A Newsletter for Lovers of Early Objects

October 2018

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Double Desk

Double Desk

Double Desk

Double Desk

This arouses my lust – I want it, even though I’ll never have it because it’s in a museum. I’ve never seen anything like it. The most accurate name I can think of is a “Double Table Desk.” If you’ve never heard the name, it’s because you’ve never seen what it refers to. I’ve looked though a load of books and catalogs, I’ve consulted experts, and nobody has ever seen a table desk for two people to work at simultaneously. I believe that this Double Table Desk is literally unique.

But who used it? A lawyer and his clerk, a merchant and his assistant, a tutor and his student? We’ll never know, but it’s fun to speculate.

The style of the lunettes running along the bottom tells us that it was made on the south shore of New England. But its ancestry is clearly from Old England. I doubt that it was carved by someone who had trained in England: I’m confident, however, that the carver trained under someone who had been trained in England.

The English waxed and polished their boxes so that the surface gleamed in the low light of their houses. In the carved decoration they liked the gleaming surface to be contrasted with the background that had been carved out – they matted that background so that it was rough and could not take a polish. Shiny surface, dull background: that’s what the English liked.

Americans did not wax and polish as eagerly as the English did. The carver of this box knew that, so he used the same punch to matt the surface and the background – refusing any contrast between them. No English-trained carver would have done that!

The small side-desk, however, does show more contrast – interesting.

Ergo: a unique New England double desk box. Visit it in the Newport Historical Society Museum, for you’ll never see another anywhere else!


Film set for The Crucible

Worm Fence at Colebrook

Five-rail fence at Old Sturbridge Village

Paled fence at the Alexander Knight
House, Ipswich

On the Fence

Zig-zag fences (often called “worm” fences) were uncommon in early New England: they’re more a feature of the Chesapeake Bay and Southern landscapes. I don’t know why the set designer for The Crucible chose a worm fence to run alongside the road, but I do know that the choice was not justified by an important law. In 1653 the General Court of Massachusetts specified the fences that were acceptable in the Colony:

“ is hereby ordered that all sd. fences shall be made of pales well nailed or pinned, or of five rails well fitted, or of stone wall three and a half feet high at least, or with a good ditch three or four feet wide, with a good bank and 2 rayles, or a good hedge, or such as is equivalent, upon the banke, all and every one of wch kindes shall be made sufficiently to keep out swine and all sorts of cattle.”

No mention of a worm fence here. The only reference that I have come across was in the minutes of the Town of Salem, Massachusetts, that in 1685 recorded the construction of a “new worm fence about the meeting house at Alloway’s Creek.”

Earlier than that, in 1635 Daniel Dennison of Ipswich was granted “a house lott near the Mill, containing about two acres, which he has paled in, and built a house upon it.” It appears that in early Ipswich, fences in the town were paled, but the large planting lots further out were fenced with post and rails.

Obviously, labor and materials influenced the choice of fence: Robert Tarule has calculated that Dennison’s fence would have needed 2,500 pales and 160 posts (a five-rail fence required about 60% of the timber needed for a paled fence.) A worm fence was probably the quickest to build: A man with an ax could split 150-200 10-foot rails in one day, and using them a fence maker could erect 200 yards in a day. By comparison, a two-man team laying a stone wall could erect 10 feet per day.





Linenfold coffer, Devon, 1550-1580
Pair of elaborate linenfold panels,
English, c. 1575

Early linenfold coffer, c. 1535
(Click here for more images and details)

Parchemin panel with motif derived from
curled parchment, English, c. 1560


A linenfold panel is derived from the large cloths (often painted or with woven pictures) that were hung on the stone walls of important houses to keep the damp and cold of the stone from seeping into the room.

Together with the closely related parchemin carving, the linenfold is the first domestic (i.e. non-ecclesiastical) decorative motif. The earliest examples are from the 1530s, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, and the artisans, who had previously worked exclusively for the Catholic Church, had to turn to a domestic market for their skills.

Besides his Catholic-busting efforts, Henry also pacified the previously warring barons and so allowed the newly peaceful English to build comfortable manor houses to live in rather than fortified castles. This is where the displaced carvers found their new employers. Linenfold panels are relatively common today because of the explosion of Tudor domestic architecture and the newly unemployed wood (and stone) carvers.

Most linenfold panels found today started life on pieces of furniture – coffers, cupboard doors, chair or settle backs – but some were architectural – they were decorative and insulating wall-paneling.

In general, the fewer the folds, the earlier the panel (like most generalizations, this is almost as often contradicted as observed.) But generally, the simpler, plainer examples tend to be earlier than the more elaborate ones. Panels with pale, unoxidized backs with rough tool marks are likely to have been architectural.

Most linenfold panels are a medium to dark honey color: the Tudors preferred their oak waxed, but not stained. The Stuarts and Jacobeans liked their oak darker, so their joiners used a walnut-based stain to meet their taste.

Most of the information here (and more photos) can be found in my recent book, When Oak was New. Find it here.