Furniture Masterworks: Tradition and Innovation in Western Massachusetts

April 19, 2014 - December 28, 2014 | 9:30 am - 4:30 pm

Wright House


Seating and case furniture made in Massachusetts before the 1840s is as varied as the craftsmen and consumers who created it. From Beacon Hill to the Berkshires, the extremes test the richness of the whole. Yet, the great variety in the Bay State’s furniture making traditions begs the question: Why is the furniture so different statewide in each period from the 17th into the 19th centuries when so many cultural, social, economic, and political traditions appear unified? There are at least two answers to that question, as we test why things look as they do. The first rests with the tribal power of family networks with its control of mores and standards, capitalization of tools and labor, and accepted beauty and functionality. The second lies in the natural power of the landscape in its ability to feed, sustain, transport, and protect.

The furniture-making traditions in Western Massachusetts are the perfect laboratory for exploring the impact of family and landscape on the appearance of manmade goods. While numerous mercantile ties were built by ambitious Connecticut Valley families in Boston, Newport, New York City, and later the China Trade, their extensive cousinage created a kind of corporate whole that improved business and forged identity. At the same time, the north-south flow of the Connecticut River—New England’s “great river”—was a far more powerful current than any east-west political or cultural ties to Boston.

Historic Deerfield’s exhibition, slated to open on September 28, 2013 in the Wright House as a semi-permanent installation, will explore the impact of family and landscape on craftsmanship and consumerism through 1) the famous “Hadley” chests of the late 17th century and the other early regional shop traditions that they obscured; 2) the emergence of the consumer revolution, through both local craftsmen and urban imports, on the shoulders of the Valley’s elite “river god” families who funded themselves through agricultural exports and munitions for the colonial wars; 3) the post-American Revolution rise of classicism that largely eclipsed the “river gods” with new consumers and craftsmen who manifest different standards of taste, education, and trading partners enhanced by the Connecticut River’s new canal system; and 4) the 19th-century rise in wealth from burgeoning industry and technology, largely through the metalworking trades, that created yet another wave of consumers and craftsmen anxious to express their newfound wealth in modern ways. These four chapters are deeply rooted in sense of place and together show the importance of reading cultural history through documented objects.

Furniture Masterworks: Tradition and Innovation in Western Massachusetts explores Western Massachusetts’ first 150 years of furniture-making with 58 objects drawn from Historic Deerfield’s collections that best exemplify the region’s signature contribution to American design history and emergence of national identity. The exhibition is a part of Four Centuries of Massachusetts FurnitureFour Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture is a collaborative project of Historic Deerfield and ten other institutions that features exhibitions, lectures, demonstrations and publications to celebrate the Bay State’s legacy of furniture-making. Visit fourcenturies.org . 

Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture is made possible through the generosity of many individuals, foundations, and institutions, with special support for exhibitions in Massachusetts by SKINNER, Inc.