Review by Kevin M. Sweeney
Making Furniture in Preindustrial America: The Social Economy of Newtown and Woodbury, Connecticut

Edward S. Cooke, Jr. Making Furniture in Preindustrial America: The Social Economy of Newtown and Woodbury, Connecticut, vol. 10 of Studies in Industry and Society, ed. Philip Scranton. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Xiii + 295 pp.; 53 bw illus., 21 tables, 3 charts, appendixes, glossary, bibliography, index. $45.00.

Edward S. Cooke’s Making Furniture in Preindustrial America: The Social Economy of Newtown and Woodbury, Connecticut is an important volume that stands at a crossroads. It embodies the fruits of nearly two decades of study devoted to the eighteenth-century furniture of southwestern Connecticut. Students of American furniture familiar with Cooke’s catalogue Fiddlebacks and Crooked-backs: Elijah Booth and Other Joiners in Newtown and Woodbury, 1750–1820 (Waterbury, Conn.: Mattatuck Historical Society, 1982) and his articles in Antiques (1984) and American Furniture (1995) will recognize the chairs, tables, and case pieces analyzed in this new book. And like his important essay “The Study of American Furniture from the Perspective of the Maker” (1988), this book brings to bear the insights gained from the analysis of furniture in understanding the roles that social, economic, and cultural factors played in shaping furniture production. In this field of study Cooke’s work on eighteenth-century furniture production continues to lead the way, building upon the pioneering approaches of Charles F. Montgomery, Charles Hummel, and Benno Forman, and the specific research of Robert F. Trent on the turned chairs of coastal Connecticut.

In this book, Cooke goes further, seeking to explore and map the intersection between New England social history and furniture making. Here he draws upon and contributes to the academic study of colonial New England towns that during the past three decades has produced a plethora of community studies. His exploration of the communities of woodworkers in Newtown and Woodbury is, for good and ill, firmly situated in this tried and true if somewhat tired approach to New England social history. His book does demonstrate once again that the parochial focus of the community study provides an unusually rich and textured portrait that can deepen if not always broaden our understanding of New England social history.

Finally, and most promising, is the book’s apparent effort to situate local craft production within the burgeoning study of what has been called the eighteenth-century consumer revolution. Focusing generally on such imported, factory-produced goods as ceramics, metalwares, textiles, and the like, these largely documentary and quantitatively based studies have sought to delineate and explain the proliferation of things and their expanding social role. Cooke attempts to refine our understanding of the process by using locally produced furniture as a gauge of the pace and degree to which rural Connecticut consumers embraced new forms, new social fashions, and ultimately new mores. His findings here are suggestive and his interpretations challenging, but not always convincing. His work does make clear that the production and consumption of locally manufactured furniture has a place in the emerging story of the dramatic growth of domestic artifacts during the eighteenth century.

The opening three chapters of the book lay out the material, social, and economic environment in which the furniture makers of Newtown and Woodbury worked. Chapter 1 outlines the “spectrum” or varieties of woodworkers and describes the variation in techniques, tools, and task-difficulty to be found in these towns. The author broadly sketches the emergence of the eighteenth-century shop joiner, the primary producer of furniture, from the seventeenth-century joiner and the “ambidextrous” or unspecialized woodworkers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries who often combined carpentry work, housewrighting, and joinery. His discussion makes clear two important points often slighted in overdrawn contrasts between the seventeenth-century joiner and the eighteenth-century cabinetmaker: eighteenth-century cabinetmakers were truly joiners who owed much to the techniques of the previous century, and they were usually proficient turners. The same woodworkers who made cherry, scroll-top chests often produced painted, flag-seated, turned chairs to go with them.

The second and third chapters describe the patterns and variations in work that shaped craft careers from training to production to eventual retirement. Here the analysis makes very effective use of such documentary evidence as account books, probate inventories, tax lists, and a collective biography of ninety-five Newtown and eighty-one Woodbury woodworkers. (Two lengthy appendixes, on pages 201 to 231 contain the individual biographical sketches of these woodworkers.) Like most recent studies, this book emphasizes the importance of the social context in which the artisan worked. From his beginnings as an apprentice, a shop joiner functioned in a context defined as much by social obligations and expectations as by an economic relationship with the market. Seasonal agricultural rhythms and local economies affected the timing of production—turned chairs were made during the winter months and case furniture throughout the year, with work concentrated in February to April and August to November—and the types of furniture produced. Despite the emphasis placed on the interdependence between agricultural and craft economy, Cooke takes pains to demonstrate that these rural artisans made sophisticated use of available labor sources, employed such labor saving devices as templates and patterns, and drew upon English and urban colonial design sources. Controlling the “nature of work”—knowledge, materials, and applications—workers responded to the “context of work”—the reactions and demands of local clientele (p. 41). For Cooke, the finished product must be viewed as a result of this dialogue between craftsman and consumer.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, the balance between by-employment as woodworkers and agricultural activity shifted for shop joiners in rural communities toward a greater concentration on craft activity. Within this broad trend, however, differences existed in the pace of change and the balance maintained between tradition and innovation. In Newtown, native-born woodworkers combined significant agricultural activity with furniture production. These economic choices produced greater stability in craft personnel throughout the eighteenth century, resulting in less diversity in the community’s furniture production. In neighboring Woodbury, economic choices produced an elite who desired more genteel consumer goods but fewer native-born, locally trained craftsmen to satisfy these demands. This situation attracted a large number of outsiders who did not establish long-lived shop traditions, and it encouraged “competitive performance,” which introduced local consumers and other woodworkers to a variety of new forms and techniques (p. 183).

In two later chapters, 6 and 7, Cooke expands upon these distinctions resulting from different socioeconomic contexts of production. While acknowledging that the furniture of the two towns had much in common, he focuses his analysis on the “subtle constructional and decorative differences” distinguishing their shops’ production (p. 120). In Newtown, existing chair forms indebted to coastal Connecticut shops influenced the adoption of stylistic elements and construction techniques associated with the “Queen Anne” or Georgian style and the Chippendale style. Production rhythms shaped by turning, though quickening in response to increased demand, assured the continued domination of painted, flag-bottomed, turned chairs. Case pieces remained distinguished by technical proficiency and understated ornamentation (p. 143). More labor-intensive techniques—for instance, sawing and paring tight-fitting dovetails, rabbeting drawer bottoms, and dovetailing tops—continued to characterize the “overengineered” case furniture produced by late-eighteenth-century Newtown shops.

Woodbury furniture makers, working in an environment characterized by competition and greater mobility among craftsmen, produced chairs and case pieces that bespoke more diverse sources of design—coastal Connecticut; the Connecticut Valley; New London County, Connecticut; Boston; New York; and possibly Pennsylvania—and revealed choices in technique intended to speed production. The author is at his best dissecting a Woodbury Windsor—“The tapered column, crisp urn, and large-bellied baluster of each leg resemble New York examples, and the triple-bead molding on the bow is seen most frequently on Windsors from the Connecticut River Valley” (p. 158) or explaining why “long, deep kerf marks on the inside corner of the drawer fronts indicate that the joiner cut out his dovetails in the fastest way possible” (p. 161). These woodworkers, often new to the environment, had to respond to the changing taste of local consumers who had “stronger ties to the external market” of imported household goods and had “greater awareness of fashion’s short swings” (p. 188).

Convincing as an analysis of furniture production, the book pushes further to deepen our understanding of the two communities’ entire social economies. At the physical center of the book and at the core of the analysis lie two chapters, 4 and 5, which are devoted to delineating the socioeconomic structures of the two towns and uncovering the different sources of consumer demand. This bold effort is unfortunately constrained by its community-study approach and straightjacketed by an interpretation that turns this intersection of furniture study and social history into one of those traffic rotaries in which the unwary driver feels trapped.

As in many of the earlier studies of colonial New England communities, much emphasis is placed on such population dynamics as overall population growth and persistence rates, which measure the relative mobility or stability of the population. From these quantitative indices of social actions, cultural patterns and attitudes have often been inferred in a rather functionalist manner. Cooke makes much of the apparent difference between the two communities’ overall persistence rates (not just that of woodworkers): more stable, traditional Newtown is contrasted with more mobile, less stable, almost urban Woodbury. I say apparent difference because the evidence provided in table 5 on page 71 of the book does not really support the weight placed on this factor. For five of the six decades analyzed, the gross persistence rate in Newtown exceeds that in Woodbury by an average of 0 percentage points; in the 1790s the difference was a more noticeable 9 percentage points. Still, the underlying difference for the entire period from 1770 to 1820 is actually 1.5 percentage points, which is meaningless. More striking is the basic similarity of the declining patterns of residential persistence found in both towns as land reserves decreased, forcing sons of local farmers to migrate while at the same time opportunities in trade attracted the land-poor sons of farmers from elsewhere. But for Cooke the presumed difference in persistence rates preserved in Newtown “the inherently conservative consumer and producer values of a yeoman town” (p. 109), whereas in neighboring, less stable Woodbury, “many townspeople lacked a common value system achieved through longevity or continuity in Woodbury” (p. 151), a rather sweeping assessment that appears to overlook such presumably shared Yankee values as hard work, reformed Protestantism, and republicanism.

The resulting comparative interpretation of traditional Newtown and more cosmopolitan or less traditional Woodbury that emerges from the numbers is overdetermined—gray in Newtown is interpreted as a shade of white, while gray in Woodbury is viewed as a shade of black. In Newtown, the 33 percent of the land left as woodlands and unimproved land is evidence of the town’s conservatism, but the 29 percent of the land remaining as woodlot and unimproved land in Woodbury is evidence of the town’s degree of agricultural development (pp. 78, 87). There really is not much difference here statistically. People in Newtown were supposedly slower to adopt the Windsor chair, which either “achieved moderate popularity” (p. 98) or remained “rare” (p. 158) when compared to its reception in Woodbury, though the actual number of references to the ownership of these chairs in both towns between 1790 and 1824 is again rather similar when viewed as numbers rather than percentages: in the 1790s, two in Newtown and one in Woodbury; in the 1800s, four in Newtown and six in Woodbury; in the 1810s, seven in Newtown and thirteen in Woodbury; and in the 1820s, thirteen in Newtown and fifteen in Woodbury (computed from table 14, p. 97). Again, there is not much difference. Still, Cooke argues that the presumed difference goes even deeper, for in traditional Newtown the “customer preference for painted turned chairs permitted the easy accommodation of the new Windsor chair” (p. 98), whereas in more cosmopolitan Woodbury the Windsor’s “desirability . . . may have been due less to the familiarity of its turned construction and painted decoration than to its symbolic connections with the world beyond Woodbury’s boundaries” (p. 110). Perhaps, but couldn’t the opposite be just as true, or at least true for some customers in each town?

The analysis of society and economy does a more convincing job of delineating and describing the emergence of a self-conscious gentry elite in Woodbury. These were the holders of money at interest, the possessors of large herds, and the more obvious participants in the external market economy, though I feel that Cooke, like some other scholars, overdraws the distinction between local economy and an external economy. Members of these gentry families and those who began to emulate them were the first purchasers of imported consumer goods, of new furniture forms, and of the more highly ornamented, though not necessarily better-made, Woodbury furniture. Rather than being a “gentry town” contrasting sharply with a traditional Newtown, Woodbury was a basically traditional rural town with a gentry. This Woodbury gentry, much like its counterparts to the East, the River Gods of the Connecticut Valley, participated to a greater degree in both the more parochial, traditional world of the town and its producers and the larger, more cosmopolitan Anglo-American world of books, fashions, and the consumer revolution. As historian Peter Burke has observed, changes in popular culture were not so much “substitutive” as “additive.”[1]

The furniture of Woodbury as well as the probate evidence discussed by Cooke suggest that such a layering of stylistic and cultural influences and allegiances instead of sharp dichotomies is the best way to view this gentry class and those who began to emulate them and their possessions in Woodbury, as well as the residents of “traditional” Newtown. “Painted, turned, flag-seated chairs represented the bulk of common seating forms in eighteenth-century Woodbury” as well as Newtown (pp. 152, 97). In Woodbury, more expensive, possibly more cosmopolitan, crooked-back chairs only “encroached” during this period (pp. 155, 97). Even some of these crooked-back chairs “remained rooted in the turned chair tradition” (p. 156). Similarly, a particular Woodbury chest of drawers “demonstrates an indebtedness to local ornamental features and more distant regional constructional traditions” (p. 162). In neighboring Newtown, not just greater quantities of turned chairs and plain chests but such relatively rare furniture forms as desks, dressing tables, expensive cases of drawers, and possibly stands distinguished the household inventories of wealthier residents (pp. 105, 108–9). Interestingly, the overall frequency of ownership of such ornamental furnishings as clocks and looking glasses in both communities appears to be very similar (p. 105).

When viewed from a greater distance, as historian Bruce Daniels did in his book on the Connecticut town, both Newtown and Woodbury appear to be lightly populated, agricultural country towns with little mercantile activity.[2] Yet even here a sizeable and growing segment of the population desired increased quantities of furniture regardless of the particular modes of expression and finish, a fact documented by the growing quantities found in the probate inventories of the residents of both towns. In a number of places Cooke speaks of customer demand to explain such production, making a notable contribution to the interpretation of the consumer revolution as a demand-driven phenomenon (pp. 30, 38, 199). Still, Cooke appears reluctant to admit this is really the case in traditional Newtown, arguing at times that the increased quantities of furniture resulted from “natural accumulation,” that is, gradual intergenerational accumulation, an unlikely possibility given the New England practice of partible inheritance and the well-documented role of this practice in diminishing the overall size of landholdings from one generation to the next (pp. 93–94, 150). Elsewhere in the text he does back away from this dubious assumption (p. 99).

Even the more traditionally produced furniture forms in Newtown bespoke a new world of material culture shaped by popular culture and commerce. When they are viewed from the perspective of rural material culture of the late seventeenth and even early eighteenth century, it is hard to regard mid- or even later-eighteenth-century desks, dressing tables, expensive cases of drawers, crooked-back chairs, and stands as traditional furniture (pp. 43, 108–9, 149). The small, relatively inexpensive stand—basically eighteenth-century accent furniture—was not a traditional form even if its turned production may have been very traditional. Regardless of the mode of production or the exact stylistic mode, producers and certain consumers in Newtown as well as those of Woodbury created during the later eighteenth century a world in which household things played more important roles in society and the economy. Again the observations of Peter Burke are suggestive: “the commercial revolution led to a golden age of traditional popular culture (material culture, at least), before the combined commercial and industrial revolutions destroyed it.”[3] Artifacts such as Newtown furniture and New England’s “folk” gravestones were all products of popular culture and the commercial market revolution; they, their makers, and their consumers were of the market as well as being in it, probably from some time in the late seventeenth century or the early eighteenth century.

Kevin M. Sweeney
Amherst College

American Furniture 1997

  • [1]
    Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 257.
  • [2]
    Bruce C. Daniels, The Connecticut Town: Growth and Development, 1635–1790 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1979), pp. 58, 60, 141, 164.
  • [3]
    Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, pp. 245–46.