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Home | Articles | The Genuine Article?—Furniture Transformations

Fig. 1: Side chair, western Massachusetts, ca. 1785, with arms added ca. 1820. Cherry and pine. Courtesy of Historic Deerfield, Inc.; photography by Amanda Merullo. 1990.220

Historic Deerfield is nationally known for its comprehensive collection of authentic early New England furniture and decorative arts. Interspersed among its genuine antiques, however, are a small number of objects that are not quite right. Some look like real antiques, but were made to deceive. Others are not so dubious, having been refashioned for practical, sentimental, or aesthetic reasons. Some of the objects from this latter group suggest that people appreciated and respected family possessions, or those owned by prominent individuals, well before it became fashionable to do so in the Colonial Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Two chairs in the Historic Deerfield collection fall into the category of altered objects. In both cases, the alterations were prompted by more than a desire to make outmoded yet perfectly sound furniture more stylish, convenient, or comfortable. A Massachusetts craftsman made the cherry side chair in Figure 1 for Caleb Strong, Jr. (1745–1819), of Northampton, Massachusetts, in the mid-1780s. It is from a set executed in the rococo style with pierced splats, over-the-rail upholstered seats, and cabriole legs. After Strong’s death in 1819, the executor of his estate, William Allen, accepted this chair in lieu of payment for his legal services and commissioned a local cabinetmaker to add the scrolled arms in the neoclassical taste, emulating the arms on chairs from ancient Greece.

Fig. 2: Armchair, London, ca. 1685–1705. Walnut and cane, H. 52 3/4". Courtesy of The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT; bequest of Mrs. George Hilles. 1939.566

The result is a curious amalgam of old and new styles that begs the questions: Why did Allen go to the trouble of fitting this chair with new arms? If he really wanted a stylish neoclassical armchair, why didn’t he simply sell Strong’s old side chair and use the money to buy a new chair in the current fashion? Perhaps Allen chose to enhance and preserve Strong’s chair believing that the arms would dignify the side chair form, raising its symbolic stature and importance, thereby bolstering the memory of its first owner. After all, public sentiment for Strong ran high during most of his adult life. In addition to his Revolutionary War service, Strong served two terms as Massachusetts’ first senator to the U.S. Congress, 1789–1793 and 1793–1796, and then returned home to become governor of Massachusetts from 1800–1806 and 1812–1816.

The chairs in Figures 2 and 3 were first used in the home of wealthy Hartford, Connecticut, trader, investor, and magistrate Samuel Wyllys (1632–1709), son of Governor George Wyllys (1590–1645). Wyllys ordered these expensive, London-made William-and-Mary-style walnut chairs as part of a set of twelve sometime between 1685 and 1705. The set descended through the family until 1827, when the Wyllys family possessions were sold and the chairs went to auction with the rest of the household furnishings. Daniel Wadsworth (1771–1848), patron of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, recognized the set as an important link to the state’s early colonial past and bought one of the chairs to use as a prototype to make a new set (Fig. 2). Another chair from the set (Fig. 3) was eventually acquired by Historic Deerfield.

Fig. 3: Armchair, London, ca. 1685–1705, with splat and crest rail added ca. 1780. Walnut and birch, H. 43 1/4". Courtesy of Historic Deerfield, Inc.; photography by Amanda Merullo. 1995.33

Sometime in the mid-eighteenth century, the Deerfield chair was altered. English-made cane chairs are notoriously fragile; few have survived with their turned elements entirely intact. Either in an effort to repair damage to the back or give the chair a new look, the owner retained the old-style decoratively turned arms, legs, and carved stretchers below the seat, but added an upholstered slip seat, new birch stay rail, splat, and crest. The resulting hybrid melds the William and Mary and rococo styles.

Like the later owner of the Strong chair, the owner of the early cane chair simultaneously saved an icon of the past and “improved” on it. By keeping and updating these chairs, the owners contributed to an artifact base that rarely survives, in part due to the ambivalence toward stylistically nonconforming objects. These altered objects served not only as useful furniture but as cherished reminders of past owners.

Joshua Lane has served as Assistant Curator for Furniture at Historic Deerfield, Inc., since fall 2000. He previously taught in the American Studies Department at Yale University and the American Studies and History departments at Miami University of Ohio, specializing in colonial American cultural history.

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