Difficult to Draw a Hard and Fast Line

“It is important to stress that few period cabinetmakers made a living exclusively by building furniture. Especially in rural settings, artisans had diverse sources of income. Warren Roberts has said, “craftsmen were usually part-time farmers who had some land on which they grew crops and raised animals, devoting time to their own farm when they could. Hence it is difficult to draw a hard and fast line between the farmer and the specialized craftsman.” If the Arts and Crafts legend of the rural craftsmen working in isolation, doing everything by hand and by the sweat of their brow is true anywhere, it is in Fisher. In rural towns such as Blue Hill, the craft tradition gave the maker more freedom to work independently, able to work to their own idiosyncratic designs or those of their customers. As Henry Glassie has said: “In folk culture, art and labor are blended in a way William Morris wished them to be.”

From his earliest days in Blue Hill, Fisher seemed a confident cabinetmaker. While the bookshelf and benches could have been made by anyone, the bedsteads and especially the chest of drawers he built required an experienced hand. Although it is not certain, the chest of drawers referred to at this time may very likely be the chest now painted black but originally painted bright blue, which is said to have been built into his house. (The shadow of applied moulding shows it was once a built-in piece.) The construction of this chest, while definitely Fisher’s hand, shows a more simplistic and rudimentary construction than later pieces.

The dovetails are larger and less refined, the drawer bottoms are nailed onto the sides in the 17th-century manner (rather than beveled into grooves the way it was done in the 18th century) and the drawers’ runners are simply nailed to the sides without the support of dados.

As his skills improved (or he was under less of a time constraint to produce finished products), his work became much more careful and complex.”

– Joshua A. Klein, excerpt from Hands Employed Aright: The Furniture Making of Jonathan Fisher (1768-1847) published by Lost Art Press, available to purchase here.


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