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Friday, October 30, 2015

Deadly, Sorrowful and Grave

Anna-Lisa and David Pruitt dressed in 19th century mourning clothes.  She fashioned these
                           outfits for their participation in the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's funeral in Springfield, IL in 2015.            (Photo by Paul Anderson) 

                                TOWN HEARSE:  In the mid-19th century many area towns purchased a horse-drawn hearse and some had a hearse house in which to store it. A sexton would be hired to care for it, provide a team and attend
funerals. Orford's hearse was featured in July 4th parades in the 1950s.

SAWYER CHAPEL VAULT.  During the 19th century a number of local towns built receiving vaults for the storage of caskets during the winter months when burial was difficult.  Most have been destroyed. One that is still in use is the 1912 Sawyer Chapel vault located in Bradford's Upper Plain Cemetery.  It is located in the basement of the chapel behind the door to the right. (Author's photo)

Bradford's furniture dealer Arthur E. Hale open his undertaking business in 1900.  He also had "undertaking rooms" in Orfordville.  This sign, recently acquired by the Bradford Historical Society, was made for the business in 1951 by Bradford sign painter Reginald Bagley.  Hale Funeral Home still operates under Hale's name.

“Simplicity to the point of starkness, the plain pine box, the laying out of the dead by friends and family who also bore the coffin to the grave…these were the hallmarks of the traditional funeral until the end of the nineteenth century.”  Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death
This column covers ways in which Americans, generally and local folks, specifically, have dealt with the ceremonies of passage that accompany death.  

 Early area residents lived in constant fear of illness or accident. Death was an ever present and intensely personal experience for early residents. Many agreed with the English writer Horace Smith that death was “the sleeping partner of life.” Individuals generally died at home and families often controlled the entire process of caring for the ailing to preparations for burial.

Death was not something that happened just to the elderly as many families experienced the loss of a child or adult in their productive years. Local cemeteries were filled with the victims of both epidemics and endemic diseases that sometimes wiped out whole families and even depopulated neighborhoods.

The average life expectancy in 1850 was under 40 years of age, brought low by high infant mortality. Poor sanitation practices spread many diseases. Those responsible for the care of the decease were often overwhelmed by the number killed in war. 
 Many believed that illness was a punishment for sin. Believers relied on prayers for God’s intercession as a cure. This was especially true in the face of epidemics when days of fasting and prayer were observed. Governors often proclaimed statewide fast days to combat contagious disease. 

Puritan attitudes toward death forced many Protestants to look at I with some ambivalence, since it was viewed through the lens of both punishment and reward in the afterlife. Because one could never be sure about their personal status regarding eternal damnation, there was a sense of helpless insecurity.  

Other religious groups provided a greater promise of salvation to their believers. The religious revival of the Great Awakening after the 1730s offered an alternative view of God as a deity of love and mercy, thus lessening to some degree the fear of death. Among early residents there were also a number who viewed death as the natural close of life with no existence beyond.

Until the temperance movement of the 19th century it was expected there would be “ardent spirits” provided at funerals. One observance was complete with “a barrel of rum set out before the house, for all to help themselves, and it was gone before night.”
Attitudes toward death during much of the 19th century reflected a more romanticized and sentimentalized view, thereby muting some of the fears. Many saw dying as an escape to a better world, there to be reunited with loved ones who had gone before.
In most situations the body of the decrease was prepared in the home for burial and was displayed in an open casket with friends and family sharing in the mourning. But as attitudes and behaviors changed there was more prolonged periods of seclusion during the bereavement, more elaborate funerals, mourning clothing, poems, hair wreaths and even vials for the tears of sorrow.

 William Cullen Bryant’s 1812 poem Thanatopsis captures this attitude as it admonishes one to go to the grave “sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust.”
Other ethnic groups approached death differently. The Irish wake, held in the home of the deceased, was a time of recollections complete with refreshments and even humor. The growing French-Canadian population had their own particular forms of ceremonies surrounding death. For both of these Roman Catholic groups emphasis was placed on both the religious ceremonies and on the support of the extended families.
Among Jews there were observances surrounding death and mourning that included special rules for the caring of the body of the  deceased, behavior during the period of mourning and emphasis on the memories of the deceased that were similar and at the same time quite different from other ethnic groups. 

A contrast to these religious and ethnic groups can be found in the spiritualists of the mid-19th century who had a strong belief that the deceased remained close in spirit allowing communication between the living and the dead. Reports of “spirit-rappers” began to appear in Vermont newspapers in the 1850’s.  

Soon after settlement each town established one or more cemeteries. These were often neighborhood burial places, sometimes adjacent to the local church. Some individuals preferred to be buried on the home place in a small family burial ground. 

Early on, coffins were made by family members or local carpenters. Wells’ Newbury history mentions that it was “not unusual for people of some wealth to have their coffins made while they were yet living, and upon such, considerable expense was sometimes lavished.” He added: “Not in Newbury was this practice known.”

Caskets differed from coffins in shape and ostentation and were more likely to be used in the later 19th century. The custom of enclosing the coffin or casket in an outer box for burial came into general use about 1860.  

Several local towns purchased burying cloths, decorated heavy black material large enough to cover the coffin while it was being transported to the graveyard. Towns also secured a horse-drawn town hearse to replace the use of a private wagons.

Corinth purchased one in 1869 and hired a sexton to maintain it, supply the team and attend all funerals for $10.75 per year. Groton paid $275 for a hearse in 1871. The service of their sexton was put out to bid.  

Towns also maintained a hearse house for the storage of this ornate vehicle.  A news item from Thetford Center in 1894 mentioned that the Methodist Society had repaired the hearse-house. In 1898 the Bradford Town Meeting voted to build a hearse-house in the Upper Plain Cemetery.  

Towns also maintained a receiving vault for the storage of remains during the winter when burial was difficult. These were often built into the side of a slope and faced with granite and an iron door.

In 1912 Edward Sawyer left a bequest to build a memorial chapel and receiving vault in Bradford’s Upper Plain Cemetery. It provided a space for funeral services for families from away who were returning a deceased family member for “a final resting place beneath our sod.”    

Until the Civil War most bodies were not embalmed. During that war Dr. Auguste Renouard began embalming Union dead so that their bodies could be shipped home. Following the war Renouard began a school to teach the practice to other undertakers. It was about this time that the term “mortuary” began to replace the term “dead-house” previously used in Vermont newspapers.   

As local furniture makers expanded their offerings to include furniture imported by rail, they began to offer a wider variety of coffins and caskets. In 1867, Bradford’s National Opinion carried the following advertisement for George Butler: “Those wanting anything in the line are respectfully invited to call and examine coffins and caskets of various styles and prices, neatly trimmed to order on short notice.  Also ready-made grave cloths, coffin trimmings, plates etc.”  

Funeral managers who would undertake to arrange funeral and provide necessary merchandise became known as undertakers. In 1888, the Grafton County Gazetteer listed one undertaker each for North Haverhill, Haverhill Corner, Orford and Lyme. Warren had “three undertaker shops.” The Orange County Gazetteer of that year listed one each in Bradford, Wells River and Union Village-Thetford. In East Topsham, town clerk J R. McLam also served a local undertaker.  

One undertaker whose name is familiar was that of Arthur Hale of Bradford.  Announcements in local newspapers in 1900 described him as a furniture dealer and undertaker. “He is a scientific embalmer and his kind sympathetic manner makes him fit for the profession he has chosen.” Hale was also listed as having “undertaking rooms” at Orfordville in 1904.   

Typical charges in the late 19th century, in addition to the price of merchandise, included “service at the house (placing corpse in the coffin) $1.25.” Preserving remains on ice or embalming cost $10. Generally the undertaker added a fee for being “in attendance” at the funeral.  Fees for those who dug the grave were expected. As early as 1805 it was the law in New Hampshire that the costs of the funeral should come before all other debts.

Many funerals were “at the house,” with the deceased “laid out” in the parlor.  For this reason undertakers began to use the terms funeral parlor and funeral home when they offered a commercial place for funerals. Other funerals were held in church. Members of the clergy often gave lengthy eulogies. Rev. Silas McKeen of Bradford was known for his presentations and they were later offered in printed booklets. 
Many funerals included hymns such as “Shall We Gather at the River,” elaborate floral displays, tolling bells and numerous mourners. Members of fraternal organizations such as the Masons performed special rituals for deceased members. By the early twentieth century it was common for newspapers to include the names of mourners who attended from away.  

 Mourners were expected to show their respect by following the deceased to the cemetery for burial. Newspapers reported “the long and silent process of neighbors following the deceased to his long home.” 

This practice may have been in decline when in 1877 Vermont historian Abby Hemenway wrote “Funeral rites were attended with more solemnity and ceremony than at present.  The deceased, borne on men’s shoulders, whatever the distance, and attended by pall-bearers, was carried silently and reverently to the last resting place.  At the grave, which was always closed before the assembly withdrew, it was expected that the father or husband or next friend would tender the thanks of the mourners.” 

Observers often used a language of death to avoid saying someone “died.” “Dead as a doornail,” “kicked the bucket,” “asleep in Christ,” “found everlasting peace,” “passed on,” “the kiss of death,” “gave up the ghost,” “six feet under,” or “no longer with us” are just a few alternatives. 

There are also many examples of superstitions and folklore about death and cemeteries. Corpses were meant to be carried from the house “feet first” lest it bring bad luck to those who remain. These are a litany of actions to ward off bad luck when passing a cemetery. Few are willing to take a walk in a cemetery, especially at night or around Halloween.    

Relatively recent trends have signified a change in the attitudes toward death and dying in modern America. Changes in religious affiliation, the hospice movement, advanced directives and death- with-dignity legislation as well as changes in memorial services and treatment of the body of the deceased are examples.

If the reader is interested, I have written three other articles that complement this article. They can be accessed at this blog by searching the following titles:         “ Influenza and Other Epidemics,” “What Ails You?” and “Carved in Stone,” each with the prefix of “In Time Past.” 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Furniture Makers: Plain or Elegant

Plain and Simple: This chair was one of the many manufactured by Israel Willard of Bradford at his shop on Roaring Brook.  Beginning in 1804, Willard operated a large and profitable business making a variety of chairs as well as bedsteads. (Bradford Historical Society)
This Federal mahogany side board with oval and banded birdsye maple veneers is an exmple of the fine workmanship that local craftsmen were capable of.  It was made in Haverhill or Bath c. 1816. (Courtesy W. A. Smith Inc.)

Two pieces above were crafted by Stephen Adams of Haverhill.  He moved there from Massachusetts in 1805 and built furniture at Haverhill Corner. His furniture is marked with an SA logo. The top piece is a two-part mahogany drop-front ladies' secretary c.1820. (Courtesy of W. A. Smith, Inc.)  The bottom piece is an 1840 birch and pine set of drawers. Joshua Steenburgh reported that his family auction house has sold a number of Adams pieces including one. ( Courtesy of Joshua Steenburgh)

Osgood Elegance:  This stately clock was  one of at least 300 made by John Osgood of Haverhill about 200 years ago with 8-day time and strike features. Osgood was a silversmith and clockmaker from 1795-1817.  The cases for his clocks were often crafted by Dudley Carleton of Newbury who used local woods such as butternut or cherry.
 (Courtesy of Delaney Antique Clocks, W. Townsend, MA)

This pine blanket chest is over 200 years old and was made for Justice Nathaniel Niles of West Fairlee by a local craftsman.  It is an example of the plain but functional furniture created locally. It is currently located in the West Fairlee Center home of one of Niles' descendants.  

September, 2015

"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 na├»ve 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.