Review by William Hosley
Connecticut Valley Furniture: Eliphalet Chapin and His Contemporaries, 1750–1800

Thomas P. Kugelman and Alice K. Kugelman, with Robert Lionetti et al. Connecticut Valley Furniture: Eliphalet Chapin and His Contemporaries, 1750–1800. Edited by Susan Schoelwer. Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 2005. 540 pp.; 445 color & bw illus., maps, glossary, bibliography. Distributed by University Press of New England, Hanover and London. $75.00.

The study of American furniture has rarely produced such an exhaustive and revealing analysis as Thomas and Alice Kugelman’s Connecticut Valley Furniture: Eliphalet Chapin and His Contemporaries, 1750–1800. It brings us closer than ever to an understanding of the cultural, artistic, and technological matrix of a body of regional art and therefore closer to the creative process in early America. The ability to plumb such depths reveals what students of American furniture have long known. Furniture is deep and offers profound insights into people, places, and things. In the traditional orthodoxy of art history, the “minor arts” are presumed to add only a minor dimension to the story of art. But here we see, at least in the not quite rural, not quite urban, backcountry commonwealth of Connecticut, that furniture is revealing in ways that not only provide immense aesthetic pleasure, but also take us places other paths through history cannot.

As art, furniture has been damned by its utility. None of the artisans involved in producing the work shown here ever thought of themselves as “artists.” Although pride and competitiveness are apparent, America’s eighteenth-century furniture makers, especially in backcountry locales like the Connecticut River Valley, did not have the sense of self that we associate with modern artists. Eliphalet Chapin himself would, no doubt, be startled to imagine his name in lights two centuries past his time. What the Kugelmans and their partner and associate Robert Lionetti have shown so vividly is a meandering path of creative expression that, fully contextualized, offers an astonishing platform for adaptation and invention. What better outlet was there for gifted creative mechanical minds in eighteenth-century America? One hundred years of scholarship have repeatedly found allure in the furniture of the Connecticut River Valley. But circumstances never brought together the time and talent needed to rise to the challenge of sorting it all out, a challenge involving analysis, painstaking observation, and almost obsessive detective work. Kugelman and company’s fifteen-year odyssey is an epic achievement, resulting in this book, an exhibition, and an array of accompanying programs that will shape the field of American furniture studies for years to come.

The book is composed of a methodological overview and some historiography followed by extensive catalogue entries that zero in on the best of what the Hartford Case Furniture Survey (HCFS) found. Inasmuch as it weighs in at seven pounds and contains 550 pages, as a reader I might have preferred if the book contained a compact disc illustrating about half the items published as bonus entries. I am sure that cutting the list would have been painful, but wading through so much visual evidence can diminish the eye-popping sense of wonder that the delicious and abbreviated companion exhibition at the Connecticut Historical Society Museum actually provides. The catalogue is followed by a series of probing and evocative essays by some of the best minds in American furniture studies. This crisscrossing of evidence and analysis with interpretation produces some revealing moments and a book of enduring value and beauty.

Having led a team that conducted a survey of Connecticut River Valley furniture and material culture twenty years ago, I am familiar with the subject matter, including renowned master works that have long eluded proper characterization. Despite the Kugelmans’ characterization of Wethersfield, Colchester, and Eliphalet Chapin’s East Windsor as “major style centers,” even these communities produced nothing like the volume of work that came out of Boston, Philadelphia, and Newport. None of the Connecticut River Valley furniture makers was truly prolific. Indeed, most worked at furniture making part-time. The patronage base simply was not there and, at least prior to the Revolution, it does not appear that the export trade was much of a factor. The authors have identified and classified a few dominant stylistic types and numerous discordant variations that have been brilliantly incorporated into an understanding of the region’s output—a task made especially diYcult when you realize that some of the variations exist in groupings as small as three. These variants were revealed because the HCFS team was relentless in searching out literally hundreds of unpublished objects to review and compare.

Perhaps novelty factors into it, but to my eye, some of the most remarkable, inventive, and aesthetically pleasing objects are in these obscure groups, some of which have never been published before and others never documented or attributed to a shop or locale. Especially noteworthy is the analysis and documentation of the japanned and spool-foot group of chests produced in East Windsor and Windsor during the 1730s and 1740s, the region’s earliest foray into the new technology of cabinetwork. This is highly novel design that, once observed, is hard to forget. The Kugelmans have also settled some long-standing confusion about the work of Isaac Tryon of Glastonbury, Connecticut, and that town’s iconoclastic role in the region’s aesthetic oeuvre. SuYeld, Connecticut, furniture makers also produced a stand-alone style that bespeaks ingenuity, while a newly discovered cluster of case pieces associated with Wallingford, Connecticut (which the authors dub the “Silas Rice group”), has a kind of over-the-top boldness of design that suggests why we are drawn to this stuff in the first place.

Despite creating a star turn for one Eliphalet Chapin and the attribution to specific furniture makers here and there, one of the substantial contributions of this book is to bury, with luck forever, the false preoccupation with attaching objects to specific makers. Although many, perhaps most, of the objects illustrated were made by individuals, individuality is almost never the dominant force in shaping design. Connecticut River Valley furniture is not quite “made by committee” and communal stylistic preferences are not particularly tyrannical in forcing conformity among furniture makers of a particular town. Nonetheless, the Kugelmans’ scholarship verifies the operating force of shop tradition. Innovation begets emulation begets dissemination to create stylistic patterns that are almost pointless to untangle. The Kugelmans have deftly used artisan and patron genealogy, among other research tools, to establish a kind of genealogy of style. Indeed, never before in American furniture studies have the art and science of family genealogy proven more indispensable or been utilized with such conviction and precision. At the outset, they believed it would be necessary to use computers to sort and analyze their data. In the end, close observation and the inherently speculative effort to reconstruct lines of descent and original ownership combined to create something much more interesting.

Among the many fascinating examples of documentation through reconstructive provenance is the East Windsor japanned high chest at Winterthur (cat. no. 1). They assert that the chest “was made for the June 1736 marriage of Gershom Loomis to Mary Grant” and note that the chest was listed “at the extraordinary value of £5.10.0” in Loomis’s estate inventory just two years later, making it “one of the first high chests mentioned in the probate records of Hartford County.” They then track its descent through various family members to a South Windsor farmer who sold it to Henry Francis du Pont in 1946. It doesn’t get much better than this.

More speculative, but not less convincing, is the discussion of a high chest attributed to Eliphalet Chapin (cat. no. 61) that was auctioned in the estate of Richard Mather in 1930. It took the Kugelmans’ sleuthing to determine that Mather, born in 1856, was “a bachelor who had lived in the family homestead in Windsor for seventy-four years” and that the most likely original owners were his maternal great-grandparents, Anna Palmer and Eliakim Marshall, who married in 1785, “a date in keeping with the features of the high chest.”

If this kind of creative reconstructive provenance popped up occasionally it would be cause for celebration, given that the vast majority of American antiques have been divorced from their contexts and history. But here, most of the 191 objects catalogued are published with a probable assertion of original ownership, a feat rarely attempted and never before achieved in a publishing effort like this.

Years ago, when I was hot on the trail of Connecticut furniture and obsessing about the importance of provenance, a prominent American furniture dealer counseled me that whatever such details might mean to museum curators, in the trade “50 cents and a provenance won’t buy a cup of coffee.” That did not make sense then, and it does not make sense now. With the publication of this extraordinary work we can bury forever any sense that an object’s history is not pertinent to its value as a work of art. Value is arbitrary and will inevitably hinge on a variety of connecting factors, not the least of which is a publication like this that explicates, glorifies, contextualizes, illustrates, and reveals connections between objects.

A major contribution of the book is to prove that the classic, spare, cabriole-legged case furniture associated with Wethersfield and elsewhere, while it clearly predates the work of the Chapin school and Colchester, is also contemporaneous and continued to be preferred in some communities (Wethersfield, Middletown, and Windsor, for example) well into the 1790s and right up to the end of the Chapin era.

The book further proves that Eliphalet Chapin, while clearly a maverick and innovator, was widely imitated and that much of the best work formerly attributed to him was made by cabinetmakers in the Massachusetts towns of Northampton and Springfield and possibly as far away as Worcester County. Chapin himself rarely sold anything outside the immediate vicinity of his East Windsor home. The fact that his style was popular farther afield is because he trained apprentices who migrated elsewhere and made a success of it.

Finally, though I would not have thought a study of Colchester furniture, traditionally associated with the area in eastern Connecticut around Norwich and New London, made sense in the context of a book focusing on the Connecticut River Valley, the authors make sense of it by explaining Colchester’s many connections with Hartford. Colchester furniture, which the authors say “brims with originality and dynamism,” has long fascinated students of American furniture for its exuberance, innovation, and voluptuous ornament, almost the mirror opposite of the delicate and restrained formalism produced in nearby Wethersfield. But the Colchester cabinetmakers did, occasionally, adopt “Chapinisms” into their ornamental vocabulary and made their presence known in the Connecticut River Valley by their work in the lower valley and by their influence on the unidentified furniture maker(s) responsible for the Glastonbury style, which is a hybrid with a strong Colchester-based feel.

Middletown, which was the largest and richest trade port on the Connecticut River in 1760, still feels like a puzzle. The authors assert that Hartford and Middletown played a secondary and subordinate role in the development of regional furniture styles. The implication is not just that the furniture makers in those towns were less prone to innovate, but that there were fewer of them, an assertion yet to be fully proved. It was certainly not for their lack of money that we do not have more evidence and insight into Middletown’s furniture history. Clearly, the Kugelmans’ analysis has taken the study of Middletown further than it has ever gone. But there is still a need for a comprehensive, multimedia, material-cultural study of this fascinating place. In the meantime, don’t bet long on their Middletown attribution of the Ford Museum’s iconic masterpiece desk-and-bookcase (cat. no. 56), one of the most alluring designs in American furniture. There’s more evidence to uncover. Of the handful of Middletown furniture makers the authors cite, no mention is made of Samuel Hall or Captain William Sage, or of the amazing desk-and-bookcase at Middlesex County Historical Society, Middletown (see Antiques 20 , no. 3 [March 1991]: 597) associated with him. This desk might not matter except that it is arguably the best piece in one of the smallest, but most interesting, subgroups of furniture they associate with Middletown and might have influenced their interpretation.

The catalogue section of this book displays a mastery of furniture taxonomy and description. A language of description that is both consistent and compelling has taken generations to create. Fylfots, pinwheels, and “cyma curved front aprons” are not words that come tripping off the tongue of even the most seasoned furniture aficionados. This devotion to precision strikes me as overdrawn when they substitute the jargony notion of “index features” for the simpler notion of “characteristics.” But I like fylfots and appreciate the achievement of conquering a language that can be off-putting and obscure.

Six interpretative essays, a glossary, and a compendium of cabinetmaker biographies follow the catalogue.

The opening essay, by Robert F. Trent, titled “The European Origins of Eighteenth-Century New England Case Pieces,” strikes me as the least necessary and, while interesting, exhibits a familiar weakness of art history: confusing cause and effect by assuming that if something looks like something else, or one thing followed another, that it must necessarily have been derivative when, in fact, the world is filled with evidence of creativity and invention that are nonlinear in derivation. The presence of an idea in one place does not preclude another place from inventing the same solution independently. The idea that “what provincial New Englanders of the eighteenth century thought and felt about their furniture” was somehow shaped by European court practices of a century or two before strikes me as a stretch.

The second essay, “Connecticut River Valley Woodworking Dynasties,” also by Trent, is far more relevant. When he first began publishing the fruits of this important body of research in the early 1990s, it was revolutionary. Although others had dabbled in furniture-maker genealogies before, no one ever connected so many dots and took it far enough to reveal, emphatically, the almost guildlike structure of these family networks. It makes Chapin’s contribution seem all the more impressive to realize that he broke into the trade without connections and nevertheless achieved dominance in it. Trent demonstrates how fluidly shop traditions moved up and down the valley and asserts, significantly, that “only when the family networks have been established, amplified with data from probate records and account books, and collated with surviving objects, can the entire body of data be organized in a meaningful way.” This is pretty much the assignment going forward for any young scholar looking to advance knowledge about craft traditions in any particular place at any given time. Alas, when the essay debunks the notion of “individual creativity” and sneers at the notion of “regional mystique,” it risks dismissing qualities that give this work meaning. Places have a right to claim and celebrate their material culture. Individuality of style is, to be sure, one of the characteristics that have drawn attention to Connecticut River Valley furniture for so long. Why some art historians seem almost unwilling to accept the mystery of creative thought is beyond me. But it is equally clear that to call the Colchester work or even Chapin’s contributions a mere “reflection of...diverse sources” belies the possibility of individual ingenuity and invention which I find so apparent and inspiring in this work.

Susan Schoelwer provides a colorful historiography of Eliphalet Chapin scholarship in “Writings on Eliphalet Chapin,” beginning with the fact that his reputation survived in oral tradition among the region’s furniture makers so that it first became known to Hartford’s nineteenth-century antiquarians and collectors through the region’s early antique dealers, cabinetmakers, and restorers. Schoelwer provides a fascinating account of the generation-long conflict between Luke Vincent Lockwood, who thought the absence of documented work made Eliphalet Chapin’s reputation overblown, and Wallace Nutting and Homer Eaton Keyes, the latter the founder of Antiques magazine, who were more willing to speculate based on visual evidence. Clearly, this book ends the debate, making Nutting appear remarkably prescient for devoting so much attention to a figure only now being more thoroughly understood. As Keyes put it, “the curvature of the front legs and the shape of the feet are so specific as almost to qualify as the maker’s signature.” John T. Kirk, famous for relying on keen visual analysis and foregoing documentation or even the more painstaking nuances of construction, nonetheless determined that Chapin had “arrived at something that can be considered wholly new,” thus fostering the myth of Chapin as a “creative genius.” Although the Kugelmans never quite come out and say it, all evidence suggests that they would agree with Kirk’s conclusions. Let me say it for them. Eliphalet Chapin was a creative genius, and we should all be grateful to Kirk and Nutting for calling him what he was early enough to keep his important legacy in the public eye.

In “New Evidence on Eliphalet Chapin,” Schoelwer and Dawn Bobryk provide a masterful reconstruction of a life and career based on what remains an incredibly thin paper trail. Eliphalet Chapin grew up surrounded by a veritable “hive of Chapins” in Enfield, Connecticut, a daughter town that borders Springfield, Massachusetts, where his ancestors were among the most prominent founding families. Indeed, a statue of his paternal ancestor Samuel Chapin by Augustus Saint-Gaudens is a beloved Springfield landmark. The paternity suit that prompted Chapin to hightail it to Philadelphia turns out to be not just a momentary blip in his life but a stain that never quite goes away. His decision to return to East Windsor, the scene of the crime, and make a go of furniture making, when setting up almost anywhere else—Middletown or Hartford, for example—might have proved more beneficial, says something about his character and ability to function or perhaps even thrive in the face of adversity. The essay also proves that, unlike most of his contemporary furniture makers in the Connecticut River Valley, Chapin seeks, and apparently succeeds, in making furniture making a full-time occupation, living on a half-acre lot with “an attention-getting brick house,” at a time when there probably was not another brick house in town, brick being associated with, if anything, urban living.

One important thing missing here—a puzzling omission for a book that covers so many other bases and interpretive perspectives—is an attempt to explain the economy of furniture making, both for Chapin’s shop in particular and in general practice in the region at the time. When Schoelwer and Bobryk note that “If he was like most woodworkers of the period, his business undoubtedly included a great deal of repair work and utilitarian goods in addition to high-style case pieces and upholstered chairs,” one is puzzled why the authors, having turned over so many other stones successfully, left readers to guess about this. Indeed, evidence suggests that there was little division of labor between furniture makers and housewrights, or between those who made things and those who did repair work, anywhere in rural New England before the Revolution and almost as rare right up to 1800. The Dunlaps of New Hampshire and the Connecticut River Valley’s Timothy Loomis, both exceptionally well-documented woodworkers in eighteenth-century interior New England, demonstrated extraordinary fluidity in following the market wherever there was opportunity. In the case of Loomis, that meant installing flooring in a pigpen one day and crafting a high chest the next. If Chapin was, as Schoelwer and Bobryk suggest, “moving away from a traditional, family based, artisan shop to a more modern showroom-warehouse, offering a wider variety of products and services at the same location,” then Chapin deserves credit not only as an innovator in design but as someone who anticipated impending transformations and was the first in the Connecticut River Valley to adapt to them.

I suspect this omission has to do with research methodology and the priority given to object analysis and genealogy rather than account book evidence. Although the single most important document associated with Chapin is the Grant-Marsh marriage commission recorded in Ebenezer Grant’s ledger, the Kugelmans do not appear to have analyzed even the account books belonging to Connecticut River Valley furniture makers (of which there are very few), much less the oftentimes incredibly revealing information contained in the trade credits of other ledger keepers, accounts that document furniture makers’ practices because they document real, day-to-day transactions. A tasty example they appear to have overlooked is a magnificent ledger kept by a member of the Wolcott family of Windsor or East Windsor and now in the collections of the Pocumtuck Valley Historical Society in Deerfield. Eliphalet Chapin’s account includes about a dozen transactions over a number of years, including payment for making a spinning wheel and some repair work, not activities this book associates with him. The account, which was closed out for some reason, also includes Chapin’s signature, which might have been worth illustrating in a once-in-a-lifetime publication like this.

Next is Philip Zimmerman’s “Method in Early American Furniture Identification,” an essay that deepens the case attributing individual works to specific makers by highlighting the egregious traditions of dealers and collectors desperate to attach a maker’s name to everything and anything, despite overwhelming evidence that doing so makes no sense. Zimmerman makes this point by critiquing one of the underlying assumptions of this entire scholarly effort and one of the sacred cows of furniture scholarship going back to Charles F. Montgomery’s deservedly famous book American Furniture: The Federal Period (1966), which is the assumption that furniture makers, in a rotelike way, systematized their production, particularly with construction features that did not bear heavily on form, function, or style. If furniture makers do not behave predictably it makes attribution all that much harder. Zimmerman notes, “Pervasive consistency may be a hallmark of certain individuals, shops, or communities, but does not necessarily apply broadly throughout the furniture trade in early America.” He cites several key studies that refute conventional wisdom, including an extensive analysis of the documented work of John Shaw of Annapolis, in which “no shop traits...emerged,” and a similar study of Benjamin Frothingham of Boston, which was “unable to identify signature features that identify the maker’s work.”

The final essay is Schoelwer’s “Beyond Regionalism: Town History and Connecticut Furniture,” which asserts that stylistic preferences between towns were more pronounced than hitherto recognized and that the notion of a stylistic region should be supplanted by a model that is multicentered and more diverse. Her analysis of the “persistent localism that remains evident today” throughout Connecticut is compelling. She lists the “oasis like quality of settlements” and “relative isolation” even 150 years after settlement and the absence of a major cultural or economic center as characteristics that made the Connecticut River Valley different from other American settlement regions, but that did not make the region internally homogenous. This and the demographic persistence of founding families in particular towns encouraged what Schoelwer describes as a “closed shop mentality” in the woodworking trades, a phenomenon exhaustively and convincingly explored in last year’s path-breaking The Woodworkers of Windsor: A Connecticut Community of Craftsmen and Their World, 1635–1715 by Joshua Lane and Donald White.

The arts of the Connecticut River Valley cast a lengthening shadow on the American imagination. Epitomizing the spare lines and creative elegance of the colonial experience, this work suggests a kind of premonition of independence. Because the region remained agricultural longer than most American cultural centers, a lot of stuff retained its contexts and connections into the twentieth century, when the pioneer collectors and dealers had a field day scouting up treasures that were still relatively abundant.

In her rather somber foreword to the book, Patricia E. Kane lauds the authors’ achievement in producing such a monumental study, but laments that “few museums...have the resources large research projects.” This is nothing new. Independent scholar-collectors, from Irving Lyon, Luke Lockwood, the Reverend Clare Luther, and Houghton Bulkeley, have generated the bulk of the scholarship over the years. The more the merrier. In this remarkable achievement the Kugelmans and Robert Lionetti have added the biggest and most complete brick to the pile yet. Regardless of interpretation and attribution, the visual power and sheer magnitude of evidence shown here is overwhelming and cannot fail to leave the reader with an impression that the Connecticut Valley produced some of the most inspiring art in America, art that reflects minds at work, solving problems on the ground through a combination of resourcefulness and ingenuity that is hard not to love.

William Hosley
Hartford, Connecticut

American Furniture 2005