Review by Joshua W. Lane
In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould

Kemble Widmer and Joyce King, with essays by Glenn Adamson, Daniel Finamore, Dean Thomas Lahikainen, and Elisabeth Garrett Widmer. In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould. Salem, Mass.: Peabody Essex Museum in association with D Giles, London, 2014. 284 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., appendixes, bibliography, index. $70.00.

In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould by Kemble Widmer and Joyce King, with essays by four other scholars, is a sumptuous volume exploring the furniture and shop ledgers of Salem cabinetmaker Nathaniel Gould (1734–1781). It joins Robert D. Mussey Jr.’s monograph, The Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour (2003), and Dean T. Lahikainen’s study, Samuel McIntire: Carving an American Style (2007), as the third in a trio of exhibitions and books organized and published by the Peabody Essex Museum focusing on the life and works of eastern Massachusetts cabinetmakers and carvers equally recognized now and in their day as masters of their craft. Like the other two books, In Plain Sight is beautifully produced. The title page opens to a large-format, two-page color spread of Gould’s account book that leaps off the page. Long “hidden in plain sight” in the papers of Nathan Dane (1752–1835), a Danvers, Massachusetts, lawyer—donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1834—in this image the account book appears tactile and substantial, its yellowed pages replete with ledger entries key to the authors’ project of reconstructing Gould’s career and redolent with promise for future research. The book is divided into three parts: interpretive essays, a catalogue of furniture, and appendixes containing selective transcripts of the ledgers. Evocative, full-page images of Gould’s furniture front each essay and are distributed throughout the catalogue, adding to the book’s visual appeal.

Gould’s ledgers, consisting of two daybooks covering the years 1758–63 and 1767–81, and an account book spanning the years 1763–81, record the output of a prolific shop. They document the sale of 1,399 chairs (93 percent of which were side chairs, the authors note), more than 300 different types of table, 56 low chests of drawers, 77 cases of drawers (high chests and chests-on-chests), 110 desks for the domestic market, and 616 pieces of export furniture. The authors linked furniture from his shop that has survived with histories of ownership to the ledgers, enabling them to pinpoint purchases and gain greater insight into Gould’s business practices. Through genealogical sleuthing, they uncovered family-based patterns of patronage that, in several cases, extended through several generations. And they traced Gould’s participation in the export furniture trade that secured his financial security.

Born in Danvers, Massachusetts, in 1734, Nathaniel Gould was the fifth son of cabinetmaker, housewright, and joiner Nathaniel Gould and his wife, Elizabeth (French) Gould. Orphaned at age twelve, he came under the legal guardianship of his uncle, wheelwright James Gould, who apprenticed him with an unidentified cabinetmaker, possibly Thomas Wood of Charlestown (Gould married Wood’s daughter, Rebecca Wood, in 1760). In 1756 he sold his inherited share of his parents’ estate and began working independently as a cabinetmaker, first in Charlestown, then, by 1758, in Salem. In 1761 he bought from peruke maker John Ward, a half share of a “mansion house,” where he lived with his family, opposite Ward, who occupied the other half of the house. In 1773 he sold his share of the house and bought two tracts of land: a house lot “in the Back Street” and approximately 3 1/4 acres of tillage “in the north field,” as recorded in an inventory of his estate, taken after his death. Apparently, he opted to live in a rented house elsewhere in town. Extrapolating from a radical change in record-keeping practices in his ledgers after 1776, Gould entered into semiretirement, giving over the day-to-day operations of the shop to another worker. In 1781, at age forty-seven, he died in Rutland, Massachusetts, leaving an estate valued at £663.5.8—an extraordinary sum for a cabinetmaker. In addition to land and a house full of mahogany furniture, his inventory enumerated a shop (valued at £50), woodworking tools (£20.14.11), partly finished furniture (£44) “Chipendale Designs” (Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, 3rd ed. [1762], £1.8), and thousands of feet of lumber including mahogany, cedar, and pine.

Few of Gould’s peers were able to achieve a similar level of financial security. Immigrant Scottish chairmaker James Graham (1726–1808) of Boston, for example, spent most of his life in debt and died a pauper. Cabinetmaker John Needham (act 1758–1798) worked briefly for Gould and lived hand-to-mouth, finding work in Salem and Boston well past retirement age. Salem cabinetmakers John Chipman and Elijah Sanderson fared little better. What were Gould’s strategies for success where others struggled? Widmer and King observe, first, that Gould was fortunate to receive an inheritance that enabled him to buy tools and establish a shop. They identify his decision to practice cabinetmaking in Salem as an equally important early factor in his success. Having trained in Charlestown, he may have been discouraged from seeking work in Boston by a perceived lack of opportunity in the crowded and competitive furniture trade of that city. Perhaps he recognized that Salem’s ­leading cabinetmaker, Abraham Watson (1712–1790), was easing out of the business, creating an opening for an ambitious young craftsman to bring new-style ­furniture to a seafaring community actively building on its mercantile wealth. His ledgers reveal that during his first year in Salem he found a market eager for a wide variety of furniture forms as well as riding chaises.

Gould gained customers by exclusively offering rococo furniture designs that had recently gained favor in Boston. No furniture in an earlier baroque (or Queen Anne) style has yet been attributed to his shop. He introduced the bombé form to Salem, then blockfront designs; he offered decorative features of his own design such as elaborately scrolled bracket feet and knee brackets and applied pendant shells; he translated designs illustrated in plates from English print sources; and he copied the work of such émigré cabinet- and chairmakers as Scottish chairmaker James Graham who arrived in Boston in 1764. The authors note that Gould’s “owl’s-eye” and “C-scroll-and-diamond” chair splats were lifted directly from Graham’s most popular designs. They also observe that Gould’s chairs featuring “double C-scroll” splats, copied from a design that Robert Manwaring published in The Cabinet and Chair-Maker’s Real Friend and Companion (London, 1765), are the only known American examples to use this distinct pattern. Gould offered his design in 1762, fully three years before the publication of Manwaring’s book and four years before the book was offered by Boston bookseller John Mein. A copy of the design in the Phillips Library at Peabody Essex Museum, believed to have been owned by Gould, bears an ink inscription “From London 1762,” suggesting Gould obtained the plate as a single-page imprint, well ahead of its publication in book form. Gould also adapted designs from the third edition of Thomas Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (1762). His focus on new designs paid off: starting in 1761, members of the merchant elite in Salem, Marblehead, and surround­ing towns, such as the Derbys, Cabots, Pickmans, Dodges, Higginsons, and Lees, patronized his shop. Over the next twenty-one years, he supplied three generations of Cabots alone with furniture valued at £660.

The authors partly attribute his success to his early involvement in the furniture export trade. Over the course of his career, he sold or consigned 382 desks (62 percent by number and 74 percent by value), 114 tables, 105 chairs, and a smattering of other forms to Salem shipowners involved in the Caribbean trade. Busy with domestic furniture commissions, he typically contracted export furniture, mainly desks made from native hardwoods such as maple, cherry, and, most commonly, red cedar, from journeymen and outside cabinetmakers such his father-in-law, Thomas Wood, and brother-in-law, Thomas Wood Jr., of Charlestown. Gould substantially marked up these goods, for example, purchasing a maple desk for £1 and selling it for £3.6.8—a 300 percent increase above his purchase price. (In turn, the shipowner might sell the desk in the West Indies for £14.) Widmer and King conclude: it was Gould’s export business that “accounted for his greatest profits . . . and allowed him semiretirement as a gentleman” (p. 16).

Between 1758 and 1781 Gould employed at least twenty-two journeymen cabinetmakers, either as shop hands or as subcontractors engaged in piecework. He hired many workers for short periods, to help execute large commissions and to make export furniture; he assigned only the most skilled workers to important orders, thereby retaining a high degree of quality control over his best work and exerting little control over the quality of the furniture made on speculation and destined for foreign buyers. Noting that half of Gould’s journeymen began work in their late teens or early twenties, the authors surmise that Gould may have trained many of these young men as apprentices before hiring them, and that their terms of apprenticeship may have been more fluid than heretofore understood. Only three workers served for longer periods in his shop. Philemon Parker, his “most trusted and longest-serving employee” (p. 79), began receiving payments as an eighteen-year-old journeyman in 1763 and continued through Gould’s death; thirty-six-year-old John Ropes Jr., who primarily made cedar and maple desks for export between 1761 and 1773; and twenty-year-old journeyman John Ross, who specialized in making chairs and carving claw-and-ball feet between 1765 and 1776.

One of Gould’s most striking strategies for success was his willingness to supply furniture to clients on both sides of the acrimonious political divide that pitted loyalist against patriot, neighbor against neighbor, in the decade leading up to the American Revolution. Right through the outbreak of war, he continued to serve both sides, making furniture for the likes of General Gage, commander of the British Army on the one hand, and for members of the Cabot family, who had grown rich on privateering on the other. How did he navigate between the two? The authors contend that his modus operandi was to stay above the fray and remain “diligent in avoiding association with either side” (p. 19). But how difficult that must have been when most clients and colleagues were actively siding with each camp, publicly declaring their allegiances in many ways, including as signatories to open letters either in support of or in protest of Salem as an alternative port after the closing of Boston Harbor. Gould signed neither letter. Nor did he join any political group such as the Sons of Liberty, nor did he support the war effort in other ways (a number of Salem craftsmen, some eager to pocket a £10 bounty, joined the militia). How did he avoid alienating partisans on both sides or, worse, becoming a target of violence, vandalism, or arson?

Perhaps one way he protected his business was to hire and subcontract work with craftsmen outside Salem—not only, as the authors contend, to minimize the possibility of competition from local cabinetmakers who might have used his designs and templates in their own nearby shops, but also to keep “diligent in avoiding association” with potentially politicized artisans who might have drawn him out of his closely guarded neutrality. Perhaps another way he gained favor—or at least tolerance—among the locals was to sell to most of Salem’s cabinetmakers, colleagues in allied trades, and employees a variety of commodities including “sugar and textile products, even shoes . . . at a very low markup and significantly below prevailing market prices in Salem” (p. 82). Elsewhere, the authors characterize Gould’s low purchase prices and steep markups of contract export furniture and his hard bargaining with employees over wages and charges for room and board as evidence of a “tough and disciplined manner of conducting his business” (p. 81). This soft behavior, then, would seem to fly in the face of such an assessment. It seems to make sense, however, that Gould would forgo monetary profit if what he was “buying” with his below-market prices for these goods was fealty from those who might otherwise have acted on their resentments against him. Perhaps for similar reasons, he eschewed involvement in Salem’s civic life—he appears not to have held any public offices or served in voluntary organizations.

Four essays by outside authors provide useful context for understanding Gould’s furniture, business practices, and patronage. In “‘Desks took on bord’ in Nathaniel Gould’s Caribbean Furniture Trade,” Daniel Finamore provides an overview of Salem’s involvement in the Caribbean trade and strategies that captains and shipowners deployed to circumvent restrictive British maritime acts. He notes that Salem’s outbound vessels typically took on board only small consignments of furniture—two or three desks and a few other small articles at a time—for sale in the West Indies. Finamore concludes that stylistic preferences, the imprimatur of specific cabinetmakers, and the exact origins of furniture—attributes that may have been important to consumers on the mainland—lost all relevance to Caribbean customers. Dean T. Lahikainen, in “Grand Houses and Rural Retreats,” describes the town houses and country estates of Salem’s elite that provided the architectural setting for much of Gould’s best furniture.

Taking up the theme of home life, consumption, and conspicuous display in the mansion houses of Salem’s elite merchant class, Elisabeth Garrett Widmer focuses attention on the role of women in Gould’s furniture commissions. Her essay, “Brides, Housewives, and Hostesses: Acquiring, Using, Caring for, and Enjoying Mr. Gould’s Furniture,” explores how the rituals surrounding marriage, childbirth, and death influenced furniture patronage directly and indirectly driven by women. She observes that 80 percent of Gould’s domestic furniture orders were for marriage portions and that, starting in the 1760s, elites established a pattern of enormous commissions consisting of multiple case pieces, tables, and sets of chairs, made in a range of materials and designs for use in rooms of ranked importance within the home. She notes that during weddings, and for weeks afterward, “everything as well as everyone was on view” (p. 58) in the homes of newlyweds. Likewise, the home was “on view” during the postpartum sitting-up visits that mothers expected in the third and fourth weeks after childbirth and in the vigils surrounding deaths. Aware that their homes would be seen and judged by “a sizable, frequent, and observant public” (p. 59), elites relied on Gould to provide furniture that he, and they, together, deemed stylish and appropriate.

Glenn Adamson opens his essay, “Behind the Curve: Putting Nathaniel Gould in Perspective,” with an image of contemporary Dutch designer Jeroen Verhoeven’s Cinderella Table, a dramatic, curvaceous work sculpted with a computer-assisted router of plywood, referencing the past to delight with the shock of the new. Might Boston and Salem elites have first experienced bombé designs in a similar way? Adamson explores the origins of the bombé form, tracing the idea from fifteenth-century Italian cassoni to rarefied “ogee-curve” German and French furniture of the early eighteenth century, executed in precious metals, veneers, even repurposed Chinese lacquer panels. By the mid-eighteenth century, the design had gone mainstream, stripped-down versions of which informed the design of pulpits (such as that built for the First Church of Ipswich in 1749), the bases of window seats, and case furniture. Boston and Boston-trained cabinetmakers, including Gould, copied the design not from print sources, but from imported objects, further simplifying the form in the process. In Adamson’s view, Gould “was a kind of genius,” producing masterworks of “simplicity and tact” within a provincial, circumscribed context of acceptability (p. 31). Why did elites turn to Gould rather than order these forms from Boston or London? What remains to be explained is how client and craftsman worked together to calibrate design, materials, and workmanship with perceived needs and a desire for prestige.

The second half of the book consists of a catalogue organized by form starting with case furniture and proceeding to seating furniture, tables, and bedsteads, and featuring eighteen examples of Gould’s work, most with provenances tracing back to original owners and identified in the ledgers. Appendixes containing select transcriptions of the ledgers round out the volume. Using a methodology similar to that developed by Thomas and Alice Kugelman and Robert Lionetti to classify case furniture of the Connecticut River valley, the authors created a list of features to identify Gould’s work. Noting that, at present, twenty-seven examples of Gould’s furniture have been identified in museum collections, they prepared the catalogue as a guide to support future attributions, focusing on diagnostic details such as stock size; glue block arrangement, size, and nailing patterns; and the shape and character of claw-and-ball carving. Readers will learn about features unique to Gould, such as blocking with squared corners on case façades, fan carvings with gouged curlicues at their lower ends, and punches on the bottoms of chair splats and their shoes that indicate the chair number in a set. Along the way, the authors share small discoveries, such as their insight that rather than use a template to trace the profile of knee returns and drop bases for pendant shells on the skirts of case furniture, Gould laid out designs for these features with a compass. Though similar in style, each skirt is unique in execution.

Studying the objects in tandem with the ledgers has enabled the authors to document Gould’s shop practices, to explicate potentially confusing terminology in the ledgers, and to understand material, design, and price options available to customers. Widmer and King have achieved a remarkable accomplishment not only in clarifying otherwise opaque ledger entries but also in allowing for a deeper reading of these shop records than might otherwise have been possible without access to the objects. They explain the meaning of furniture names, such as “bureau table,” that less-informed readers might not even flag as potentially confusing. In common usage, bureau table refers to what is now called a “kneehole dressing table.” In Gould’s ledgers, it meant a low case of four drawers. Further, the authors were able to extrapolate that bureau tables priced at £6 referred to bombé designs in mahogany with claw-and-ball carved feet; examples priced at £5.6.8 sported ogee bracket feet. They also learned that, in elite households, these bureau tables took the place of dressing tables in wedding commissions also containing high chests. Other names, such as “case of drawers,” remain ambiguous. Gould applied this term to chests-on-chests, bonnet-top high chests, and flat-top high chests. No high chests have been attributed to his shop to help clarify this name’s meaning—although certain extrapolations can be made: an October 1767 notation, “1 case of draw of mahogany sweld ends,” referred to a bombé chest-on-chest.

The volume concludes with appendixes containing the names of Gould’s clients and their furniture orders, arranged chronologically by form. Additional appendixes provide information on journeymen and apprentices in Gould’s shop, export furniture, and furniture associated with weddings and childbirth. As transactions not relating to the production of furniture are omitted, researchers interested in issues beyond the scope of this study, including Gould’s substantial involvement in the mahogany and native hardwood lumber trade, will want to examine the original.

In the end, what emerges from Widmer and King’s research is a portrait of a master craftsman blessed with creativity and talent, driven by ambition, and guided by a keen business sense. The same words the authors use to describe Gould’s masterworks—monumental, meticulous, inventive, substantial, and well-crafted—equally apply to this book. Widmer and King’s research has yielded a foundational work extending what we know about one Salem cabinetmaker’s extraordinary furniture, his involvement in the export furniture trade, and his business practices. It deserves a place on every furniture reference shelf.

Joshua W. Lane
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

American Furniture 2015