"If Vermont households of 1800 or 1850 were reconstituted, we would see every kind of Vermont furniture—the modern, the cheap, the make-do, the old-fashioned—ranging through the parlor, kitchens and back chambers of each dwelling.” Philip Zea, Preface, Vermont Cabinetmakers & Chairmakers before 1855.
From the earliest years of settlement there have been furniture makers in every town in the Upper Valley. This column describes the history of furniture making in Vermont and New Hampshire through the nineteenth century, especially as it developed locally. It covers the craftsmen more than the finer details of the furniture they crafted which would be challenging given limited illustrations and space constraints.
There are a number of fine sources available on furniture making in the two states. The sources I used include The Best the Country Affords by Kenneth Joel Zogry, Vermont Cabinetmakers & Chairmakers Before 1855 by Charles A. Robinson and Documented New Hampshire Furniture, 1750-1850 published by the New Hampshire Historical Society as well as local town histories.
Those who are interested may wish to visit the current exhibit at the Shelburne Museum entitled “Rich & Tasty, Vermont Furniture to 1850,” there until November 1. A copy of the accompanying catalog is available at the Bradford Public Library. The Currier Gallery in Manchester and the Bennington Museum are examples of museums in the two states with extensive period furniture collections.
The earliest settlers brought only pieces of household furniture that were needed, as they had to be transported by oxcart or sled depending on the weather. Those might include a table, bedstead and bedding, chests and chairs. Some families supplemented those pieces with handmade items such as tubs and benches.
Soon after settlement, more substantial houses were constructed and there was demand for finer furniture to fill them. As river and road transportation improved, so did the possibility of importing larger collections. When Capt. and Mrs. William Trotter moved to Bradford in 1804 they brought an extensive assortment of luxurious household furniture.
Almost immediately local artisans began to meet that demand for furniture to supplement that brought from down country. Over the next eighty years dozens of craftsmen built furniture in this local area.
They often located their shops near sources of water power and village centers. Some of these workers learned their craft as apprentices in shops in other states. By 1825 only 27 percent of Vermont furniture makers were native Vermonters with Massachusetts and New Hampshire being the largest source of migrants.
Ichabod Robie was born in Candia, NH in 1783. He was living in Corinth by 1810 and lived there for the next sixty years. The Corinth history mentions “He was a fine cabinetmaker and built beautiful bedroom sets and dressers with hand carving in his shop at the foot of Robie Hill.” Cabinetmaker Dudley Carleton of Bradford, MA moved to Newbury in 1776. Their work, like that of other locals, refutes an often held belief that local craftsmen had only limited ability and could not produce fine pieces.
Others learned locally. Alvah Jeffers learned the trade in the shop of Lyme’s Stephen Kent and went on to operate his own shop in Lyme. Some furniture makers were local residents who moved within the local area. Cabinetmaker Abraham Shaw was born in Lyme in 1791 and moved to Bradford in 1820. Allen Gould, a native of Thetford, moved to Newbury and by 1850 operated a cabinet and wheelwright shop with four employees and a furniture output valued at $1,500.
Michael Carleton combined both of these characteristics. He was born in Massachusetts and first settled in Newbury and then moved across the river to Haverhill in 1812. In 1822 he advertised that he had “recently built a shop opposite J. Sinclair’s tavern, where he intends to carry on the Cabinet Making Business in its various branches.” He and his son Michael, Jr. were two of five cabinetmakers in Haverhill in 1825. That number included his son Michael, Jr.
Making furniture was, for some, a part-time endeavor. Farmer Josiah Paul of Groton “supplemented his farm work with fine furniture.” Paul, like other craftsmen, often bartered furniture for items such as grain and salt pork or services. Some individuals manufactured other items including lumber, flax wheels, tubs, butter boxes, ladders and caskets.
Vermont and New Hampshire makers “took full advantage of the color and grain of available local woods”. Those include yellow birch, white pine, butternut, cherry, ash and various types of maple. More expensive furniture combined those materials with more “exotic and expensive” materials such as mahogany. Veneers were often combined to create a “rich multi-dimensional” pattern.
Craftsmen were often “eager” to convince their customers that they were aware of the latest patterns being created in urban centers and would not “appear naïve by comparison with examples from elsewhere.” Often articles were altered to be more or less sophisticated to meet the tastes and pocketbooks of potential customers.
There have been a number of sociological studies indicating that a family’s social class can be determined by their household furniture. The exquisitely fashioned pieces, requiring weeks of work by a master craftsman, were most likely for wealthier customers. Country furniture, plain and simple, often unremarkable, was the furniture of the less fortunate. For some families the most expensive furniture could be found in the parlor, a space reserved for special occasions.
Some makers concentrated on the plain and functional. Arthur Latham was a carpenter and joiner who came to Lyme around 1780 and made “the simple furniture in common use at that day.” He also was a store owner and wool merchant.
With improved shipping methods, local craftsmen faced competition from big city manufacturers. A letter to the Burlington Free Press in 1843 encouraged “buying from local makers rather than sending ‘abroad’ to New York, Boston or Troy.” One of those who successfully competed was Israel Willard of Bradford. In 1804 he established a chair shop on Roaring Brook. His obituary in 1865 mentioned that he operated a “large and profitable business for many years” making a variety of chairs, as well as “bedsteads of the old fashioned square posted kind.”
The current display at Shelburne Museum highlights the highest level of craftsmanship among furniture makers in Vermont. Pieces include dressers, tables, sofas, chairs and chests, many with fine lines and carved ornamentations. None of the pieces on display are from our local area. That is not to say that local craftsmen lacked the ability to make such pieces. Unless the maker marked his work, the provenance of an item is likely lost over time.
In some cases locally made furniture has been passed down in a family and origins are known. Local histories mention that articles of furniture created by Newbury’s early artisans Isaac Howe and Dudley Carleton and Groton’s Robert Darling were still in local use. A small chest by Stephen Fish of Thetford is owned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The work of Haverhill’s Stephen Adams has been mentioned as still existing. He was born in Lexington, MA and during the first half of the 19th century created fine furniture in Haverhill. Joshua Steenburgh indicated that his family’s auction house has sold furniture by Adams. Several antique magazines feature articles mention specifically a sideboard and butler’s secretary stamped with his SA mark.
Auctioneer Chuck Eaton said that in 2008 he sold a grandfather clock by Haverhill’s John Osgood for $35,000. Osgood was a silversmith and clockmaker locally from 1795 to 1817. “His shop had two rooms, the front one a salesroom and the rear one a workshop where was a forge for melting the brass for the clocks…” The cases for his clocks were often crafted by Dudley Carleton of Newbury. At least one is currently for sale online.
There are probably other examples of locally crafted furniture being treasurer by family members and others in the area. In other cases furniture may have just worn out from usage, been discarded as outmoded or sold down the road from an estate auction. At estate auctions, it seems as if 19th century furniture has a greater interest among antique dealers from away than family members locally.
After the Civil War, mass-produced furniture became common and pieces generally ceased to be handmade. Despite strong competition from away, some local firms continued to operate for a time. In 1866 A.P. Shaw Jr. of Bradford notified the public that he was “constantly manufacturing from the best materials, a general assortment of Cabinet Furniture.” The company went bankrupt in 1878.
Isaac Howe’s factory in South Newbury, opened in 1840, continued to operate until 1878. In 1870 Carpenter & Jones of Wells River advertised that they were “Manufacturers and dealers” in a wide array of furniture as well as “a large assortment of coffins and caskets constantly on hand.” When that company went bankrupt in 1878, the Brock family took control and continued operations for a number of years.
The Beal family of Orfordville began making chairs by hand in 1837. In 1878 Royal Beal patented a lathe for turning chair rounds, introduced there before it came into general use by larger manufacturers. After being destroyed by fire in 1882, the factory was rebuilt and continued to manufacture furniture, bobbins and mattresses. It closed after the factory was destroyed by fire in 1903.
Several firms continued operation making parts for furniture. Three factories operated in Piermont in between 1870 and 1890 making chair stock. For over a century Bradford Veneer Company has manufactured veneers used in the manufacture of furniture elsewhere. That business continues today making furniture parts.
Two of the largest employers of the area manufacture furniture. They design, manufacture and sell hardwood furnishings to a wide market. Pompanoosuc Mill in East Thetford began manufacturing in 1973. Copeland Furniture began production in East Corinth in 1976. In 1979 the company moved its expanded operations to Bradford where it continues to be the town’s largest manufacturer.
Tim and Jenny Copeland accompanied my wife and me to view the Shelburne Museum exhibit. We marveled at the exquisite craftsmanship of the high-end pieces on display. Some of the pieces were beautifully simple while others seemed to follow the idea that more ornamentation is better.
Mr. Copeland said “the detail in today’s furniture is more likely to be executed by computer controlled machinery than by hand and today’s skilled furniture makers are more likely to be computer savvy as they are skilled with hand tools.”
There are also individual furniture craftsmen working in the area. An incomplete list includes master craftsmen such as Jim Mason of Lyme, Garrett Hack of Thetford Center and Jeff Winagle of Orford.
The American furniture industry is facing significant challenges. The slow economic recovery, changing consumer preferences, rising labor costs and global competition continue to plague manufacturers. Some of these challenges mirror the problems faced by earlier area artisans. We treasure furniture passed to us by our ancestors and use pieces in our daily routine. Perhaps those current pieces being produced locally will also be treasured years from now.