Historical Habitation

A couple of months ago, I decided that this would be the Summer of The Secretary: I’ve been wanting to purchase an antique secretary for my front parlor for quite some time, and as “brown furniture” seems positioned for a revival after the mid-century modern mania we’ve been in for a while I think that prices will start to climb back to the level where they were when I first started to furnish my home. I have the perfect, slightly-recessed spot and I think a secretary will really complete that room, which I can never seem to get right. So I’ve been looking at all of the auction listings, and the other day I saw a piece that looked vaguely familiar in a Skinner Country Americana Auction. The description confirmed my suspicion: this secretary, along with several other pieces in the same auction, came from the colonial house in South Berwick, Maine which serves as the subject of Paula Bennett’s book Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America through History, Food, and a Georgian House.



Imagining Ichabod Secretary


Bennett and her husband owned the Goodwin house in South Berwick for over a decade, during which time she pursued every possible avenue to create an ambiance as historical as possible in their home: research into the textures, furnishings, food and events of the era in which the two Ichabod Goodwins lived (1740-1829), through primary and secondary sources, archaeology, and what I like to call “shopping research” ( in which I indulge often) via period houses, auctions, and antique shops. Imagining Ichabod details this very personal and material journey in words, pictures, and recipes, as Bennett is an enthusiastic cook—indeed, one gets the impression that she is enthusiastic about everything! After this complete immersion, it was off to a Boston condo for the Bennetts, which is why their Georgian furnishings ended up at Skinner.



Imagining Ichabod Table Skinner




Imagining Ichabod Entrance Table



Imagining Ichabod Marble Table

The cumulative and intensive effort to create a perfect eighteenth-century (-esque) house, only to dismantle and leave it after a relatively short period, is interesting to me, as I wonder about the constraints of “period living”, and by that I mean aesthetic constraints rather than practical ones, as even the most passionate antiquarians have indoor plumbing! Everyone I know in Salem lives in an old house, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but no one furnishes their homes in an exclusively period style: it’s generally a melange of old and new, with some nods to the era in which the house was built and a lot more comfortable furniture. When I first purchased my current house, which was built in 1827, I went about it much like Paula Bennett: I wanted period furniture, period drapes, period plates, period lighting, period wallpaper, and period hardware; I was particularly obsessed with finding the correct switch plates, but of course no switch plate is “correct” in an 1827 house. After about a decade of that design philosophy, I grew tired of the constraints and loosened up considerably, and now my house is a mix of past and present, as it no doubt appeared in 1927, 1877, and even the year it was built. But I still want a secretary—and the Bennett’s Georgian one is too early.

Sandy Agrafiotis photographs in Paula Bennett’s Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America Through its History, Food, and a Georgian House (Bauer and Dean, 2016). I never attempted period cooking like Paula Bennett, but I’m always on the lookout for a good rum punch, and the idea of roasted oysters intrigues, as both my father and husband are oyster aficionados.

7 responses to “Historical Habitation

  • sleightholmfolk

    These are all such beautiful piece….and oh, I hope you’re right, that pretty ‘brown’ old stuff will come back into style….I am so NOT into mid century modern! Give me Americana any day 🙂 love all these pieces you’ve shared….

    • daseger

      Well, it’s been a great time to buy antique furniture! But I’ve read several articles that suggest that the trend for disposable and mid-century furniture is finally ebbing.

  • Laura

    I hope you find your special secretary! sounds like that room with its perfect space is going to not let it go until you do :).

    I have to share…when I had a one year, grant-funded job at the University of South Carolina, I bought a desk from a antique/used furniture place. It has a pull-out desk, a mantel above that, and on the side a cabinet with a pull-out set of shelves. I’m sure it’s from sometime, who knows, in the second half of the 20th century. But I just love it, and I had it re-stained dark brown and patched up a bit when I moved to Washington DC. Above it I have two ornately framed pictures purchased after reading your blog post here: https://streetsofsalem.com/2016/01/25/animal-adaptations/

    I love this desk and it is now permanently paired with those pictures. It has to survive. Now I am going to try to find, again, another furniture repair person who will do a better job on fixing some residual issues. I will have to find someone with the expertise, but who will be willing to work on something that most antique restoration experts will likely think of as junk!! I’ve gotten recommendations for antique restoration people, but when I look at their web sites I know they will not likely work on my desk. But I am sure, out there, is someone who will understand AND have the skills that the previous company didn’t.

    • Laura

      I left out the main reason I like the desk so much. It was handmade by a local guy who dabbled in furniture making. Lived alone and it was part of his estate when he died. I feel responsible for helping the desk endure!

    • daseger

      Sometimes it takes a while to find the right person; I have an early 19th century Dutch chair which was out of commission for quite some time until I found a guy who would/could restore it. Love those animals—-still haven’t framed mine!

  • Jeffrey D

    LOL “Shopping Research” is a great term! I’ll be using that a lot going foward.

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