A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

May 2009

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We're Opening a Shop!

Why? Well, the new gallery is five minutes from our house and it’s a better display area than our current facility. Ipswich has more first period homes than any other town in the country, and it’s celebrating its 375th anniversary this year, and so it's a good time and place to open a gallery. "Antiques as Old as Ipswich" is our local slogan.

We’ll be open most Fridays and Saturdays during the summer, 10:00 to 4:00, and at anytime by chance or appointment, but do, please, call ahead to check -– we may be at a show on the day you plan to come! The address is 37 South Main Street (Route 1A/133) Ipswich, MA, just a few doors south of the Choate Bridge. Call 802.236.4391 (cell and gallery) or 978.356.3861 (home and office).

June 5 and 6 are the dates to put in your schedule. We can’t have a grand opening party (the town regulations are just too daunting to navigate), but there will be a very warm welcome, and special opening discounts. We’d love to see you.

Incidentally, Ipswich and other early towns combine to put on "Seventeenth-Century Saturdays" on the first Saturday of the month during the summer. There are open houses, demonstrations of craftwork, and so on. The first is June 6 – another reason to come and see us.


Children’s Furniture

We’ve come across some nice examples of seventeenth-century children’s furniture recently, which has prompted us to think about seventeenth-century children.

Parents thought of their children very differently from the way we do. To them, a child was not a different sort of being from an adult, but just an adult-in-the-making. Childhood was not a special and precious state of being; children differed from adults in size, but that was about all. Children’s furniture, therefore, was like adult’s, only smaller. It was not made in a different "child" aesthetic of simplified forms and bright primary colors: there was one style of furniture, one style of decoration, and it served for every age group, from the cradle to the grave.

Portraits of the period clearly depict children as miniature adults: they have none of the wide-eyed, dimpled cuteness that for us expresses the essence of childhood. Similarly, children listened to the same stories and legends as adults: there was no such thing as a children’s book.

The coffer we show here is such a perfect miniaturization of an adult's that we asked Cromwell to sit on it to give an idea of its scale. The stool and the two Dutch chairs are perhaps for youths rather than children, but, again, they follow adult forms precisely. What is specifically for children, however, is the doll’s cradle: it’s Shrubland’s turn to show the scale here.

Childhood was certainly different then, but whether it produced happier or less happy children who grew into better or worse adults is an unanswerable question. At the very least, however, it reminds us that our way of conceptualizing childhood is not the only one.

On our website, you’ll find the stool and the coffer under Oak, the chairs under Walnut, and the doll’s cradle is classified as an Object of Interest.



Dated Boxes (continued from March)

In our March Acorns we raised the idea that the dates on boxes and coffers may be the birth date of the owner, not the date when the box was made. This seemed logical, but we knew of no evidence to support the idea. Or at least, not until Peter Follansbee of Plimoth Plantation sent us an entry in Samuel Sewall’s diary for Tues Aug 13, 1689. In it, Sewall, an important gentleman, as we can see from his portrait, listed the goods he brought back to Boston from a trip to England.

"Number S. S. 2 Punchin Books: No 3 Punchin Cordage; 4 Barrel Cheese; 5 Barrel Pease, 6.7.8. three Small Trunks with his childrens Names, the first Letters of them and the year of their Birth. 9. Barrel of Books: A Map of England and London: A Sea-Chest: A Bed, Quilt, 4 Blankets; one Large Trunk, mark’d with Nails, H. S. one (the 4th) small one, corded with Canvas: One old small Trunk; one Cheese in Lead, mark’d W.V. for William Vaughan, of Portsmouth, with thanks for his kind Entertainment of me at his house: one Cheese store: one Deal box of Linen: one Box of Biskets: 1 small Case Liquors; 1 great Case Bottles (Liquors in Common): three Pastboard Boxes, with Hats: One Angling Rod: 1 Hat in a Paper: Two Hampers, 1 Beer, 1 Ale: 1 Ladder."

The interesting item, of course, is the "three Small Trunks with his childrens Names, the first Letters of them and the year of their Birth." This is the only documentary evidence we have yet seen that, on some occasions at least, the date is that of the birth of the owner, and not of the making of the box.

But Sewall was shipping "trunks," not "boxes." Or was he? Given the seventeenth-century practice of using a word to refer sometimes to a form and sometimes to a function, we have to wonder whether these "three Small Trunks" were trunks in function (ie they were used for traveling) but were boxes in form. The "Large Trunk, mark’d with Nails, H. S." may well have been a deal box covered with leather, canvass or fabric, usually nailed on, in which case marking the initials with nails would have been logical, and typical (carving would have been impossible).  "(The 4th) small one, corded with Canvas" also sounds like what we would today call a trunk. The fact that Sewall did not specify that the children’s initials and birth dates were "mark’d with nails" suggests that they may have been carved. It is quite possible, therefore, that if we saw one of these "trunks" today, we would actually see a typical "bible" box carved with initials and date.

As we commented in March, the date of manufacture per se does not seem to be important enough to merit being permanently and very visibly recorded on the front of a box. Isn’t it more likely that the significance of the date lies somewhere in the life of the owner? And what is more significant than birth?

Or marriage? The box we described in Living with Early Oak (p. 52) is initialed and dated on the side "ME 1689." It’s also carved with a heart, which suggests a marriage. (The owner has now painted it to match a trace of paint under the lock plate, so we can see it just as it looked to "ME".)

It is certainly possible, then, that the date carved on a box commemorates something other than its date of manufacture. Which means that we can’t date a box by its date.

But does the same go for a chair? Check out our new box-seated wainscot, dated 1618.

(Incidentally, a puncheon was a cask of 72–120 gallons, so a "punchin" of books must have been quite a library, and what on earth must it have weighed!)

Ref: M. Halsey Thomas, ed, The Diary of Samuel Sewall 1674-1729 2 volumes, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1973, p. 235.