Salem Chests

I’m finishing up my Tudor-Stuart course this week at Salem State, and while doing the course prep for a class on the reign of William and Mary (1689-94/1702) I became bored with the rather mundane political narrative (at least compared with the Tudors!) and turned to the style of the eraThen I became a lot more interested, particularly in following the transmission of material culture traditions and motifs from the Continent to England and ultimately to Salem. 

Like its maritime heritage and architecture, the furniture of colonial and Federal Salem serves as a powerful counterweight to its Witch City reputation.  There seems to be two periods of Salem furniture production that are particularly prized by collectors and scholars:  the late seventeenth-century William & Mary era as represented by the Symonds Shops in Salem (c. 1670-1700) and the Federal era, when Salem had some sixty cabinetmakers working to produce furniture for both the domestic and export markets.

The Symonds business was established by joiner John Symonds (c. 1595-1671) who emigrated to Massachusetts from Norfolk, England in the 1630s and carried on by his sons James and Samuel. A Salem street is named after the family.  Their chests have done very well at auction in the past decade or so, with the Pope  “valuables cabinet” selling for 2.42 million dollars in 2000 (and back to Salem it came, to the Peabody Essex Museum).  This chest is pictured below in a photograph from Christies, along with another Symonds cabinet from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The initials of the married couples who owned these chests (Joseph and Bathsheba Pope of Salem Village and Ephraim and Mary Herrick of Beverly), interwoven with the year (1679) of their creation, is carved on the front in the midst of the characteristic Symonds sunburst.

Another Salem Symonds chest, the “Putnam Family Cupboard”, was photographed by Salem’s famed photographer-entrepreneur Frank Cousins and sketched by Edwin Foley in a fanciful “colonial” environment a century ago.  Both images are below, along with one of a so-called “Witch Bureau”, from the Pageant of America series, with the accompanying caption “from the middle drawer of which one of the witches jumped out who was hung at Gallows Hill in Salem.”

The "Witch Bureau", NYPL Digital Gallery

I’m not quite sure about this piece–very square legs compared to the other examples of the era—(and what a provenance!) although somewhat similar to the most recent Symonds piece to be auctioned off, at Sotheby’s this past January, the 1690 “Trask Chest”.

As I finish up my course with Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts, I can’t help but dwell on the dramatic change in furniture style (again, because the narrative history is pretty boring, and all about the War of Spanish Succession):  from solid squares to graceful curves.  Edwin Foley, the author-illustrator of The Book of Decorative Furniture (1909-11), made his way right into the Queen’s bedroom so he could capture her colorful bedhangings and “Queen Anne” highboy and one of Frank Cousin’s interior photographs of the Peirce-Nichols house from the 1890s captured a similar chest.

Frank Cousins and the other advocates of Salem and its colonial architecture, furniture, and decorative arts created a brand that was almost as strong as “Witch City” in the early and mid-twentieth century.  As proof, I offer two advertisements for newer models of Salem chests.

 


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