Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Boston Leather Chair

C. 1735 Boston Chair in Colonial Revival upholstery
It’s 1745, you’ve had some economic success in life—comfortable, not wealthy—and you’re dressed in your best waiting for your guests to arrive, so you take a seat.  Despite the arrival of the cabriole leg in the 1730s and its acceptance into the design hierarchy, in all probability, you would still be using a chair like the one covered in 20th century needlework.  Produced in Boston for the better part of 40 years, shipped throughout the colonies and copied by craftsmen in those same colonies, this chair in its many iterations defined its period. Its shape firmly links the design aesthetic of the Restoration Decades (1660-1714) with that of the long Eighteenth Century (1714-1837). The seat and legs reflect the turning traditions of hundreds of years, while the curved back introduces the modern notion of seated comfort. And with the addition of “elbows” or as we term them “arms,” them a truly modern notion of comfort begins to eclipse the stool and straight back chairs that predominated the 17th and early 18th centuries.
A straight-backed caned chair c.1710
The needlepoint chair is an object in the collection of the Warner House in Portsmouth, NH. For some time it was relegated to storage. Stylistically it was viewed as more Colonial Revival than 18th century—it no longer seemed to fit into the presentation of the house. Several years ago we began to reaccess the presentation of the house and this chair moved from storage into a 19th century bedchamber. It looked vaguely late Victorian in its upholstery and fit into the 19th century bedchamber that displayed several generations of furnishings. Personally, I liked the chair, or at least the structure of it, despite its upholstery. In the accession file from the 1960s it is listed as an 18th century chair, but in the wrong clothing even an authentic piece looks more like a reproduction than an original. One day we examined it from the side and realized it was likely an 18th century Boston chair covered in fabric, not leather.  After a good bit of research and curatorial conversation it was decided to remove and save the needlework, and then replace it with black leather. The wood bears no traces of black paint, so the black leather was probably the correct fitting for such a chair. Black paint is indicative of red leather coverings, but like all historical decoration rules, absolutism is for the court of Versailles and some divergence for the rest of us.
C. 1735 Boston Chair rupholstered with black leather and brass dome nails
Due to its age and condition, the brass nails where place into or next to what appears to be the earliest pattern (new nails were inserted into old holes to determine the potential placement). The back of the chair appears to have had nails placed about every inch, and the seat skirting about every 1.5 inches. Following these old nail holes meant that the placement was not perfect. Due to the nature of leather a hole made is a whole kept, so the double nailed pattern is close, but not mechanical. To visually and physically flatten the seat, excess cotton padding was removed. Both the seat and the back had horsehair stuffing, which was reused, keeping with upholstery practices of the 1730s-40s.

Resting nails in old holes to determine placement. The curving of the back can be seen on the side rails.

The leather is new and the solid brass nail heads gently glisten. The nails are old stock from 25 years ago and having mellowed give the chair a sense of being neither new, nor old, but accustomed to its house. As it appears now, it is a very evocative object—a piece of material culture that visually captures the stylistic backdrop of the 2nd quarter of the 18th century—a bridge between the Restoration and Georgian design cultures—a grasping by the burgeoning middle-class toward a more commodious life. Not to wax lyrical, but every now and then an object personifies an era, such is this chair for me.

Jeff Hopper is the Director of the Warner House and researches social history and material culture. In this instance he used his old skills as a conservator to reupholster the chair closer to its original appearance.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Two Refashioned Silk Dresses

Photograph by Laura Wulf @Massachusetts Historical Society
Exhibit Teaser: Two refashioned silk dresses will be featured in the forthcoming exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society ( ‘Fashioning the New England Family’ which opens October 2018. The lush, emerald green dress on the left began as Spitalfields silk damask wedding dress, worn by Rebecca Tailer [Byles] for her Boston wedding to Reverend Mather Byles, in 1747. It was altered, clumsily, c.1830s-40s, most likely for a costume or fancy dress event. Her matching shoes are extant and will also be on view.

Photograph by Laura Wulf @Massachusetts Historical Society
Unfortunately, we do not know who made or wore the well-constructed pale green silk dress on the right. It shows the hand of a skilled dressmaker and most likely has a New England connection. Examination by costume historian and mannequin maker, Astrida Schaeffer, revealed the possibility that the original c1830s dress was replete with popular pouf sleeves, which were painstakingly remade for the 1840s.

Photograph by Laura Wulf @Massachusetts Historical Society
Photograph by Laura Wulf @Massachusetts Historical Society
Guest Curator, Kimberly Alexander, Ph.D.
MHS Curator, Anne Bentley
Photographer, Laura Wulf

Both dresses are shown on custom mannequins made by Astrida Schaeffer of Schaeffer Arts. (

Monday, December 11, 2017

Young Hannah Haines Diary: "I will never be vaccinated again" 1897-1912

Photo of the young diarist,  Hannah Wiswall Haines Webb  with her mother. Hannah was an only child, and was evidently doted on by parents and family alike.  

A recent donation to the Newmarket, NH Historical Society is the diary of young girl, Hannah Haines Webb (b. 1889), written sporadically in the 1890s through the early 1900s. In it, she worries about illness - measles, mumps, smallpox and whooping cough; the pain and recovery of inoculation, and the  death of her cat. Hannah also makes mention of a 'sleepover' and the several weddings she attended. To her diary, she divulged her savings in a tin box of $3.45 (which was separate from her bank account). Her diary opens around in the late 1890s and the last entry in her short diary was to record a wedding in 1912.
"Romeo was killed by a dog..." Diary entry, c. 1901-1902
"I will never be vaccinated again. I have two ugly scars on my left arm and always
will." March 3 1904, age 15. She was first vaccinated in 1901 at age 12.
This note was tucked away in the back pocket of the diary, with detailed descriptions of how to return it to its owner.
The diary is in the collection of the Newmarket Historical Society. The author thanks John Carmichael and the Board for permission to share the diary.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Holiday Gift Ideas for the Historically Minded

Jeff and I gathered a short list of holiday items for the historically-minded shopper. This year, we are highlighting books by women authors and businesses owned and run by women.  Please note that we are patrons of these vendors and authors and accept no gifts or advertising.

American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking:

An Agreeable Tyrant, by Alden O’Brien, et al for the DAR:

I, Eliza Hamilton, by Susan Holloway Scott

The Turncoat (and other novels of the American Revolution), by Donna Thorland


Dames a la Mode: Dames a la Mode creates reproduction 18th and 19th Century jewelry, specializing in Georgian Collet Necklaces and Paste Jewelry.

Sign of the Gray Horse: Kimberly Walters sells reproduction and historically inspired jewelry for her four rescued and one adopted Colonial Williamsburg horse.

Burnley and Trowbridge: B & T Company specializes in historically accurate fabrics, notions, patterns, research material and related items.  Catering to Historic Sites, Museums, Educational Facilities, Re-enactors, Theater & Screen since 1982. 

Specialty Items

Marie Antoinette Street Wear, custom made contemporary clothing with an 18th century aesthetic.

Chawton House Mittens (pattern download)

HatsPeriod are makers of fine period style hats with a range of ladies millinery modelled from 18th, 19th and early 20th century designs, and for the gentlemen, smoking hats similar to those worn throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Hats from earlier periods can be made to special order.

Fashionable Frolick:

Sign of the Golden Scissors: