Kenneth Joel Zogry. “The Best the Country Affords”: Vermont Furniture, 1765–1850. Bennington, Vt.: Bennington Museum, 1995, 176 pp.: 56 color and 145 bw illus., bibliography, index. $55.00; $37.00 pb.
Charles A. Robinson, with an introduction by Philip Zea. Vermont Cabinetmakers and Chairmakers Before 1855: A Checklist. Shelburne, Vt.: Shelburne Museum, 1995. 126 pp.; 14 color and bw illus., index. $14.95.
“The Best the Country Affords”: Vermont Furniture, 1765–1850 provides a striking departure from recent patterns in the design and presentation of furniture exhibition catalogues. The latter usually begin with several essays, followed by a series of detailed, formulaic descriptions and analyses of a body of furniture, frequently grouped chronologically by form. Kenneth Joel Zogry stated a desire to produce a cohesive, “user friendly” publication, which would provide “an important contribution to the field that showcased the furniture and was aesthetically pleasing.” His solution was a geographical approach rather than one organized by furniture forms or arranged strictly chronologically; furthermore, “A conscious decision was made not to bog down the narrative or the notes with minute descriptions of construction or condition” (p. 7).
Zogry divides Vermont into five regions (the southeast, northeast, southwest, west central, and northwest). He introduces each region with a short chronological overview and a contextual framework for the furniture. This orientation is followed by a series of catalogue entries of furniture from the region, organized in an approximate chronology. When possible, Zogry “group[s] significant objects together, whether from the same shop tradition, town, or family,” when a grouping provides “a particularly interesting comparison” (p. 7).
Having just suggested the need for new approaches in furniture catalogues (see my review of Brock Jobe’s Portsmouth Furniture in Studies in the Decorative Arts 3, no. 2 [Spring-Summer 1996]: 139–40), I was especially intrigued with the approach taken in “The Best the Country Affords.” There are some major benefits to the design. In both essays and the catalogue entries, the pieces are put into geographic, economic, and social context both locally and regionally. Zogry continuously sought for the sources of the furnitures’ design and construction, looking at specific features of the individual pieces and backgrounds of the makers. In the process, he revealed a much more heterogeneous world than has been generally conceived of for Vermont, one that was quite at variance with traditional views regarding its furniture. These notions had generally postulated that there were few local makers and those that did exist created unsophisticated wares that were pale mimics of their urban counterparts—exotic folk art creations or essentially plain products only in part saved by the use of bright paints over local woods. (This same image has also influenced conventional thinking about Maine and New Hampshire furniture, with, of course, the begrudging possibility that Portsmouth might have had something more to offer.) Zogry found pieces ranging from the very plain to the highly sophisticated. Pieces frequently reflected outside influences but quite as often retained local features that emphasized the creativity and design concepts of the local makers. As was true elsewhere, factory practices affected styles and construction techniques, and although paint was often used for decorative purposes, so too were mahogany and rosewood veneers. This world, then, was more complex and sophisticated than has previously been thought.
Despite the diversity, patterns emerge from the text and pictures. In the eighteenth century, settlers moved into southern Vermont in increasing numbers, and clearly many brought with them traditions from Connecticut and New York. The latter would continue significantly to influence patterns in western Vermont. To the east, though, increasing influence came from eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire, especially as turnpikes and other overland routes opened the area. By mid-century, the railroad further strengthened ties between Vermont and eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire. That period also saw a rapid expansion of small furniture factories, especially in the central region of the state, which were providing substantial quantities of fairly unpretentious furniture as well as some relatively sophisticated and stylish objects. By that point, much of what was being made in Vermont echoed national patterns and exhibited fewer local characteristics.
There is much to be said for Zogry’s approach. It explicitly ties furniture to the overall societal matrix and considers specific construction and design details that illuminate overall themes. He also eliminates the blizzard of marginal data. Happily, one does not have to slog through facts about a replaced stretcher or a chalked number “632” on the back of a chest of drawers; nor is there great detail on whose auction hall or antique establishment the piece has moved through. The absence of such data is refreshing.
There is still room for improvement, however. Because of the fluidity in topics being presented (makers here, styles there, shop traditions further on), one tends to get lost. Complicating the presentation is the strict geographic patterning of the approach, while the information is everywhere bleeding over the rigid boundaries. To absorb fully all of the information, the reader needs to take careful notes and have both state and regional maps at hand. Zogry’s presentation is at times rather obscure, suffering from awkward writing and from ideas needing fuller explication. Finally, there are more than a few black and white photographs that are too dark and too small to be of major diagnostic use, and the index is totally inadequate.
Still, this publication is a pioneering work, employing a new approach, and it opens the way for further development. For example, the geographic approach has tremendous potential, but it might have been structured to allow overall analysis of the forces affecting the various parts of the region. For example, the discussion about the roles of turnpikes and other roadways into the region could have been done once thoroughly, rather than fragmented among three different sections of the book. Also, several themes could have been more rigorously pursued, such as the geographical and chronological patterns of New York or New England influence or the development of furniture factories throughout the region. This kind of discipline would have clarified the book’s purpose and eliminated marginal entries, such as the desk and bookcase on page 138 owned by James Wilson (1763–1855), who made globes, or the secretary on page 168 owned by Alexander Twilight (1795–1857), the first African-American to receive a college degree in America. Important as these men were, their stories add practically nothing to furniture history.
Also, a more concentrated look at the local characteristics of the furniture might have revealed social patterns not yet discerned. The conservative styles of “Northern Kingdom” furniture may tell us much about those peoples’ mindsets. Similar styles were apparently expressed in eastern Maine in the early and mid-nineteenth century, a period of serious economic challenge in that region. These features might reveal the views of people on the economic margin who felt they couldn’t take big chances, outlooks that were reflected in their very furnishings.
Kenneth Zogry has done much to bring furniture into a more central role in discerning social patternings. His efforts have opened new doors and suggested further ventures. Probably most important, Zogry has presented the first major work on Vermont furniture. That is no mean trick.
Charles Robinson’s Vermont Cabinetmakers and Chairmakers Before 1855: A Checklist provides a major body of information on the craftsmen who produced the furniture analyzed by Zogry. As anyone who has ever attempted such a checklist knows, the work of ferreting out the data and then organizing it into a presentable format is formidable at best. This publication is the type that others are glad to have and equally glad someone else prepared.
Vermont Cabinetmakers and Chairmakers is presented in a straightforward manner. In a preface Robinson describes the major sources he used, and he notes that, although more names could have been teased from sources such as deeds and probate records, it was time to get the material out to those who could use it.
An introductory essay by Philip Zea, curator of Historic Deerfield, follows the preface. Like Zogry, he notes the mismatch between traditional views and actual evidence regarding furniture manufacture in Vermont, stressing a surprising heterogeneity in products of the region due to various heritages, local factors, and so forth. Zea accentuates the importance of Robinson’s checklist by evaluating the origin of Vermont makers—the overwhelming body of immigrants came from Massachusetts and New Hampshire—information at variance with traditional suppositions of strong Connecticut and New York influences on Vermont furniture styles. Such findings, as well as implementing some of the suggestions above regarding Zogry’s approach, might bring a degree of order to the presently perceived heterogeneity of Vermont furniture patterns.
The checklist, which makes up most of the volume, is alphabetically arranged. The entries provide the pertinent data that has been located about each individual, which varies from a line of text to fairly extended paragraphs. Overall, the information will be of great help to scholars, dealers, and collectors.
The checklist could be improved, however, in a couple of ways. First, there is a need for a more standardized format relaying basic key information such as working dates, location, and the maker’s specific occupation (e.g., cabinetmaking, chairmaking, turning, and so forth). Supplementary material could then be added.
Second, the cross-referencing system is quite frustrating. For example, the entry for Harvey E. Babst directs the reader to Goodale and Babst; the Goodale and Babst entry further directs the scholar to “J. W. Goodale,” where the reader finally finds out that the firm of Goodale and Babst operated in 1851. Similarly, in the entry on Asahel Barnes, a cabinetmaker from New Haven, Connecticut, George F. Barnes is mentioned as his son. One then checks the biography for George F. Barnes and is directed to Asahel Barnes, Jr. Only then does the reader learn that the two men—George F. and Asahel, Jr.—were partners in the cabinet- and chairmaking business in Burlington during 1843 and 1844. There’s got to be a better way!
Nevertheless, the checklist is rich in important information. It will help identify the makers of many pieces of presently unidentified Vermont furniture. Like Zogry’s work, it will also provide scholars with important data with which to further research and analyze the furniture industry in Vermont and place it within the larger regional and national scene.
Edwin A. Churchill
Maine State Museum