Editor’s Note: This post is written by Shelley Cathcart, Assistant Curator at Old Sturbridge Village. Shelley and her co-author, Amy Griffin (American Foundation Curatorial Fellow), have been researching the cabinet and chair making of two New England craftsmen. We are excited to publish this fresh research in M&T Issue Three, titled "On the Trail of Two Cabinetmakers: Reconstructing the Careers of Samuel Wing and Tilly Mead". We are confident this essay will help to advance our understanding of rural American cabinetmaking before the Industrial Revolution.
Interior of Samuel Wing’s Workshop, Sandwich, Massachusetts. November 1964
A new exhibition at Old Sturbridge Village, Planed, Grained, & Dovetailed: Cabinetmaking in Rural New England, explores the tools, products and livelihoods of rural cabinetmakers in the early 19th century. Stories of individual craftsmen or local partnerships are examined to reveal the man behind the workbench, his processes, products, and clientele. Inside the gallery the careers of two rural Massachusetts craftsmen – Samuel Wing (1774-1854) of Sandwich and Tilly Mead (1794-1849) of Hardwick – are compared through surviving material and physical evidence to situate the men in the canon of New England furniture makers. Both navigated the trade in ways that were typical during the first half of the 19th century. Like most rural craftsmen, they were primarily farmers with diverse sources of income, facing pressures of increased factory production with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. By exploring the narrative through a comparison of source material they left behind, it reveals unique approaches to the creation and maintenance of professional identity as a rural cabinetmaker.
Over fifty years ago Old Sturbridge Village was gifted the contents of Samuel Wing’s workshop, unveiling a vast material record of pre-industrial tools, patterns, furniture parts, and finished products. Account books, letters, and receipts reveal the versatility and entrepreneurial spirit of this coastal craftsman and chronicle the demands of his clientele. Interior images taken upon donation of Wing’s shop invite scholars to explore the interior and mechanics of an early 19th-century rural craftsman’s workshop. Even though Wing only practiced the trade for about 15 years, he left sufficient physical evidence to determine his production methods, style preferences, and technical strengths. Yet, the artifacts reveal few details about Wing’s personal life. The synthesis of documentary and material resources demonstrates his superior ability as a craftsman, but fails to reveal it as a means of self-definition.
The story of Hardwick’s Tilly Mead, depicted in a portrait by eminent decorative painter John Ritto Penniman, challenges researchers to recognize the contributions of a cabinetmaker whose surviving work is scarce. In lieu of a body of furniture, Mead left a trail of land transactions, patterns and graphic materials, some papers, architectural resources, and significant social connections. This evidence supports vivid conclusions about Mead’s personality and his aspirations in the thriving but competitive field of fancy painted furniture, but offer only hints of his actual products. Mead’s lively but meager career represents one cabinetmaker’s response to the fluid but unstable state of the trade in mid-19th century New England.
Letter from Ebenezer Swift, dated May 18, 1799, cites the demands of local clientele, imploring Mr. Wing to “give them chairs a good Green coler [sic]…& do get them dun [sic] as soon as you can…”
Juxtaposing the evidence available on these two craftsmen introduces specificity and nuance to general characterizations of New England cabinetmakers. In bringing their careers into the light, we find cause to re-evaluate assumptions about the knowledge, aspirations, and resourcefulness of rural artisans. At the same time, both men confronted industrial and economic changes that transformed the trade, forcing all cabinetmakers to reconsider their status. Adding unconventional sources to traditional furniture study enriches and refines our ever-evolving understanding of the cabinetmaking tradition in Massachusetts and the individuals who shaped it.
- Shelley Cathcart, Assistant Curator, Old Sturbridge Village
Stay tuned for the next Issue Three article announcement tomorrow….