If a region had a strong sense of cultural and economic identity and a large, well-established furniture-making tradition, does it necessarily follow that a distinctive regional furniture style evolved? Studies of Plymouth County, Massachusetts, the Connecticut River Valley, and eastern Connecticut, among others, tend to support this conclusion; however, a wide ranging analysis of evolving socioeconomic patterns in Worcester County, Massachusetts, suggests that this pattern did not always hold true. In certain cases, tiag, demographics, and macro-economic forces may have impeded the development of an identifiable regional style.
Worcester County in Massachusetts lies between the eastern counties around Boston and the great Connecticut River Valley. Stretching from New Hampshire on the north to Connecticut and Rhode Island on the south, the region was first settled during the third quarter of the seventeenth century. Repeated Indian attacks prevented substantial settlement until nearly 1720, however.
Settlers came from both the east and west, claiming first the cleared Native American fields in the valleys and last the wooded highlands. Throughout the eighteenth century, the county’s economy was based on agriculture and the local exchange of craft goods. In 1839, John Warner Barber wrote, "Till within a few years almost all the people were farmers, and the great body still cultivate the soil. For the last few years many of the inhabitants have been employed in manufactures."
The change observed by Barber had been more profound than he realized. In 1790, Worcester County had forty-nine towns and 56,807 inhabitants, but the county was still largely wilderness. Most of the terrain was woodland; in 1781, tax assessors estimated that over three-quarters of it was “unimproved.” Travelers passed through substantial forested stretches to find patches of land opened for tillage and pasture. Clear views and lines of sight between farmsteads were rare.
Given the comparatively small population of the region and the resultant limited demand for many kinds of goods, most craftsmen farmed. Although some families existed on a subsistence level, others were more economically secure. Just prior to the American Revolution, a British traveler wrote that some families in the county“enjoy many of the necessaries of life upon their own farms. [They] yield food, much of cloathing, most of the articles of building, with a surplus sufficient to buy such foreign luxuries as are necessary to make life pass comfortably.”
Despite twentieth-century myths, New England farmers were never totally self-sufficient. Instead, they produced surplus commodities and exchanged them for goods and foodstuffs that could not be fabricated, grown, or produced at home. During the late-eighteenth century, farmers increasingly responded to enhanced market opportunities, producing larger surpluses and transporting them longer distances for exchange.
Worcester County changed in profound ways in the sixty years following the American Revolution. Between 1790 and 1840, the population nearly doubled from 56,807 to 95,313. This increase meant that there were both more consumers and more producers. The period also witnessed “the increasingly thorough penetration of the marketplace, if not always the machine, into production and consumption.” The significance of this change is most apparent in the industrialization of textile manufacturing. Driven by the impetus for capital investment, English textile technology (already present in Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts) found a home on the streams and rivers of towns in the southern part of the county. In other trades, as in farming, the impact of industrialization was less dramatic but of equal or greater economic and social importance.
The shoe-making, straw-braiding, printing, and furniture-making trades were broadly effected by newly organized systems of production, the use of a range of processes from factory to outwork, an extension of markets, improvements in transportation, an expanded use of cash, and a general increase in market orientation. In his study of broom making in Hadley, Massachusetts, Gregory Nobles referred to this phenomenon as "rural production for urban markets." Brießy stated, the process involved using locally available resources, like hides, straw, or wood, and comparatively inexpensive but often skilled rural labor to produce goods marketable in the cities.
As the manufacture and distribution of shoes, braid, books, and chairs increased, Worcester County became more prosperous. New jobs in shops, mills, and homes provided an alternative to farming. With more jobs, families often had more income and, perhaps, more inclination to invest in household goods—a demand filled in part by locally manufactured products.
Probate inventories reveal a substantial increase in the number and variety of household goods owned by central Massachusetts residents. One study determined that in the 1790s there were an average of 10.9 chairs per probated household. By the 1830s this average increased to 20.6 chairs, and the numbers of tables and case pieces nearly doubled. In addition, washstands and other inexpensive furniture forms began appearing on inventories taken during the 1820s.
The road system in Worcester County improved as a result of capital investment by manufacturers following the American Revolution. Roads were, however, only the first step in the creation of a new transportation system. The improved highways encouraged the establishment of regular stage service between communities and between the county and major urban areas. As increased production led to increased shipment, businessmen sought less expensive and more efficient alternatives to wagons. As a direct result of this need, the Blackstone Canal between Worcester and Providence opened in 1828 and the first railroad reached Worcester in 1837. Although relatively few county residents traveled on these new systems prior to 1850, the canal and railroad did transport goods into and from the region.
Furniture was among those goods with a long history of production in the county. The earliest furniture makers were farmers and woodworkers who made tables and chairs, built houses and barns, made and repaired farm tools, and provided a variety of related services for their neighbors. Probate inventories and deeds document furniture makers in Worcester County by 1760. Since no pre-1790 business accounts or signed furniture are known and the first newspaper was not published in the county until 1775, deeds provide the best means of identifying furniture makers. In deeds recorded in 1760, the only term that clearly referred to a craftsman with the tools and expertise to make furniture was "shop joiner"; however, a "cooper," "wheelwright," "house joiner," or "husbandman" might also have been a furniture maker. To date, more than seventy furniture makers working in the eighteenth century have been identified. The itemized probate inventories of fifteen of these men strongly suggest that many early furniture makers were farmers and that some practiced two or more trades.
Identifying the work of Worcester County furniture makers before 1790 has proven impossible, yet, sophisticated architectural woodwork from southern Worcester County confirms that some of these artisans were extremely proficient. In Sturbridge several houses contain extraordinary paneling, including built-in sets of drawers. The Shumway house (ca. 1780-1786) parlor has a set with a broken-scroll pediment above the fireplace (fig. 1). This room was part of a two-story, center-chimney farmhouse in Fiskdale, part of Sturbridge. Although architectural sets of drawers were rare, elaborate, well-made paneling was relatively common even in unpretentious houses. The one-and-a-half story, gambrel-roof, Nathaniel Walker house (ca. 1760-1770) in Sturbridge had raised fielded panels, bolection molding, and a corner cupboard (fig. 2). Any craftsman with the tools and skill to design, fabricate, and install the Shumway or Walker interiors also had the ability to make furniture. Architectural details of this type can be firmly associated with their place of origin, but this identification is not necessarily true for the few known pieces of eighteenth-century furniture reportedly used in the county. The most important group consists of three case pieces and a set of chairs that descended in the John Chandler family of Woodstock, Connecticut, and Worcester and Lancaster, Massachusetts (figs. 3, 4). All are stylish and relate visually to forms made in eastern Massachusetts. Without documentation, it is impossible to determine whether they were purchased in the Boston area or made in Worcester County, perhaps by a Boston-trained cabinetmaker.
Other than the Chandler group, only a few pieces of eighteenth-century furniture have Worcester County histories, and their date of arrival there is unknown. Perhaps the earliest is the turned slat-back armchair illustrated in figure 5. This example and a closely related side chair have recovery histories in the Charlton/Sturbridge area. The massive posts and sausage-turned arm supports may indicate an early date and manufacture in eastern Massachusetts or may suggest, instead, retardetaire production by a woodworker or shop joiner in Worcester County. Also associated with the county are a pair of turned leg, "crooked-back" side chairs owned by the Chase family of Sturbridge and Southbridge. A photograph taken about 1900 shows these chairs on the front lawn of the Chase homestead (fig. 6).
With so few and such disparate pieces to study, it is difficult to draw any conclusions about an evolving Worcester County style before 1800. The lack of evidence leads to the inevitable question—Why is there so little furniture? Survival is certainly one factor, both of furniture and of information. During the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, many local families left the county, and in the process some possessions were sold and family associations were lost. Other pieces were carried west or to cities where, over the generations, traditions about where or for whom they were made were forgotten.
More importantly, the level of patronage in Worcester County during the eighteenth century may have been insufficient for the development of a distinctive regional style. Most residents were middle-class farmers whose houses were modestly furnished. In Sturbridge inventories, the first clock, dressing table, desk-and-bookcase, and high case of drawers do not appear until after 1800. Only the most afßuent householders, who were members of the local social and political elite, had large sets of chairs, several cases of drawers, or expensive desks. These were the same people who traveled to Boston regularly on business or to serve in the legislature and who had strong family ties to eastern Massachusetts. Consequently, they were more likely than other Worcester County residents to purchase furniture in Boston or to commission Boston-style furniture from local craftsmen.
The possibility that there was little demand for stylish furniture that looked "local" cannot be discounted. New England regional styles tended to evolve in areas where a sizable group of afßuent customers encouraged cabinetmakers to explore distinctive design concepts. During the eighteenth century, Worcester County had only a small afßuent class that was culturally and socially linked to Boston. Although there were furniture makers of considerable skill in the county, without patronage a distinctive and recognizable regional style could not evolve.
Following the Revolution, the nature of patronage in Worcester County began to change. As the population grew and became more prosperous during the 1790s and early 1800s, the demand for furniture increased. Gradually, cabinetmakers and chairmakers who limited themselves to furniture production replaced furniture-making woodworkers and shop joiners. By 1790 both cabinetmakers and chairmakers worked in some communities, although some furniture-making woodworkers remained in the trade for almost another thirty years.
The first full-time cabinetmakers in Worcester County were either general woodworkers who narrowed their business efforts to concentrate on furniture making or were apprenticed cabinetmakers who never practiced a secondary trade. Some of the latter, particularly those who lived in other counties until they were of marriageable age, undoubtedly served apprenticeships outside Worcester County. During the 1790s, most Worcester County cabinetmakers were not born in the town where they set up their businesses, but were married in that town within a few years of acquiring property. Evidence also suggests that cabinetmakers were moving into the region from eastern Massachusetts from the end of the American Revolution until around 1800. Prior to 1790, only a few cabinetmakers can be firmly identified as Worcester County natives.
The impact of these demographic and economic forces is manifest in documented Worcester County furniture from the first half of the nineteenth century. Even for this period, there are only about fifty pieces of cabinet shop furniture ( as opposed to joiner's work) and one-hundred examples of chair shop seating known. The earliest dated piece of Worcester County furniture is a tall clock case made in 1795 by Elisha Harrington (1760-1817) of Spencer, Massachusetts. It has an eight-day brass movement and is surprisingly sophisticated, with elegant bracket feet and complex inlay. The case design is related to many Roxbury, Massachusetts, examples, particularly those housing Willard-type clocks; however, Harrington was a county-born craftsman about whose training nothing is known.
Artisans in other communities produced comparable work at about the same time. Alden Spooner (1784-1877) was born in Petersham and worked for more than forty years in Athol. His earliest known piece is a fashionable "swelled-front bureau," signed and dated 1807 (fig. 7). Only Spooner's use of native primary woods and several distinctive construction techniques differentiate this bureau from those made in eastern Massachusetts. A second case of drawers made during his partnership with George Fitts is even more like Boston and North Shore examples (fig. 8).
Other Worcester County furniture made in emulation of Boston styles includes a desk labeled by Ezekiel Brigham of Grafton in 1812 (fig. 9), a card table made in the same town by Jonathan Fairbanks, and a group of three swelled-front bureaus from the Sturbridge area, one of which is signed "George W. Holmes/Sturbridge, MA" (fig. 10). Each is well designed and competently made—in the words of Ezekiel Brigham's label, "cabinet work of a middling good workman." As with the earlier period, however, this furniture is too scarce and too widely scattered to draw conclusions about more than a single shop. Even Alden Spooner's hand is hard to trace, although in recent years furniture attributed to "Spooner and Fitch" has been advertised in auctions from Maine to Maryland.
There is little to differentiate this body of furniture from that made in parts of Middlesex and Essex Counties. After mahogany became widely available in rural areas, the best Worcester County furniture resembled middling Boston furniture; however, much locally made furniture was not nearly as stylish. Common furniture was rarely signed or labeled, but it appears in quantity in makers' account books. Light stands for $1, common bedsteads for $3, "kitching" tables for $3—this was the furniture with which most county residents filled their homes.
Furniture found in the Emerson Bixby house in Barre Four Corners was undistinguished but typical (figs. 11-13). A blue-painted, common bedstead may be the one Bixby purchased from Barre cabinetmaker Luke Houghton, who recorded the transaction in his account book (fig. 11). The other Bixby pieces, although undoubtedly of local origin, are unattributable. Furniture similar to this is still found in farmhouses and local auctions in southern Vermont and New Hampshire, parts of New York State, central and western Massachusetts, and rural Connecticut and Rhode Island. It was utilitarian and made without reference to changing styles.
Distinctive regional characteristics become more obscure in furniture made after 1820. From 1820 to 1845, newspaper advertisements and cabinetmakers' accounts increasingly refer to Grecian card tables, Grecian work stands, Grecian chairs, and Grecian sofas, as well as to French bureaus and French bedsteads (fig. 14). The widespread and frequent use of "Grecian" and "French" as advertising catch-phrases suggests that there was a market for sophisticated cosmopolitan goods. Customers wanted what was fashionable, and cabinetmakers accommodated them by adopting these styles, or at least their names, while continuing to make common bedsteads, three-and four-foot tables, chests with two drawers, and other traditional utilitarian forms.
The burgeoning demand for "exotic" styles was especially apparent in the newly emerging trade of chairmaking. Between 1790 and 1850, more than 1,200 men and unknown numbers of women and boys worked in the furniture trade, including about 400 cabinetmakers, 36 furniture retailers, and nearly 800 workers involved in some aspect of the chairmaking business. Although there are no production figures available for cabinet furniture, the numbers for chairs are staggering. In 1820, 70,000 chairs were manufactured annually in the town of Sterling alone. By 1850, six towns in the northern part of the county had an annual chair production of more than 800,000.
Specialized chairmaking was, of course, neither invented in nor unique to Worcester County. During the seventeenth century, Boston chairmakers produced multiple parts and assembled them in a systematic manner, maintained a stock-in-trade, and engaged in speculative ventures with merchants, upholsterers, ship captains, and others involved in the export trade. In Worcester County, specialization first emerged during the late 1790s when at least six men identified themselves as chairmakers, two specifically as Windsor chairmakers. By 1815, Worcester County chairmakers had advanced specialization further than any of their predecessors and earlier than their best-known Connecticut competitor.
Two models of production emerged. The first developed in Sterling and comprised geographically dispersed turning shops, which were often water powered and associated with sawmills. The turned "stuff" was sold to "chairmakers," who organized the assembly, painting, and distribution. Shops rarely had more than a half dozen hands. A second system, which more closely resembled the familiar Hitchcock model, emerged during the mid-1830s in Gardner and surrounding towns. Work was increasingly centralized; large shops employed turners, assemblers, and painters.
Two basic types of chairs were produced in both kinds of shops. "Common" chairs had sawn plank seats with turned pillars (back posts), legs, stretchers, and rods (back spindles) and sawn backs (fig. 15). Depending on the specific style, such chairs retailed for $1 to $1.25. "Fancy" chairs had woven ßag or cane, seats with turned legs, posts, stretchers, and, sometimes, backs (fig. 16). Ranging in price from $2 to $2.50 each, they cost twice as much as common chairs. In addition, many shops also made related rocking chairs (fig. 17), night chairs, and settees (fig. 18).
Population figures indicate that the 70,000 chairs produced in Sterling in 1820 were not intended for local consumption. The market was farther afield. Although the developing commercial and mill communities of the county probably provided the first market, Boston, Salem, and Providence soon became more important. By 1830, few local cabinetmakers still turned chairs because it was cheaper and more efficient to buy them wholesale.
Chair racks (wagons) carrying about 200 chairs each were traveling overland to Boston, while manufacturers shipped thousands of chairs down the Blackstone Canal from Worcester to Providence. Others were shipped to Hartford for sale. During the mid-1830s, wareroom operator Isaac Wright purchased common chairs from Sullivan Hill of Spencer, Massachusetts, among others. In 1840, Joel Pratt Jr. of Sterling opened his own chair store in Hartford.
From New England ports, merchants distributed these chairs around the world. An 1827 report cites the southern states and the West Indies as destinations, and shipping records suggest that some went to Africa and the East Indies; furthermore, a newspaper editorial accused chairmakers of denuding the county's forests to send chairs to England and Europe.
Even in the nineteenth century, it may have been difficult to identify these chairs as having been made in Worcester County. Few chairmakers labeled their products, and those who did rarely included a place name. Also, many chairs were sold unpainted or even as unassembled "chair stuff." Chairs decorated in Worcester County show a limited palette and stencil repertoire (figs. 19, 20); however, these same characteristics probably do not hold true for those chairs decorated elsewhere.
One example may be a fancy chair signed "S. Kendall" on the rear seat cover strip (fig. 21). Since the signature is hand painted in script, not stenciled, it appears to be that of the painter, possibly Samuel Kendall. Kendall and his brother, Ezekiel, moved from Sterling to Boston when they were twenty-nine and thirty-one years old. They left behind two brothers, a brother-in-law, and a least three cousins who were chairmakers. These family ties and Samuel and Ezekiel's frequent periods of residency in Sterling between years in Boston raise the possibility that they imported chairs from Worcester County then painted and sold them in Boston.
Two chairs at the Rhode Island Historical Society may also represent this practice. They are signed by their decorator, Christian M. Nestell, who trained in New York City. Although the chair frames resemble some with Worcester County makers' labels, the decoration is very different. It is possible that Nestell, who worked in Providence from 1824 to 1836, bought chairs shipped down the Blackstone Canal to Rhode Island.
The chairmaking network was often rather complex and far ßung. Jacob Felton (b. 1787) was a Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, chairmaker who bought parts from at least four Sterling chairmakers—Edward Burpee, Thomas Baker, Thomas Lewis, and John Lynds—and a Mr. White in Gardner. Edward Burpee had apprenticed with Joel Pratt Jr. in Sterling who, in turn, purchased chair seats from Rial Haywood of Fitzwilliam. Felton's trade network for selling his chairs extended even further. Two of his primary customers were George S. Miller of Boston and Anthony VanDoorn of Brattleboro, Vermont.
Worcester County chairmakers were dependent on distant markets, and they tailored their products accordingly. Elbridge Gerry Reed, a Sterling turner and assembler, frequently recorded making "Balti" or Baltimore chairs. In 1828, Henry Miller, owner of the Worcester Chair Factory, had an agent in New York City send him chairs specifically so patterns could be taken.
In addition to exports, migrating artisans contributed to the dissemination of Worcester County chair styles. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, craftsmen left the county for Boston, New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Signed pieces made in these areas by transplanted chairmakers are similar to those made in Worcester County. In some cases, the emigrant chairmakers clearly maintained craft links with their hometowns.
The precise number of craftsmen who relocated remains unclear, but the examples discovered thus far suggest that Worcester County had a substantial indirect impact on chairmaking and related trades in several areas. Given the well-established economic links between Worcester County and Boston, that city was a logical choice for both urban distribution facilities and chairmakers looking for greater commercial opportunities. Even nineteenth-century observers noted that it was less expensive to make chair parts in the country where wood and labor were cheap and water power abundant. Comparison of lists of Boston and Worcester County chairmakers and Boston city directories reveal a number of overlapping family names.
Published histories of Gardner, Massachusetts maintained that the Heywood brothers built chairs in Gardner and sold them in Boston. Recent research has confirmed that brothers Levi and Benjamin Heywood were in Boston during the late 1830s and early 1840s, probably retailing the chairs made by their brothers Seth and Walter in Gardner, although the brothers seem to have moved back and forth between the cities quite regularly. Other, as yet unconfirmed, connections include the May, Bush, Gates, Holden, Willard, Pierce, and Whitney families. In each case there are many Worcester County chairmakers of that name and a few Boston chairmakers or chair dealers.
For other regions, the Worcester County connections are much less speculative than for Boston. Peter Wilder (1761-1843) was twenty years old when he left Lancaster, Massachusetts, for Keene, New Hampshire. Following brief sojourns in Brattleborough, Vermont, and Boston, he moved to New Ipswich, New Hampshire. He established a chair "factory" there around 1808 with his son-in-law, Abijah Wetherbee. Abijah was a native of Lunenburg, Massachusetts, and a rocking chair bearing his label looks remarkably like one labeled "John D. Pratt/Lunenburg" (fig. 22). The late Charles Parsons located many labeled Wilder chairs, several of which resemble documented Sterling chairs. This is, perhaps, no coincidence. Sterling separated from Lancaster in 1781, and the Wilder property included land in the new town. Having arrived in southern New Hampshire, Peter Wilder and his sons and son-in-law were central figures in the development of the chairmaking industry in that region.
Another regional chair industry developed in Maine. Of the 673 individuals working in the Maine furniture-making industry in 1850 (including sixty-six chairmakers), eighty-one—sixty-six cabinetmakers, seven chairmakers, and five turners—were born in Massachusetts. Only a few have been fully traced, but a connection to the Worcester County chairmaking business is clear.
John Loring Brooks (b. 1793), the son of Sterling chairmaker Ammi Brooks (1765-1815), worked as a chairmaker in Portland, Maine, by 1815. Before 1823 he worked in partnership with another Massachusetts born chairmaker, John Bradley Hudson (fig. 23). Sterling, Massachusetts, native Samuel Kilburn White (1798-1849) worked in Maine by 1820 (fig. 24). Both he and Brooks moved when in their early twenties, presumably after completing their apprenticeships. Maine probably afforded greater opportunities and less competition for chairmakers than Worcester County.
Ashburnham natives Jonathan O. Bancroft (1806-1866) and Walter Corey were two of the most successful Maine chairmakers. When Bancroft's Ashburnham chair factory burned in 1832, he sold chairs in Boston for a short time. In 1836 he joined his brother-in-law, Walter Corey (1809-1891), who had recently moved to Portland, Maine. Within a few years they were operating a wareroom, a horse-powered chair factory, and a water-powered saw, planing, and turning mill. Few of the 20,000 chairs they produced annually survive, but some fit the description "common turned back" and "common screwed back" found in the account of chairmaker Elbridge Gerry Reed (fig. 25).
Worcester County chairmakers sought economic opportunity even further away than New Hampshire and Maine. In the early 1820s, Abel Rice of Hubbardston, Massachusetts, moved to Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, with the families of his adult sons—chairmakers Amos Jones, Abel, and Daniel. His daughter, Betsy, her husband, chairmaker James Greenwood, and Daniel Rice's brother-in-law, Harry Roper, also moved. The Rice brothers opened a chairmaking business in Harford, Pennsylvania. Their nephew, Aaron Willard Greenwood, worked in their shop for sev- eral years before establishing his own chair factory. Meanwhile, Harry Roper moved on to Brooklyn, Pennsylvania, where he ran a chair shop. Apparently, the family maintained contact with chairmaking relatives in Worcester County. According to the 1850 census, a Joseph Greenwood from Massachusetts—probably cousin Joseph Willard Greenwood of Hubbardston—worked for A. W. Greenwood. The only known labeled chair from the group of chairmakers resembles those made in a South Gardner, Massachusetts, factory owned by another branch of the Greenwood family.
Recently published studies show that Pennsylvania chairmakers were central to the development of the Ohio chair industry in the 1830s and 1840s. Since Worcester County chairmakers moved to both states, both direct and indirect inßuences seem probable. Stephen Kilburn (1786-1867) was born in Sterling, Massachusetts. By 1820 he moved to nearby Templeton where he was a "fancy chairmaker," producing 12,000 chairs annually using "peculiar water privileges" (fig. 26). Between 1823 and 1825, Kilburn moved to Adams, New York and by 1840 he had relocated to New London, Ohio. Tradition suggests that he made chairs in New York State, but his Ohio chairmaking business is well documented. Jane and Edward Hageman's description of surviving Stephen Kilburn chairs in Ohio Furniture Makers, 1790-1860, could easily apply to labeled Sterling chairs: "They have four spindles between the uprights in the back with pronounced bamboo style turnings. The large saddle seat has an incised line around the edge. The cross piece at the top is attached with wood pegs. The legs taper at the bottom."
Further research may reveal other examples of where and how Worcester County chairmakers and their designs spread throughout the northern United States; nevertheless, the pattern is clear. Chairs once possibly unique to central Massachusetts were being made in many places by the mid-nineteenth century. If there were Worcester County-style chairs, they became American-style chairs.
As a result of the economic boom following the Revolutionary War, Worcester County had a sizable and growing afßuent class and an increasing demand for stylish furniture by 1800. Forty years earlier, these factors might have led to the development of a distinctive regional style; however, the intervention of external market forces prevented that from happening. Between 1785 and 1800 there was a substantial inßux of cabinetmakers from eastern Massachusetts—men who were familiar with Boston-area styles and construction technologies. At the same time, the county's economy was gradually shifting from production for local consumption to manufacture for urban markets. Finally, by 1820 furniture making changed as a result of the almost simultaneous popularization of late neoclassical style and the advent of new technologies and tools such as water-powered lathes and veneer saws. As furniture makers responded to this succession of changes, Worcester County lost its opportunity to develop a regional style.
Although some traditional cabinetmakers continued to work after 1850, the craft was dying. Organizational and marketing skills became increasingly more important than craft skills, yet, as the craft faded, the industry ßourished. By 1840 furniture warerooms replaced cabinetshops as the place where most county residents, like their urban and East Coast counterparts, bought furniture. Unseen anonymous craftsmen who had little or no contact with the customers produced most of the ready-made furniture sold in warerooms. Traditional cabinetmakers who survived this change did so in part by accommodating their customers' desire for instant gratification. They offered ready-made furniture as well as bespoke furniture and repair services.
Within the specialized trade of chairmaking, increased standardization and ever-growing markets fueled the demand for chairs. The result was greatly increased investment and productivity. By 1850 Worcester County chairmakers produced more than 800,000 chairs annually and shipped them all over the world. Why did all this happen in Worcester County? Other areas had skilled craftsmen, adequate sources of lumber, water power, good transportation systems, and economies based on the production of goods for urban markets. There is no simple answer to this question. In Worcester County all these factors were present in abundance. The overall economy expanded at just the right time to encourage extensive exploitation of labor, material, power, transportation, and markets. With capital and infrastructure in place, the industry was so solidly established that, despite temporary set-backs, the subsequent need to import wood, the costs of converting from water power to steam and then to electricity, and increased labor costs did not really hurt the business until after the Second World War. Worcester County furniture making, then, is a case study in the making of a new American economic and material world. Local distinctiveness, connectiveness, and traditional skills were lost, but the benefits were material abundance, choice, and variety for most county residents and substantial wealth for some.
Chimney wall paneling and fireplace surround from the parlor of the Shumway House, Fiskedale, Massachusetts, ca. 1740. Pitch pine, 15' 3" x 13' 10" x 7' 10". (Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Purchased from the Helen and Alice Colburn Fund, acc. 25.620.) Reproduced with permission, ©2000 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All rights Reserved.
Fireplace surround and corner cupboard in the Nathaniel Walker house, Sturbridge, Massachusetts, ca. 1765. (Courtesy, Old Sturbridge Village; photo, John O. Curtis.) www.osv.org
Side chair, possibly Worcester County, ca. 1770. Walnut with pine (slip seat). H. 37 3/4", W. 20 2/4", D. 17 3/8". (Courtesy, Old Sturbridge Village; photo, Henry E. Peach.) The side chair is from a set of six, all having original needlework seat covers. www.osv.org
Chest of drawers, possibly Worcester County, ca. 1760. Mahogany with unidentified secondary woods. H. 31", W. 36 1/4", D. 21 3/4". (Courtesy, Old Sturbridge Village; photo, Henry E. Peach.) www.osv.org
Ladder-back armchair, possibly Worcester County, 1730-1780. Woods unidentified. H. 38 3/4", W. 23". (Courtesy, Old Sturbridge Village; photo, Henry E. Peach.) The rockers are nineteenth-century additions. www.osv.org
Photograph showing the Chase family of Southbridge, Massachusetts, on their front lawn with a pair of crooked-back side chairs dating 1740-1760. (Courtesy, Old Sturbridge Village.) www.osv.org
Swelled-front bureau signed and dated Alden Spooner Athol 1807. Cherry and ash with unidentified conifer. H. 35 1/2", W. 39 1/2", D. 21 1/4". (Courtesy, Old Sturbridge Village; photo, Henry E. Peach.) www.osv.org
Swelled-front bureau signed Spooner & Fitts Athol, 1808-1813. Cherry and maple veneer with unidentied conifer. H. 42 3/4", W. 44 3/4", D. 23 1/8". (Courtesy, Old Sturbridge Village; photo, Henry E. Peach.) www.osv.org
Desk by Ezekiel Brigham, Grafton, Massachusetts, ca. 1812. Mahogany and mahogany veneer with unidentied conifer. H. 44 1/4", W. 41", D. 17 5/8". (Courtesy, Old Sturbridge Village; photo, Thomas Neill.) www.osv.org
Bedstead, probably Barre, Massachusetts, ca. 1830. Maple and pine; original blue-green paint. H. 31 1/2", L. 74 3/4", W. 51 3/4". (Courtesy, Old Sturbridge Village; photo, Henry E. Peach.) www.osv.org
Ladder-back chair, probably Barre, Massachusetts, 1800-1840. Woods unidentified. H. 41 3/4", W. 17 3/4", D. 135/8". (Courtesy, Old Sturbridge Village; photo, Henry E. Peach.) The chair is from a set of six. www.osv.org
Chest, probably Barre, Massachusetts, 1810-1840. Pine; original painted decoration. H. 18", W. 43 7/8", D. 18". (Courtesy, Old Sturbridge Village; photo, Henry E. Peach.) www.osv.org
Common rocking chair by Levi Pratt of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, 1830-1840. Pine (seat) and unidentified hardwoods. H. 31", W. 17 1/4", D. 24 1/4". (Courtesy, Old Sturbridge Village; photo, Thomas Neill.) www.osv.org
"Common" chair by John David Pratt, Lunenburg, Massachusetts, 1825-1840. White pine (seat) and unidentified hardwoods; original yellow paint and stenciled decoration. H. 34 13/16", W. 17 1/4", D. 15 7/8". (Courtesy, Old Sturbridge Village; photo, Thomas Neill.) The chair is from a set of four. www.osv.org
Fancy chair, possibly Worcester County, 1830-1840. Woods unidentified. H. 33 1/2", W. 17 1/2", D. 16". (Courtesy, Western Reserve Historical Society.)
Scrolled-arm rocking chair by Abijah Wetherbee, New Ipswich, New Hampshire, 1815-1840. Pine (seat) and unidentified hardwoods. H. 43 1/2", W. 23 1/8", D. 22 1/4". (Courtesy, New Hampshire Historical Society.)
Scrolled-arm rocking chair by John Bradley Hudson and John Loring Brooks, Portland, Maine, 1815-1823. Pine, maple, and mahogany. H. 45", W. 20 3/4", D. 27". (Courtesy, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Skromme, 1971, acc. 1971.161.) All rights reserved, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Common chair by Samuel Kilburn White, Fairfield or Dexter, Maine, ca. 1836-1840. Probably basswood (seat) and birch. H. 33", W. 17", D. 18 1/2". (Courtesy, Maine State Museum.)
Unless otherwise noted all newspapers, deeds, probate inventories, and federal censuses cited are on microfilm in the Research Library of Old Sturbridge Village (hereafter cited OSV). John Warner Barber, Massachusetts Historical Collections (Worcester, Mass.: Dorr, Howland & Co., 1839), p. 550.
Jack Larkin, "From 'Country Mediocrity' to 'Rural Improvement': Transforming the Slovenly Countryside in Central Massachusetts, 1775-1840," in Everyday Life in the Early Republic, edited by Catherine E. Hutchins (Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press for the Winterthur Museum, 1992).
See Baker and Izard, "New England Farmers and the Marketplace"; Robert A. Gross, "Culture and Cultivation: Agriculture and Society in Thoreau's Concord," Journal of American History 69, no. 1 (June 1982): 42-61; and Jack Larkin, "Massachusetts Enters the Marketplace 1790-1860," in A Guide to the History of Massachusetts, edited by Martin Kaufman, John W. Kaufman, and Joseph Carvalho III (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), pp. 69-82.
See Blanche Evan Hazard, The Organization of the Boot and Shoe Industry in Massachusetts Before 1875 (New York: A. M. Kelly, 1969); Jack Larkin, "The Merriams of Brookfield: Printing in the Economy and Culture of Rural Massachusetts in the Early Nineteenth Century," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 96 (April 1986): part 1, pp. 39-74; Mark Sipson, "An Introduction to Leather Processing and Shoemaking," unpublished paper, ca. 1979, OSV; and Caroline Sloat, "A Great Help to Many Families: Straw Braiding in Massachusetts Before 1825," in House and Home, edited by Peter Benes (Dublin, N.H.: Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, 1988), pp. 89-100. Gregory Nobles, "Rural Manufacture and Urban Markets: A Case Study of Broom-making in Nineteenth Century Massachusetts" (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, Cincinnati, 1983), as cited in Larkin, "The Merriams of Brookfield."
A high case of drawers and dressing table were acquired by Nina Fletcher Little from a Chandler descendant in the mid-1950s (Nina Fletcher Little, Little by Little [New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984], pp. 200-1). At the same time, Mrs. Little arranged for OSV to acquire a four-drawer chest and set of chairs with original Irish stitch embroidered seats. The furniture belonged to the Hon. John Chandler (1720-1800), judge of probate and Loyalist, whose estate was confiscated in 1779 when he ßed to England. His heirs retained or recovered various pieces, which remained in Petersham and South Lancaster until 1956. The Chandler family pieces from the Little Collection were sold at The Bertram K. Little and Nina Fletcher Little Collection, Part 1 (Sale 6526), Sotheby's, New York, January 1994, lots 428-31.
See data base of Worcester County furniture makers, DRCL, OSV. According to the United States Census of Manufactures, 1820 (Washington, D.C.: United States Census Office, 1820), twenty-three men in Sterling produced approximately 70,000 chairs. In 1832 the towns of Ashburnham, Sterling, Templeton, Gardner, Hubbardston, Princeton, Rutland, and Spencer produced at least 363,500 chairs (Louis McLane, Documents Relative to the Manufactures in the United States [1832; reprinted, New York: Augustus Kelly, 1969], pp. 474-577. The Branches of Industry for Worcester County (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth), pp. 42-73, asserted that the same towns manufactured 525,200 in 1837. The figure for 1850 excludes Rutland and Spencer and is drawn from the Census of Manufactures.
For more on the speculative manufacture and distribution of chairs, see Benno M. Forman, American Seating Furniture, 1630-1730 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1988); Edward S. Cooke Jr., Fiddlebacks and Crooked-backs: Elijah Booth and Other Joiners in Newtown and Woodbury 1750-1820 (Waterbury, Conn.: Mattatuck Historical Society, 1982); Philip Zea, "Furniture," in The Great River, Art & Society of the Connecticut Valley 1635-1820, edited by Gerald W. R. Ward and William N. Hosley Jr. (Hartford, Conn.: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1985); Benno M. Foreman, "The Crown & York Chairs of Coastal Connecticut and the Work of the Durands of Milford," Antiques 105, no. 5 (May 1974): 1147-54; Patricia Kane, Three Hundred Years of American Seating Furniture (New York: Graphic Society, 1976); Robert Trent, Hearts and Crowns: Folk Chairs of the Connecticut: Elijah Booth and Other Joiners in Newton and Woodbury, 1720-1840 (New Haven, Conn.: New Haven Colony Historical Society, 1977).
OSV has done extensive research on chair production in Sterling during the 1820s and 1830s, utilizing various sources including the account books of chairmakers Joel Pratt Jr. and Elbridge Gerry Reed (both in private collections), Sterling tax records (Sterling Historical Society), and the deeds and inventories of approximately a hundred chairmakers.
The author thanks the staff of the South Gardner Historical Society, notably Warren Sinclair and Windsor Robinson, for their assistance in locating and using primary documents in private collections.
Worcester Magazine and Historical Journal (1827); Index of Early Southern Artists and Artisans, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, N.C.; Thomas Holmes Papers 1813-1818, Essex Institute, Salem, Massachusetts; Karen Blanchfield, Transporting for Trade: Tracking Worcester County Furniture from Shop to Sale, 1790 to 1850, unpublished paper, 1991, done for Boston University, copy on file at OSV. Norman R. Bennett and George E. Brooks Jr, eds., New England Merchants in Africa: A History Through Documents 1802-1865 (Boston: Boston University Press, 1965). Patriot (Barre, Mass.), September 20, 1844.
Charles S. Parsons, "Wilder Chairs," unpublished paper, February 1973, photocopy in DRCL, OSV. Jane C. Giffen, "New Hampshire Cabinetmakers and Allied Craftsmen, 1790-1850," Antiques 94, no. 1 (July 1968): 78-87; Plain and Elegant, Rich and Common: Documented New Hampshire Furniture, 1750-1850 (Concord, N.H.: New Hampshire Historical Society, 1979), pp. 116-17.
The Wetherbee chair is in the New Hampshire Historical Society. The current location of the Pratt chair is unknown.
Ashburnham, Massachusetts Vital Records (Worcester: Franklin P. Rice, 1904); Gazette (Fitchburg, Mass.), November 6, 1832, and January 29, 1833; Earle G. Shettleworth Jr. and William D. Barry, "Walter Corey's Furniture Manufactory in Portland, Maine," Antiques 121, no. 5 (May 1982): 1199-1207; Churchill, Simple Forms & Vivid Colors, p. 88.