I’m really looking forward to an upcoming exhibition at the Concord Museum: Fresh Goods: Shopping for Goods in a New England Town, 1750-1900, offered as part of a state-wide MASS Fashion collaborative project which will include a fall exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society guest-curated by my Salem State colleague Kimberly Alexander: Fashioning the New England Family. I thought I had fashion fatigue, because there have been so many clothing-based exhibitions over the past few years, but these exhibitions look a bit different to me—there’s something more active and engaging about the words shopping and furnishing. Instead of just being wowed by the artifacts, we can learn how and why they came to be created and acquired, processes that involved not just cultural considerations, but also economic and social factors. If I were a curator, I think I would like to create a similar exhibition focusing on home furnishings, because that could offer up insights into so many crafts, industries, and distributors—especially over the nineteenth century as households were affected increasingly by market forces. Recapturing and representing colonial “hearths and homes” and “daily life” were Colonial Revival preoccupations over a century ago; I think we could do with a refresh–and an expanded chronological focus.
©Boston Athenaeum and Phillips Library, Timothy Ropes Papers (MSS 365).
I imagine there are two approaches to researching the history of household furnishing: presume by utilizing prescriptive materials like trade catalogs and books on contemporary home decoration, or establish through receipts, diaries, and accounts. There are certainly lots of collections of the former, at the Smithsonian, here, and the Winterthur Library, to name just a few sources. Individual household accounts are more decentralized, of course, and for Salem we would be quite dependant on the collections of the Phillips Library: the marvelous hand-drawn sketch by Joseph Ropes of his bedroom at 373 Essex Street above was included in a blog post published by the library which is no longer available, but I was so taken with it I snipped it right up, fortunately. Imagine researching the furnishing of just this one room: that odd stove, so many chairs, the textiles on the bedspread and chair? Wherever they end up, and hopefully digitized, all those family papers in the Phillips have such a wealth of information within—capable of tracing the history of decades of the China Trade and a single year in the material life of one Salem household. But until they see the light of day, we have some other sources: the Winterthur Library’s digital collection of ephemera will not enable me to source Joseph Ropes’ room, but it can give us a few glimpses into Salem’s material past.
A crate of Liverpool Ware for Mr. Nathaniel Burnham (?), 1801; perhaps a pattern such as this (Northeast Auctions)? Andirons and a Kettle for Captain John Waters and the Captain himself (Northeast Auctions); furniture for another Mr. Waters, 1861; 14 yards of black silk for Mr. Goodhue; pillow and furniture manufacturers in the 1880s, Winterthur Library.