Review by Gerald W. R. Ward
New England Natives: A Celebration of People and Trees

Sheila Connor. New England Natives: A Celebration of People and Trees. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1994. xi + 274 pp.; 24 color and 194 bw illus., bibliography, index. $39.95.

Three Windsor chairs, an Eli Terry tall-case clock, and a painted triangular white-pine hatbox are the only pieces of furniture illustrated in this beautiful book, yet New England Natives will be of great interest to readers of American Furniture.[1] It is no less than an engaging narrative of the evolving relationship between New England’s people and New England’s trees from the last ice age in the Pleistocene Era to the chestnut blight and reforestation of the twentieth century. Although the book can serve as a guide to the appearance and characteristics of trees found in the area, Sheila Connor also weaves into her story the importance of trees to the many crafts and industries that have been dependent on the products of trees: for instance, tailoring, shoemaking, cranberry and blueberry harvesting, in addition to the more obvious ones of papermaking, gunsmithing, lumbering, clockmaking, chairmaking, cooperage, boatbuilding, and other types of woodworking in its various guises. Serious students of furniture will be familiar with much of the material presented here about various common types of furniture wood, but the overall breadth of the discussion of the material culture of wood will surely illuminate new corners of “This Wooden World” (to borrow the title of chapter 2) for nearly every reader.[2]

Whereas the book’s content will be valuable to furniture historians, its broad interpretive format may also serve as a model for curators and others charged with caring for furniture collections and interpreting them for the public. This book grew out of the desire to prepare a guidebook to the collections of living trees and shrubs on the grounds of the Arnold Arboretum, a 265-acre site in Boston, Massachusetts, operated by Harvard University since 1872. Rather than prepare a traditional guidebook that emphasizes description and taxonomic identification, the Arboretum staff decided “instead to capture the imaginations of our visitors by telling them something about the history of the plants and their interactions with people—stories of how people have sought out plants and used them for various economic, cultural, and esthetic purposes” (p. ix). In other words, they wanted to write a book that someone who isn’t a plant or tree nut (so to speak) might like to read, both for knowledge and for enjoyment. Thus the text discusses all of New England and a multitude of subjects, while using specific trees, shrubs, and landscape formations in the Arboretum as illustrations, both pictorial and literary, to illuminate the general discussion.

The National Endowment for the Humanities gave its support to this project, and Sheila Connor, Horticultural Research Archivist at the Arboretum, has accomplished the goal admirably. Her text mixes the general with the specific, avoids oversimplification, and provides an overview that will instruct and entertain laymen without making scholars cringe.

One wonders how many, if any, American furniture collections can boast an interpretive guidebook of such quality that has appeal beyond the inbred world of curators, collectors, and dealers. New England Natives proves that it can be done, although it seems ironic that the hefty price tag may prevent the book from reaching the general audience for whom it is designed. Detailed catalogues of collections and exhibitions will always be needed, whether in printed or electronic form, as the basic building blocks of research and the cutting edge of scholarship, but New England Natives reminds us that contextual, interpretive handbooks are a viable supplement.

Gerald W. R. Ward
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

American Furniture 1994

  • [1]

    The Windsor armchair and two side chairs, illustrated as fig. 95 on page 117, are not identified in the caption. They are Rhode Island braced bow-back chairs, part of a set of six side and two armchairs, ca. 1780–1800, in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (anonymous gift and Helen and Alice Colburn Fund; 1976.774-779, 1976.819-820). The chairs are of pine, ash, and maple, painted green, with unpainted mahogany arms on the two armchairs. They descended in the Richmond family until acquired by John Walton and, in turn, the Museum.

  • [2]

    For a brief recent overview of the use of wood in American furniture, see Edward S. Cooke, Jr., “Beyond Aesthetics: Wood Choice in Historical Furniture,” in Conservation by Design, ed. Scott Landis (Providence, R.I.: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, and Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection, 1993), pp. 19–28, in which he argues that the selection of wood at any given time was more than a simple aesthetic choice, but rather it was “embedded within the values of a society and can reveal issues about cultural cohesion, social dominance, and even labor exploitation” (p. 19). This innovative book, which features a number of essays by various people and a catalogue of modern furniture by seventy-six craftsmen, examines both the craftsmans’ “responsibilities for their materials and the patrons’ for their patterns of consumption” (p. 9), and is perhaps the first book to deal with what Cooke calls the “ecological history of furnituremaking.”