OSV Documents - Furnishings and Room Function in the Fitch House at Old Sturbridge Village: 1980

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TitleFurnishings and Room Function in the Fitch House at Old Sturbridge Village: 1980  
AuthorJane C. Nylander
Type Papers and Articles: OSV Research Paper



This paper has been developed under the Community
in Change Project funded by the National Endowment
for the Humanities
Jane Nylander
April, 1980    

"Furnishings and Room Functions in the Fitch House 1980"

Old Sturbridge Village attempts to interpret as fully as possible the material culture of a specific time and place. The role of artifacts in this plan is primary. Carefully selected objects make complex historical ideas and remote concepts more concrete. They provoke curiosity and stimulate questions. For visitors seeking to understand unfamiliar daily life situations, the objects create a setting and dramatize ideas as well as document carefully researched facts.

The furnishing plan of the Fitch House is designed to support the concept of occupancy by a printer's family, a scenario which is fully discussed in an interpretive paper by Jack Larkin which is titled, "The Fitch House Family". The 1980 Furnishing Plan is based on extensive research in a group of probate inventories of Worcester County artisans who were printers, furniture makers, a gunsmith, a carpenter, a chaisemaker, a tailor, and several merchants. All of them owned household property that was roughly equal in value. Other sources include: a comprehensive survey of Worcester and Worcester County newspaper advertisements for household furniture and furnishings, several cabinetmakers' account books, early 19th century household advice books, diaries, fictional and anecdotal reminiscences of rural New England life in the 1820's and 1830's, and pictorial sources of many kinds. The furnishing plan is a distillation of this large body of evidence, tempered by practical considerations for visitor traffic flow, for security of objects, and for the overall teaching plan for the Printer's House within the goals of the Community in Change Project. Reproductions have been included in the plan in order to enable us to interpret or actually to demonstrate certain themes such as the presence of children, a crowded household, membership in voluntary associations, the relationship of work and home, and women's daily work, especially housekeeping, cooking, and sewing.

It is crucial to understand that each object plays a symbolic role in the furnishing plan. Each object has been chosen to stand for an idea as well as for statistical evidence of its appropriateness to our story. The objects have been drawn from existing Village collections. In many cases, other objects could have been chosen; in some cases, we are actively seeking pieces which will help us to tell our story better.

In the Fitch House Plan, we are not actually recreating a specific household, but furnishing an existing building to stand as the embodiment of a very complex series of ideas. One can expect that changes will be made from time to time, in accordance with the overall furnishing plan, as conservation is needed, as more appropriate things can be acquired, as more reproductions are available, or in order to reinforce interpretive ideas.

Descriptions of objects in early 19th century sources are sometimes maddeningly unspecific. Appraisers of estates were seldom consistent in their use of terms when compiling estate inventories. Items like chairs and tables, of which there were many in a household, usually were more carefully described than were objects like desks, of which there was usually only one.

In the groups of inventories studies for this project, tables are described variously by function (card, ironing, work, dressing, dining), place of use (kitchen, centre), material from which they were made (mahogany, cherry, pine), or size (3 foot, 3½ foot, 4 foot). Only rarely are adjectives used which relate to style; pembroke and Grecian are the only examples for tables. Chairs are described according to the material of the seat (flag bottom, cane), form or function (easy, rocking, nurse, dining, arm, common), place of use (kitchen), color (white, green, black, yellow, fancy) size (children's, small), age (old), or construction (morticed top). Stands are described by material (mahogany) or function (light or wash). Looking glasses are identified by material (mahogany or gilt), size (small or large) or location ("in the dining room"). Desks are only identified by value unless they are specified as portable desks. In contrast, secretarys, which were much more valuable, are sometimes designated by material (pine or mahogany). These adjectives are useful in helping us to understand the variations between pieces of furniture as seen by early 19th century New Englanders. Descriptions of color, wood or useful function were obviously considered most significant. The descriptions seldom relate to visual qualities; color is the only major exception.

To twentieth century furniture scholars or antiques buffs, these are surely inadequate descriptions. For the Village to bridge the gap between the language of one period and another, it is important to know the way in which early 19th century people thought of objects and how they used them, as well as the names which have become associated with them over the years. An artifact guide has been prepared for the Fitch House. It will both provide interpretive information about manufacturing techniques and use, as well as specifically identify each piece, as far as possible.

Of course, there are several ways in which a family could furnish a home. At the Richardson Parsonage, we exhibit and interpret the furnishings of a family which acquired a large percentage of its furniture at the time of marriage - the initial establishment of the household - with most of the pieces having come at that time from one cabinet maker and one chairmaker. Needless to say, not everyone acquired their furnishings this way. Many cabinetmaker's account books show that individuals made continual purchases over the years. Personal account books sometimes document purchases from more than one cabinetmaker, furniture warehouse, or other supplier. (See appended documents).

One thing which seems clear about non-farming, artisan and mercantile families in rural New England towns during the 1820's and 30's, is that they had a larger cash investment in household furnishings than did either their immediate predecessors or most contemporary farm families. Many of those involved in agriculture were land poor, while many artisan's families were able to enjoy more concretely the things which their hard earned cash could buy.

The furnishings in the Fitch House Plan (1980) have been selected to illustrate a pattern of increasing prosperity and the gradual accumulation of a rich inventory of household furnishings. However, it is important to observe that the furnishing plan in the Fitch House does not represent only the prosperity of a certain class of artisans at the beginning of the second quarter of the 19th century. Perhaps of equal importance is the general increase in worldly goods that was being made available at moderate prices by the wonders of new technology. In the 1820's, machines were being applied to both textile and wallpaper making. Carpet looms were being established at Lowell and at Tarriffville, Connecticut. Northern Worcester County was becoming a center for a variety of woodworking industries, all powered by water. Furniture making, especially chairmaking and the turning of bed posts, was especially successful in this area. Inexpensive wooden-works clocks were being made by the hundreds in Connecticut and elsewhere. Brittania (a new alloy of pewter) and new types of tinware were being produced in a dazzling variety of shapes and forms. Imported ceramics were streaming in to New England from England. The manufacture of crockery was second only to that of textiles in the British economy and Americans were among the most eager buyers of both types of goods. The artifacts created by this industrial revolution were readily available to rural New Englanders, an idea which is reinforced by the stock of the Asa Knight Store, as well as individual house furnishing plans.

New technology was also being applied to both heating and lighting. More change occured in these aspects of human habitation in the first half of the 19th century than had occurred in the previous two thousand years - since the development of the fireplace and the wick candle! Cookstoves and parlor stoves reached the masses in the 1830's. At the same time, many new fuels and burners provided increased light at lower cost.

New printing techniques, especially lithography, brought pictorial images into the homes of people whose previous contact with art and design had only been through textiles, or possibly wallpaper. Inexpensive prints could be purchased to embellish one's parlor and after 1830 a number of magazines included illustrations of exotic scenery and the latest London or Paris fashions, as well as portraits of heroes and heroines of patriotic, literary or biblical interest. Maps and framed pictures began to be more commonly hung in parlors and sitting rooms; other pictures were collected or cut out and assembled in the portfolio which could be found on many center tables. The visual experience of the common man expanded considerably through these means. Transfer printing on ceramics catered to the new taste for pictorial images, bringing both American and foreign scenery as well as romantic and landscape views to the tables of thousands. A good example of the exotic taste in ceramic decoration is the pink transfer decorated Staffordshire showing Hannibal Crossing the Alps, or the blue Spode plates showing a cemetary in India, both of which are displayed in the Knight store.

Room Function

New England households since the mid-18th century maintained one or two rooms of the type now thought of a 'living rooms'. For those who could afford it, one of these was considerably more formal than the other. A Parlor, known in the 18th century, as the "Best Room", was intended to display one's most expensive furnishings and to be used for the most formal occasions - entertaining company, marriages, funerals, etc. In many homes, a second room was used more often by the family and called variably a "Sitting Room", "Family Parlor", or "Working Parlor". This room was used daily by all members of the family for a variety of individual and communal activities. In addition, most meals were served in this room. One might dine occasionally in one's best parlor; however, it was more likely that tea or a special collation would be served to guests there. It does not appear to have been common to eat in the kitchen; even breakfast was served in the Sitting Room.

It is not until the 1830's that dining rooms can be considered to have been at all common in average households. They were virtually unknown in the years before the American Revolution and confined to the homes of the wealthy for at least another generation. It seems unlikely that a room would have been set aside exclusively for dining by a successful artisan's family living in an old house like the Fitch House during the first half of the 19th century. There is no evidence of a dining room in any of the inventories studied for this project.

The Best Parlor is probably the easiest room to reconstruct since there was much more uniformity from household to household in the furnishings of formal spaces. Activities which required considerable equipment or made much of a mess were confined to the sitting room or to even lesser rooms. Since Parlors were intended as a place to display one's prized possessions, people were proud of them and described them in both contemporary writing and in reminiscence. (See attached documents)

The parlor closet was usually the place where one stored the equipage for entertaining; tea set, waiter or tray, cake, glassware and silver. If one were not of a temperance persuasion, wines, decanters and glasses would also be kept in this space. We have put the original door back on the parlor closet in the Fitch House. This is consistent with our current philosophy which attempts to show the house as it would have been, rather than as a formal museum exhibit, for we believe the cupboard door would have been kept closed.

The concept of private space was only beginning to emerge in the early 19th century. Previously, the bed chamber had been a place in which all sorts of activities might take place, depending on the season and the company involved. There are many references to dining in bed chambers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Indeed, until about 1800, the best Bed Chamber was often considered at least as important, if not more important, than the Parlor. Here were the most expensive furniture and textiles and one did not hesitate to entertain one's friends or those whom one wished to impress in such a room.

For lesser Chambers, there was, obviously, much less grandeur. However, they were still very different from the private and very specialized spaces which we think of as bedrooms today. Many chambers had more than two large beds in them; not every one was able to afford the privacy created by bedcurtains. Children did not automatically expect to have rooms of their own; indeed that was a luxury very rare for them and beyond many adults. In addition to sharing one's sleeping space with other people, one could expect that it would also serve for household storage. Clothing and household linens were kept in chests and chests of drawers; in addition, foodstuffs, were kept in cold chambers during the winter.

As women's roles changed in the 1820's and 1830's, bed chambers began to be seen as feminine spaces, at least in the warm months of the years. Many writers of household advice books at this period recommend that bed chambers be fitted up with writing and sewing tables and comfortable chairs.

In the Fitch House, the very architecture defies the concept of a personal space. Although there are two finished bed chambers on the second floor, we do not expect that the parents of the family would have slept there. Unfortunately, their small bed chamber is also a passage to the new kitchen, which seems like a bit of poor planning, but may be explained by the placement of the well. Consequently, we have not furnished it as a space which would be used as a place of respite from the busy activities of the household. A washstand is available for care of the hands, face and feet, but everyone else in this family washes in the kitchen, or out of doors in good weather. The privy is close by, beyond the kitchen, so no chamber pots are included in the furnishings.

Descriptions of early 19th century kitchens show them to have been crowded with equipment and stored items. Inventories are seldom specific in enumerating the full contents of kitchens, rather, they often group objects according to material (pewter, tinware, baskets, stoneware, earthenware) or function (dry casks, wash tub, grain box), age (old, new), size (large, small), or contents (containers for meat, cheese, butter, clothes pins, vinegar, etc.). Many small objects and containers must have been left out of inventories because of their trifling value.

Memories of early 19th century kitchens, in both fiction and reminiscences, depict them as warm havens for family members and busy centers for a wide variety of work experiences. Several practical considerations in the Fitch House force us to concentrate on the latter. In order to assure an ample space for visitors to see or to bypass those who are seeing kitchen work demonstrations, the Fitch House kitchen is set up as only a partial room, rather than as a completely organic space.

In order to amplify more fully the kinds of sources that have been used in preparing the furnishing plan for the Fitch House, 1980, a series of research cards has been added to the artifact file box normally stored in the house. Yellow cards offer interpreters a variety of historical sources with which to enrich their interpretation of individual objects and aspects of the furnishing plan. Separate papers are being prepared on wallpaper, carpet, bedding and household linen, lighting and heating. As questions arise or new themes are developed, we will be glad to provide additional information.

Center Village: Fitch House

Room Function - Parlors

Anna Perkins to George William Perkins, New Haven, Feb. 12, 1827

(Perkins Coll., Stowe-Day Foundation, Hartford, Ct.)

"You will like to hear, how we like our new house, LeHigh Grate &c. Emily and myself are seated in perfect silence at the table, which is covered with a dark blue cloth, about 1 yard from the Grate, in which is calmly burning, as beautiful a fire, as you ever looked at, on a cold winter night—We have had the Grate attended since it was put up, & like it much better than we did at first-

Our back parlor, is 20 feet (including the recess) in length, & 15 in width, it is hung with a very pretty paper, shaded with blue & yellow; the carpet is that which was on the front parlour in the other house—First, now, we have looked at the Paper & carpet, let us stand before the fire—on the mantle-piece, or rather about 12 inches above it, hangs Emily's gold watch—on each side, upon the shelf, are three large shells, formerly on the little breakfast room shelf, in the old house—4 candlesticks, & 2 cardracks, complete the shelf-furniture—Next the fire, on the left, is the bed-room door, turning to the east side of the room is a door into the back hall-then the recess, in which stand the sideboard with glass Pitchers &c. upon it, & the Portrait of Judge Sherman in the centre; next is the closet door, & a noble closet it is; large enough to contain all Emily's China, plate &c. without crowding, On the north side are 2 windows, from which are to be seen east & west Rock, the canal, & several handsome trees, beside a considerably extended view of the Hartford Road..."

Between the windows is a large Mirror, & under that a breakfast-table generally stands, upon which I am now writing. On the west side of the room are; a candlestand, hall-door, & Parlor-door & on the South, a work-table, & you arrive at the fire again. The 2 Arm Chairs, 2 rocking-chairs, & 7 common ones, complete the furniture of the room. The front parlor is a very handsome room, about 17 or 18 feet square, with purple & green paper, & a handsome new carpet, & Sofa—The chambers are warm & convenient, especially mine, which is on the south of the house.—"


Back Parlor 20' x 15' Front Parlor     18' Sq.
LeHigh Grate candlestand Purple & Green Paper
Table w. Blue Cloth mirror btw windows New Carpet
Blue & Yellow Paper under it a bkfst. Sofa
Carpet (old parlor carpet)         table
Sideboard w. Glass Pitchers Work Table
Portrait Over 2 Arm Chairs
Closet w. china 2 Rocking Chairs
On Mantle-Gold watch 7 Common ones
3 shells
            4 Candle Sticks
        2 Cardracks

Center Village: Fitch House

Room Functions - Parlor

Lesley, Susan I. Recollections of My Mother, p. 106-107

Mrs. Howe's New Home.

And now for a description of my new home. These blank fields and naked woods, I am told, are verdant and beautiful in summer, but now have nothing in particular to recommend them, and so I do not look at them often. The house we are to inhabit stands on one corner of two roads which cross each other, but not near enough to either road to be incommoded by it, or to look ill; the other three corners are occupied by a tavern, a store, and a dwelling-house, and this is the most considerable settlement in Worthington, there being a few other houses in the vicinity. I will say nothing of the interior of the house, except that it has a very pleasant parlor with southeast and southwest windows in it, which give us a bountiful portion of sun (when it shines, mark ye, which is not very often); and in this parlor I expect to pass the ensuing six months almost exclusively (except when I am asleep), and in it I calculate to keep (besides tables and chairs) a work-box, a writing-desk, and sundry books, so that I may have employment suitable to my taste and genius. I may occasionally make a peregrination into the kitchen to superintend the concerns there. But though my corporeal frame is to be thus limited, do not think my soaring spirit and brilliant imagination will confine themselves; on the contrary I expect to search the records of ages long past, and to fly on the wings of fancy into regions the most remote, and perhaps now and then condescend to use the same agency in conveying myself to your side on the sofa, where I picture you now surrounded by your family.

Center Village: Fitch House

Room Functions - Parlors

The Housekeeper's Book. By a Lady. Philadelphia, 1838, pp. 15-16

"I would recommend to every young woman, who has the good taste to wish that her house may be characterized by its simplicity, and be more remarkable for comfort than for show—I would strongly recommend to her, if she wish to spare herself and her family much discomfort, to avoid having show rooms; such rooms, I mean, as are considered to be too fine to be habitually occupied by the family to whom they belong, and such as are kept shut up, except on particular occasions, when, and perhaps only a few times in the course of a year, a fire is lighted in a fine drawing-room, which is put in order to receive guests. Upon such occasions, children are seen to stare and look about them, as if they had never beheld the place before; the master of the house fidgets from one seat to another, as if he were any where but at home; and most likely before the entertainment is over, the mistress of the house is heard to remark, that she is 'never so comfortable as in the room she is accustomed to;' thereby letting her friends know how much she is put out of her way by having the pleasure of their company...It is rare that we find the album, the closeted curiosity, or even the conversation of the assembled company, having charms sufficient to dissipate that gloom which infallibly attends such hospitality."

Center Village: Fitch House

Room Functions - Best Room - Parlour

Sarah Orne Jewett. Deephaven, p. 62

She showed us into the best room the first time we went to see her. It was the plainest little room, and very dull, and there was an exact sufficiency about its furnishings. Yet there was a certain dignity about it; it was unmistakably a best room, and not a place where one might make a litter or carry one's everyday work. You felt at once that somebody valued the prim old-fashioned chairs, and the two half-moon tables, and the thin carpet, which must have needed anxious stretching every spring to make it come to the edge of the floor. There were some mourning pieces by way of decoration, inscribed with the names of Mrs. Patton's departed friends,-two worked in crewel to the memory of her father and mother, and two paper memorials, with the woman weeping under the willow at the side of a monument. They were all brown with age; and there was a sampler beside, worked by "Judith Beckett, aged ten," and all five were framed in slender black frames and hung very high on the walls. There was a rocking chair which looked as if it felt too grand for use, and considered itself imposing. It tilted far back on its rockers, and was bent forward at the top to make one's head uncomfortable. It need not have troubled itself; nobody would ever wish to sit there. It was such a big rocking chair, and Mrs. Patton was proud of it; always generously urging her guests to enjoy its comfort, which was imaginary with her, as she was so short that she could hardly have climbed into it without assistance.

Center Village: Fitch House

Room Function -Parlors

Lesley, Susan I. Recollections of My Mother, p. 90

The "old parlor," where we lived for eight months of the year, was a square room of moderate size, with two windows on the street, and one on the side-yard towards the printing office. It was a simple room, but very pretty. The walls were covered with a pale-yellow paper, and varnished; the broad wooden panels lining the room for three feet in height. The floor was covered with an English Kidderminster carpet of bright colors. A large Franklin stove, with brass finishings and fender and andirons shining brightly in the firelight, gave warmth and cheerfulness to the room. A clock of alabaster, with swinging pendulum, stood on a bracket between the two windows. The furniture was cane-seated, but had hair-cushions covered with bright chintz. A sofa and two rocking-chairs, a centre-table and an upright English piano (the only one in the town for many years), constituted the remaining furniture. Over this piano, in an old-fashioned gilt frame, hung a picture of Domenichino's St. Cecilia, a beautiful engraving by ______; which was the delight of my childhood.

Copyright: Old Sturbridge Inc.