Review by Anne Woodhouse
Rural New England Furniture: People, Place, and Production

Peter Benes, editor. Rural New England Furniture: People, Place, and Production. The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings 1998. Boston: Boston University Scholarly Publications, 2000. 256 pages; 113 bw illus., maps, bibliography. $25.00.

How useful is a set of printed papers from a conference? Like an exhibition catalogue after the exhibit is dismantled, such a volume serves as a compendium of the ideas expressed and at least some of the images presented. But the process of editing the papers into a comprehensive whole capable of standing on its own can be long and arduous. Some papers will never be revised; others may seem peripheral or unrelated to the whole. At best, the papers will offer complementary perspectives on the topic, stimulate further discussion, and serve as a milestone of research on the subject.

Rural New England Furniture: People, Place, and Production gives a more accurate picture of the original conference than many such reports by actually including a copy of the conference program, listing papers and conference activities, and printing abstracts of the papers which are not in the final publication. A useful bibliography compiled by Gerald W. R. Ward, similar to that which readers of American Furniture have come to expect in each volume, is here focused on the region of the conference subject. This reviewer, who did not attend the conference in question, examines the transfer from spoken sessions to printed papers and evaluates their lasting value in published form.

The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife has been sponsoring conferences and publishing the conference reports on a wide variety of traditional subjects since 1976; this is the first time, however, that the overall topic has been furniture. The introduction to this volume by Robert Trent, a member of the program committee for the conference, presents an unusually frank discussion of the lively debate engendered by the designation of the topic of rural New England furniture. The conference organizers were forced to reexamine what “folklife” and “rural” mean when mass-produced furniture is concerned. The group also had to confront the long-established tendency of the seminar to ignore almost everything created after 1830. It is indeed refreshing to see work about New England which covers the nineteenth century, dips into the twentieth, and even mentions practices recalled by recently retired furniture workers (p. 135). Perhaps symbolic of this shift toward greater emphasis on more recent times and quantity production, the striking cover photograph—of a horse cart loaded with chairs—dates from about 1900. 

In the editing process the papers were reorganized and the sections reconfigured, strengthening the whole but occasionally confusing the reader, as with Trent’s own paper (written with Peter Follansbee) on furniture made in the colonial revival period using seventeenth-century construction techniques and style. In the conference, it was presented last. In the anthology, it leads off under the heading “The Seventeenth Century.” Yet in the book’s introduction Trent argues that “the paper embodies a shift in our perceptions of the nineteenth century” (p. 8). This would seem to indicate it should be classified under the nineteenth century, if indeed it is to be categorized by a period at all rather than by the subject of reproductions. Evidently, the editing phase also allowed for revised thinking and refinement of terminology: the Trent-Follansbee article appeared on the conference program as the sole paper under the heading “Furniture Fakes.” The revised published essay stresses “[a]bove all, the five revival cupboards should not be called ‘fakes’....The fakery resides in Waters’s having marketed the objects as period, which is fraud” (p. 27).

An obvious benefit of attending the conference is the opportunity to view all the images meant to accompany each talk. The book format has, one supposes, necessitated a reduction in the number of illustrations available, but the presence of footnotes partially makes up for this. Thus, though the Perkins cabinet is not shown in the text (p. 23), a footnote guides the reader to an illustration in another source. Less happily, in a later essay, a portrait by Robert Peckham of the Timothy Doty family, depicting many family possessions, is described in detail but not shown (pp. 112–13). It is also difficult to follow the intricacies of construction details of at least six separate cabinetmaking shops when only full overall shots of four chests are illustrated in David F. Wood’s essay “Cabinetmaking Practices in Revolutionary Concord: New Evidence.” Footnotes serve another purpose in linking text to references to other works and previous studies and creating a network of scholarship to guide future directions of research, something that would have interrupted the straightforward narration of a spoken paper.

Trent may overstate the case in saying “[s]urely the lament that the New England furniture industry was eclipsed by nationally-recognized factories in Jamestown, New York; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and High Point, North Carolina, is grossly inaccurate” (p. 12). From the point of view of numbers of furniture pieces produced—there are few statistics of large annual production in these papers—this may actually be accurate. But certainly the wealth of information here illuminates a previously little-understood field and examines seldom-discussed auxiliary crafts such as cane and rush seating in addition to the more frequently studied style, construction, and attribution to shop or craftsman.

Two papers consider aspects of Shaker furniture: the identification of objects produced at the Enfield community, and the influence of Shaker women’s textile production on the development of a unique form, the sewing desk. Studies of the products of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cabinetmakers and small shops are the main focus of the papers. Readers will also find much interesting information about women, American Indians, and prison inmates as furniture workers; the organization of family-run businesses; and a case study of an itinerant cabinetmaker who practiced another profession at the same time. 

Is this book about New England furniture useful for those not directly involved in New England studies? Yes, for several reasons. New England furniture has been widely dispersed through family migration and sale, some of it ending up in museum collections in other regions. There are also tantalizing mentions of New England workers migrating to Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Illinois. And it is instructive to find studies of New England shop practices contemporary with the development of furniture production in other parts of the United States, and to see in New England a slow transition from handmade, one-of-a-kind pieces to mass production taking place during most of the nineteenth century, a process which was accelerated in places where settlement and the development of manufacturing occurred later. It is noteworthy that those giving papers included the expected curators and academics, but also a professional furniture maker, an educator, an historic preservation worker, and interested amateurs, including collectors. All these groups should also find the volume of interest.

Anne Woodhouse
Missouri Historical Society

American Furniture 2001