a Boston chairmaker and who died in 1681
Phineas Pratt who was working in Weymouth in the very earliest days of this colony
Thomas Stapleford listed as a Boston chairmaker in 1681
William Storey who came to Boston as an apprentice with Samuel Dix in 1637
Edward Titcamb who was working in Newbury about 1690 to 1710. Several pieces of furniture have been attributed to him, one of which bears his name.

Added to the above, of course, are John Aldeli, Kenelm Winslow and Thomas Dennis whose work we have discussed in more detail.

In another section of New England, a group of cabinetmakers were producing much good work during the last quarter of the 17th century, a group that continued working Well through the first half of the 18th century. This was the so-called Connecticut Valley furniture makers in the towns of Hadley, Hatfield and Deerfield, Massachusetts, and Enfield and Hartford, Connecticut. These men were the makers of the so-called Hadley chests (as well as other furniture), of which 117 have been located to date and doubtless, also, of the sunflower and tulip chests found in this same part of the country. Foremost among these men were:
Captain John Allis of Hatfield, working around 1700
Ichabod Allis of Hatfield, working in the first quarter of the 18th century but identified as the maker of three Hadley chests
Belding, a pantner of a son of Captain John Allis of Hatfield, listed as a joiner
Nich. Disbrowe of Hartford, Connecticut (1612-1683). His label "Cutte and joyned by Nich. Disbrowe" has been found on one of this so-called I{adley chests. He is the most celebrated of this group of cabinetmakers.
John Hawkes of Hatfield at first, later of Deerfield John Taylor of Hadley
Thomas Spencer of Hartford (1639-1687). Listed as a turner.

The story of these chests and of the various cupboards is of so much interest and importance, that we shall devote our entire article next month to them.

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