Donald R. Friary
Fifty Years of Collecting for Historic Deerfield - Part 3
The Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework that flourished from 1896 to mid-1920s had produced for sale, largely to tourists, hundreds of doilies, table mats, wall hangings, and bed curtains. By the late 20 th century, daughters and granddaughters of the original embroiderers and purchasers began to give them to Historic Deerfield. The eagle eye of Washington resident Lee Magnuson, who had been a student years before in Historic Deerfield’s Summer Fellowship Program for undergraduates, spotted four table mats in a Georgetown thrift shop, bought them, and some years later, gave them to Historic Deerfield.
In 1991, a long hunt concluded with th purchase at Sotheby’s of the Jonathan Smith, Jr., chest-on-chest-on-frame (Fig.5). This first came to Henry Flynt’s attention in the early 1950s, but he learned it was not for sale. When Peter Spang arrived as the museum’s first professional staff member in 1959, he found a yellowed clipping in Mr. Flynt’s files of a 1933 article by Malcolm Watkins in the New York Sun. It revealed that the piece had been made in 1803 in the neighboring town of Conway, by Jonathan Smith, Jr., for newlyweds Lydia Batchelder and Simon DeWolf. We continued to look for it in the 1960s a d 70s and 80s. Finally, in 1990 Historic Deerfield Summer Fellow Leigh Keno was invited to see a collection of furniture in a New York apartment. He recalled the advice that I had dispensed to generations of Historic Deerfield Fellows that they should always do everything possible to get upstairs, to the children’s rooms, to the maid’s rooms. That’s where they keep the country furniture. In a maid’s room of the St. Regis Hotel, he found this splendid piece, recognizing it from slides of the 1933 New York Sun clipping shown so often in Deerfield lectures. It was to be such a major acquisition that I asked Curator Philip Zea to research Jonathan Smith Jr., to verify his designation as a woodworker on the paper label affixed to the chest. He not only found references to his making a sleigh and a bedstead for Conway patrons, he also found that Jonathan Smith, Jr., was buying land from the bride’s father in 1803. Had he added all that adornment to the chest so that its highe4r price would enable him to buy the land?
In January 1994 two major Connecticut Valley case pieces entered the collection. We all knew in advance that a vine-carved high chest of drawers attributed to Eliakim Smith of Hadley, Massachusetts, was to be offered at Sotheby’s. Historic Deerfield had long hoped to have one of these signature pieces in the collection. It had the added attraction of having belonged to Sophia Smith, the founding donor of Smith College, with which Historic Deerfield has a close relationship through the formal affiliation with Five Colleges, Inc.- Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts/Amherst - that was signed in 1986. We were very excited when the hammer fell and the chest was Historic Deerfield’s.
While this acquisition was under consideration, the dealer Bill Samaha offered from his private collection a sprightly high chest of drawers that had descended in another Hatfield family. Curator Philip Zea examined it and reported to me that it must have come from the same shop as a scallop-top dressing table that the Flynt’s had purchased 30 years before. It had the same carved pinwheels, the same creased legs and pad feet, the same scalloped skirt, the same brasses, and the same drawer construction. I asked Philip Zea to research the family histories of the two pieces. He discovered that they went back to the same couple, Content Little and John Hastings of Hatfield, Massachusetts. Bringing the two back together was very exciting, for it demonstrated to us that an en suite high chest and dressing table had been made in the Connecticut Valley in the 1760s. The high chest is an especially appropriate acquisition, because John Hastings was an original Trustee of Deerfield Academy, when it was incorporated in 1797.
Reuniting long separated high chests and dressing tables is a little like bringing a family together after years apart. At Historic Deerfield we like bringing objects back to the Connecticut Valley, to the village of Deerfield, and even to the house where they started their existence. When the Hinsdale and Anna Williams House (Fig. 6) became available to Historic Deerfield staff after the conclusion of a life tenancy in 1981, we saw a golden opportunity. The house had been built in the 1740s, but then radically altered beginning in 1816 when Ebenezer Hinsdale Williams and his wife Anna bought the place. They transformed the old house into a splendid new dwelling with striking wallpapers and handsome furnishings. At Hinsdale Williams’ death in 1838, a thorough room-by-room inventory of the contents was taken. Most of the items were quite familiar and already available in the museum collection, but the "washing machine" in the buttery was a surprise and a challenge. Although we knew that many washing machines had been invented and patented in the early 19th century, we knew also that they had not survived. Curators were certain that we would have to reproduce one from a patent drawing in Washington. We had circulated the 1838 inventory to several friends—collectors and dealers. One of the, Ross Levett, who had been an Historic Deerfield Summer Fellow decades before, telephoned from his car phone to see whether were still looking for a washing machine. He had found one in the loft of an antique barn/shop in Maine!
Furnishing of the Hinsdale and Anna Williams House was guided by the 1838 inventory and aided by archaeological investigations undertaken for several years by the University of Massachusetts Summer Field School in Archaeology. The inventory told us about china and glass and earthenware, but the shards excavated showed the specific wares that had been bought, used, and then discarded by the Williams family. We also received some artifacts from a collateral descendant that actually had belonged to the Williamses Others came on loan from the Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield. One was a rush-seated side chair, the only survivor of "16 flagg bottom chairs" that had been listed in the inventory. Curators recommended reproducing the chair on the premise that it would be impossible to find a set of sixteen. We did have time to look and were very happy when a set of twelve appeared at a New Hampshire auction that bore a striking resemblance to the original.
Everyday chairs do weave the texture of life in Deerfield, but there is always the thrill of discovering a masterwork of American decorative art. Sometimes this is the result of a long chase; at other times one appears on the doorstep. On a November day in 1995 a couple appeared at our Hall Tavern Visitor Center and were very direct, "We have a Hadley chest. Do you want it?" The desk volunteer contacted me immediately. I had a very pleasant conversation with the visiting couple and arranged to call on them in New Jersey to see the chest. When Curator Philip Zea and I made the trip, we were astonished by the quality of the chest (Fig.7), its remarkable state of preservation, its detailed family history, and the happy coincidence that its original owner, Hepzibah Dickinson, had the same initials as Historic Deerfield. It was also nice to learn that the chest had been in Deerfield before. When Hepzibah Dickinson of Hatfield married Jonathan Belding of Northfield in 1720, she must have carted her Hadley chest up The Street in Deerfield on her way to housekeeping.
Even when collecting masterworks, our focus in recent years has been on Deerfield and the Connecticut Valley, as in the case of the HD chest. However, when a great opportunity appears, we seize it. Descendants of a New Jersey couple who formed a small, but choice, collection of high style American furniture, buying principally from the Edgewater, New Jersey, dealer Willoughby Farr, decided to place a portion of the collection at Historic Deerfield as a memorial to Charles Warner Hurst and Julia Bates Hurst. They had exquisite taste and were buying at just the right time, when the 1929 stock market crash had lowered prices and demand. They had furniture of great quality from Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Newport, as well as some country pieces from the Connecticut Valley. Nineteen items came to Historic Deerfield—a beautifully carved Philadelphia Chippendale mahogany dressing table, a piecrust Philadelphia tea table of extraordinary figured mahogany, a Newport desk-and-bookcase that miraculously retained the cabinetmaker’s wood shavings under the bottom drawer, two pair of magnificent Philadelphia mahogany Gothic Chippendale chairs, a powerful Boston Chippendale bed, a sewing stand and a library table from New York, majestic brass andirons case in London for the Philadelphia market, and a chest-on-chest that must have been made within tn miles of Deerfield. The Hurst Collection complements beautifully Historic Deerfield’s holdings of great American furniture in the Flynt, Cluett, and Potter collections.
Many of Historic Deerfield’s masterworks, and of its more ordinary artifacts, are displayed in the Museum’s Attic in the Flynt Center of Early New England Life, opened to the public in 1998. The new facility has exhibition galleries, cases to show new acquisitions, classrooms, studios for photography and conservation, and office and workspace for curatorial staff. Perhaps its most popular feature is the Attic, a 4,000 square foot space that displays 2,500 objects in visible storage. Visitors can wander its corridors and look in glass cases to see what is usually consigned to dark storerooms in museums. Every object is identified by its accession number and the visitor has computer access to learn what the curators know about each object on view.
Historic Deerfield has masterworks in early American silver, textiles, needlework, and costume, English and Chinese ceramics, paintings and prints. The silver collection that was formed largely by Henry Needham Flynt is generally recognized as one of the top ten collections of American silver worldwide. It was strengthened markedly in the Fall of 1997, when Historic Deerfield made the bold move of purchasing twelve pieces of communion silver from the First Church of Deerfield (Fig. 8). These dozen objects are certainly intimately related to the history of Deerfield, not simple of Deerfield inhabitants, but of the corporate community that gathered together each Sabbath to worship. These items are also masterworks of American craftsmanship, marked by John Dixwell, John Edwards, William Pollard, Jacob Hurd, Samuel Edwards, Paul Revere II, Joseph Loring, Lewis Cary, and Samuel Williamson of Philadelphia. Two two-handled cups, four beakers, five tankards, and a spoon are stunning testimony to the talents of colonial silversmiths and to the ambitions and aspirations of Deerfield residents. The Deerfield church silver provides a window into the theological beliefs and liturgical practices of one Puritan town over its first century and a half of existence. We see the iconoclasm of these English Calvinists in their early domestic cups turned to Puritan worship. We see the desire for refinement, neatness, elegance, decency in the assemblage of stately tankards. We see the decline of Puritan assertiveness in the uniformity and conformity of the 19th-century beakers. These artifacts of Deerfield’s early existence place it in a wider world of religious reform, commercial exchange, and social aspiration. Acquisitions like the church silver, their presentation in exhibitions, and their interpretation on tours attest to Historic Deerfield’s development from a collection of beautiful antiques to a vehicle for the understanding of early American history in all its complexity.
This article was originally prepared for and published in the catalogue of the Ellis Antiques Show, October 31 to November 3, 2002