Furniture and the Stories It Can Tell

I never considered myself very interested in furniture. But I enjoy history, especially when it concerns my little ol’ town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, and so I attended Judy Anderson’s talk at the Abbot Public Library about Marblehead in relation to furniture craftsmanship in the 18th century. It was there, I discovered something. Much like the many things we own have background stories of how we got them, so, too, do the pieces of woodwork have interesting stories behind them.


DSCF9202One thing Anderson mentioned was the Chinese influence on the cabinet-makers of Marblehead. Why wouldn’t New Englanders want designs from an exotic country? The 18th Century chairs had urn-shaped backs, some pieces had a Cupid’s bow shape, and my favorite influence: the low dresser’s ball-and-claw feet, symbolizing the Chinese Emperor in dragon form grasping pearls of wisdom. How nice does that sound?


In the 1700s, most furniture makers would make the base of clocks and have the clock parts imported from England. Clockmaking in America was rare, which probably made clockmaker Henry Harmson popular in Marblehead. This just goes to show how knowing what there’s a market for will help you with a business.


DSCF9198Ledgers and inventories themselves could tell stories, sometimes very sad ones. For example, when someone bought a cradle one year, and a few years later purchased a coffin, that says a lot, and none of it good. You could tell when the depression came when the prices changed for the same type of furniture.


Colonel Jeremiah Lee was a top subject of the talk: his large order of mahogany, proving that the wood in the Lee Mansion was from the 18th century; the extensive list on his inventory of all the furniture he purchased, including the pieces he bought for his daughter and son-in-law. In fact, there was one particular piece he gave them as a wedding present, and he paid for it not long before he passed away.


For information and photos of the Jeremiah Lee Mansion, visit the Marblehead Museum website.


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