Luke Beckerdite

The 1995 volume of American Furniture is largely comprised of papers presented at “Diversity and Innovation in American Regional Furniture,” a 1993 symposium in Hartford, Connecticut, sponsored by the Wadsworth Atheneum, Trinity College, and the Chipstone Foundation. As William Hosley notes in “Regional Furniture/Regional Life,” the program sought to answer a variety of questions central to regional furniture studies by assembling a group of scholars whose backgrounds, interests, and analytical methods are as diverse as the objects they discussed. In fact, the symposium could have been titled “Material Culture and the Study of American Life” or “Perspectives on American Furniture”—the same names chosen for two important Winterthur Conferences and their published proceedings.[1]

Material Culture and the Study of American Life (1975) began with the assumption that “the study of artifacts has altered our perception of American history,” a point that was both challenged and qualified by several of its contributors. Social historian Cary Carson, for example, maintained that although material culture had contributed little “to developing the main themes of American history” objects had enormous potential for the study of people, family roles and work routines, household, regional, and interregional economies, and a broad range of social and cultural issues.[2] Several of the articles in this volume of American Furniture support that assertion. In “Furniture as Social History: Gender, Property, and Memory in the Decorative Arts,” Laurel Ulrich’s brilliant analysis of the social construction of gender in furniture and female ownership and inheritance greatly enhances our understanding of the inequalities that attended female life during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Edward S. Cooke’s “Social Economy of the Preindustrial Joiner in Western Connecticut, 1750–1800” demonstrates how the products of tradesmen “emanated from and responded to a specific set of social relationships” and how craft traditions are useful in charting the movement and convergence of people, ideas, and cultures. In a somewhat different vein, Neil Kamil’s “Hidden in Plain Sight: Disappearance and Material Life in New York Colony” explores the relationship among artisanry, ethnic identity, and the mastery of cultural space by examining the transatlantic context of the Boston leather chair and its New York derivatives. Either directly or indirectly, these essays reveal that material culture studies are altering our perception of American history and that they may eventually influence our interpretations of major historical themes.

Perspectives on American Furniture (1989) evaluated traditional methodologies for furniture studies and suggested a range of new ones.[3] The same is true of American Furniture 1995. Arguing for a more contextual approach to the study of American furniture, Philip Zea’s “Diversity and Regionalism in Rural New England Furniture” dispels numerous misconceptions about vernacular furniture by showing how diversity and choice are the products of “rural culture, economy, technique, and design.” Kevin Sweeney’s “Regions and the Study of Material Culture: Explorations Along the Connecticut River” uses furniture and other artifacts to illustrate problems inherent in the concept of regionalism and to emphasize the translocal qualities of communities and craft traditions that are often simplistically termed “traditional” or “folk.” In “Definition and Diaspora of Regional Style: The Worcester County Model,” Donna Baron points out the intimate relationship between the development and diffusion of regional style and new technologies, transportation systems, communication systems, and marketing strategies. Finally, William Hosley’s article shows how current regional scholarship has emerged from an “ideological battle between historicism and modernism, regionalism and aesthetics.” His sensitive and skillful analysis of furniture, architecture, gravestones, and other objects leaves little doubt that a “sense of place” has been and remains an integral component of American life.

Clearly, the concept of diversity is central to both the theme and the message of this issue of American Furniture. The insightful interpretations found in these articles reflect diverse points of view by individuals whose methods collectively traverse the boundaries of social, cultural, and economic history and theory, sociology, anthropology, art history, and traditional connoisseurship. More importantly, they signal the need for a “new connoisseurship”—one that acknowledges that all artifacts are potentially significant historical documents, even those that fail to meet the shifting, subjective, aesthetic requirements of “art.”[4]

To continue this dialogue, the Chipstone Foundation and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation will cosponsor a symposium in November 1997 entitled “A Region of Regions: Cultural Diversity and the Furniture Trade in the Early South.” The papers presented at the symposium will appear in that year’s volume of American Furniture. For information on registration, please contact: Deborah Chapman, Office of Special Events, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, P.O. Box 1776, Williamsburg, Virginia 23187-1776.


American Furniture 1995

  • [1]

    The conferences were held at the Winterthur Museum in 1975 and 1985 respectively. 

  • [2]

    Ian M. G. Quimby, ed., Material Culture and the Study of American Life (New York: W. W. Norton for the Winterthur Museum, 1978). Cary Carson, “Doing History with Material Culture,” in Ibid., pp. 41-64. 

  • [3]

    Gerald W. R. Ward, ed., Perspectives on American Furniture (New York: W. W. Norton for the Winterthur Museum, 1988).

  • [4]

    One of the most forceful arguments along these lines is “New Connoisseurship,” a lecture presented at the 1995 Williamsburg Antiques Forum by Jon Prown, Assistant Curator of Furniture at Colonial Williamsburg.