Hunger Amidst Plenty

By Rosemary Battles Foy, Nichols House Museum Volunteer Researcher

Unattributed, untitled work, 19th century. Oil on canvas. Nichols House Museum Collection,1961.367.

As Thanksgiving approaches, an untitled work in the Nichols House Museum collection (1961.367) draws our attention to hunger amidst plenty. The painting depicts a peasant boy biting down on either a sausage or carrot, grasping it in his bare right hand, his left hand clutching a chunk of crusty bread. He engages the viewer directly, his teeth visible at mid-bite as if caught by surprise with foodstuffs that he might have just grabbed furtively from the table behind him. This painting is unlike anything else in the Museum’s collection: it is the sole depiction of a child, at 14 x 16 in. it is the smallest oil painting in size, and most importantly, is far from the established grand manner of the rest of the Nichols family artwork.  How did it come to be in the collection, and what does this rather odd little painting mean?

Currently hung high on the north wall of the dining room, this painting had originally been displayed in the parlor, according to Rose Nichols’ 1935 household inventory. While that seems a surprising choice of location, it begins to make sense when we learn that the painting was a gift from Lydia N. Raymond. A wealthy art collector who gave several paintings to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Lydia Newell Osgood Raymond (1821-1907) inherited the grand Amory-Ticknor House on the corner of Beacon and Park Streets, just around the corner from 55 Mount Vernon Street. Raymond must have been a family friend, so perhaps placing her gift so visibly in the parlor was a way of honoring that friendship. It still bears the paper tag of her ownership on its reverse side, inscribed in pen and ink “Lydia N. Raymond #42”.

As with so many objects collected at the Nichols House Museum, the family ascribed meaning to it because of its associations with meaningful people and movements, in this case, the collector and friend Lydia Raymond, but also the work’s debt to the Spanish artist of the Baroque period Bartoloméo Estéban Murillo (1617-1682). In his inventory, Arthur noted that the work was “after Murillo”, along with its Raymond provenance. The Nichols visited Spain several times, and Rose is known to have admired its material culture. It is an anonymous work likely painted in the 19th century in Murillo’s soft, celebrated late manner. Murillo’s empathic depiction of street life was widely copied by successive generations, replete with beggar boys and the dispossessed, finding particular favor with Victorian tastes. This genre, known as bodegónes, frequently features food, along with humble street vendors and peasants that roamed the streets of Murillo’s native Seville.

The museum’s piece lacks the dramatic contrasts in light and shade that Murillo employed. The Louvre’s The Young Beggar/The Lice-Ridden Boy of ca. 1645-50 by the artist packs a visual punch by casting a beam of light on the boy, who is curled up on the floor in a dark corner (see image below). It was a device that other artists of the Baroque period, such as Velázquez, Zurbarán, and Caravaggio, employed for dramatic effect. This softer handling of light and tonality reveals not only a less-skilled hand at work–the colors are muddier and the draftsmanship not as adept–but also a different century’s aesthetic values. Most importantly, this lack of dramatic focus tells us something important about this painting and its history.

The Nichols House Museum’s painting is likely a fragment of a larger work whose location remains unknown. Notice that there is a man in the lower left foreground, leaning forward to his left as if in conversation with someone else outside of our field of vision. His balding head and partially shadowed face are executed with care, as is his thick brown jacket, relieved by a sliver of light falling on the upturned collar. He has nearly been cropped out of the picture. In cutting the work in this way, it would seem that the objective was to excise the “Spanish peasant boy” (as Arthur describes him) from the larger depiction of well-dressed adults conversing. Alternatively, perhaps it was the only salvageable bit in an otherwise badly damaged painting. We will never know why this artwork was mutilated, or if that had anything to do with Mrs. Raymond’s decision to give it away.
Murillo and his followers often portrayed beggars and the wealthy in the same frame, often in scenes of almsgiving. It is interesting to note that that is not the case here; this little boy is of the outside of the main action, left to snatch food from an unattended table. His isolation from the main narrative becomes its own story, in some ways more powerful than it might have been when the work was whole. As the main figure here, the viewer must confront the stark reality of this boy’s existence. His tousled dark hair and short upturned nose contrast with the man’s well-groomed presence; his piercing brown eyes have the intense and serious quality that hunger confers. The scrap of cloth that is draped over his left arm contributes to his general air of raggedness, exposed as he is out in the street or in front of a rocky cliff. The two figures are in counterpoint, ragged to smooth, a study in contrasts.

And while we the fortunate may not personally relate to this boy’s experience, the work touches our common understanding, at least once our attention is drawn to it. As scholar Norman Bryson has said, “All men must eat, even the great; there is a levelling of humanity, a humbling of aspiration before an irreducible fact of life, hunger.”


[1] Arthur Howard Nichols, Household Inventory, 1901. Nichols Family Papers, Nichols House Museum.

[2] Accessed February 17, 2018.

Among the works she owned were two early John Singleton Copley paintings (Galatea which she sold in the 1890s, and a small version of The Return of Neptune), a gold ground depiction of Madonna and Child (MFA 84. 293) now attributed to Paolo Veneziano (active 1369-1388), and six Florentine miniatures, at least one of which was an oil on copper ca. 1760, a “Portrait of a Nun” (MFA 84.295).

[3] Cherry, Peter. Murillo, Scenes of Childhood. Merrell Publishers, 2001; Zirpolo, Lillian H., Historical Dictionary of Baroque Art & Architecture. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010.

[4] Essay by De Vernette Francois, Department of Paintings/Spanish Paintings “The Young Beggar”, accessed November 20, 2018.

[5] Bryson, Norman. Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990. Quoted in Korsmeyer, Carolyn. Making Sense of Taste: Food & Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999, p. 163.


Close, but No Cigar

Long before Jonathan Swift published Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, miniature items have held a special fascination. Even after childhood has passed, the delight in playing a “giant” and the curiosity or surprise of what’s inside tiny containers can still gratify. It was likely the emotional appeal that spurred Arthur Nichols to purchase this tobacco box on impulse, when he saw it at a Boston auction house. In February of 1912, Arthur Nichols wrote in his diary that he had attended a sale of “bric-a-brac from England” at Libbie’s Auction House on Boylston Street in Boston and that he had “bought a brass tobacco box in shape of a miniature highboy….”  

Cigar canister or matchbox, English, nineteenth century. Brass, 8.5 x 5.5 x 4 in. Nichols House Museum Collection, 1961.267.

While “Highboy” is the colloquial term for an antique chest of drawers, the furniture form upon which this little brass box is based is a combination of a chest of drawers and an English “Davenport,” or a type of small desk. The type was invented ca. 1816 for a Captain Davenport to use at sea where space was at a premium, and later migrated to the domestic sphere through the rest of the century [1]. The illustration below shows a full-size Davenport executed in wood. 


Davenport Desk, English, late-nineteenth century. Walnut, 30.5 x 22 x 21 in. Skinner Auctions, European Furniture & Decorative Arts – 2286, 2005.


Our example has the arrangement of small drawers and twisted columns often seen on full-sized Davenports, but the drawers are arranged in the front, like a dresser or chest of drawers. But it does share all the “bells and whistles” with the real things: a beautifully proportioned case, a set of expertly crafted locked drawers in graduated sizes, dynamic “barley twist” supports at the front and delicate turned feet.

We know Dr. Nichols loved polished brass. Practical and affordable, it is no wonder. While the family had an extensive silver collection for dining, brass articles were used throughout the household: candlesticks, trivets, inkstands, andirons and fireplace tools. With its soft sheen, “brass was the perfect emblem of respectable wealth” [2]. 

As attractive as it is on its own terms, this little box is also useful. It is among the numberless smoker’s accessories in brass turned out by the English eighteenth and nineteenth-century metalworking industry, which was centered around the city of Birmingham [3]. The box has a flat lid, which opens to reveal a large steel-lined compartment for the storage of loose tobacco or cigars. All the drawers are “dummies” except for the one on the bottom, meant for storing matches. Each part would have been cast of brass (an alloy of copper and zinc), filed, polished and assembled. Metalworkers crafting miniature items often had to use tiny tools scaled to suit the job [4]. Other objects for the gentleman’s study included snuff boxes, pipe stoppers, cigar cutters, as well as letter boxes, paper weights and seals, many in novel and amusing shapes such as animals, fictional characters, or furniture.

Another example of a miniature brass novelty item in the Museum’s collection is this small bell in the form of a woman, sized perfectly for the table or shelf. Interestingly, both the tobacco box and this bell were designed in an early nineteenth-century style, whether or not they actually date from that period. The hairstyle and apparel shown here, including a lace shawl collar and a wrap, model an example of demure femininity that was quite old-fashioned at the time of its purchase by the Nichols family. Our little lady, grasping a butterfly net for a summer afternoon gentle past-time, was a nostalgic artifact.

Bell, English, nineteenth century. Brass. Nichols House Museum Collection, 1961.268.

Dr. Nichols was known to smoke the occasional cigar, but there may have been more behind this purchase than mere practicality. Perhaps it was the irresistible appeal of the miniature and of  “tuygs.” Items like this box were collected as “toys,” from the Dutch word tuygs, meaning “trifles that amuse adults” [5]. He also used the box to amuse his grandchildren, who have recalled that after dinner Dr. Nichols would take it down from the fireplace mantle and dole out “red hot” candies from it [6]. The candies were sure to please, especially dispensed from an object that looked like a desk or dresser that was meant to hold tobacco – just the sort of visual joke that would delight the child in everyone.

By Rosemary Battles Foy, Nichols House Museum Volunteer Researcher and Independent Design Historian

[1] Fleming, John and Hugh Honour, The Penguin Dictionary of Decorative Arts (London: Viking/Penguin, 1989), 237.

[2] Gentle, Rupert and Rachel Field,  English Domestic Brass: 1680-1810 and the History of its Origins (New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1975), p. 69.

[3] Ibid, p. 45. 

[4] Lindsay, J. Seymour, Iron and Brass Implements in the English and American Home (Medici Society, 1927) p. 170.

[5] Latham, Jean, Collecting Miniature Antiques (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), p. 101.

[6] Nichols House Museum object file, as reported to Museum Historian William Pear.

Spring into Action: Observing Arts and Crafts Workmanship in Our New Acquisition

Spring has sprung at the Nichols House Museum, and our blossoming courtyard isn’t the only thing to look forward to this season. The museum is excited to announce three new acquisitions, one of which is the subject of this month’s Object Spotlight and relates to Boston’s Arts and Crafts Movement in the early twentieth century.  

The museum has recently come into the possession of an oak chest carved by Rose Standish Nichols. This chest is not only an extraordinary example of Rose Nichols’ skills as a woodcarver but also a clear indicator of the important role women played in the Arts and Crafts Movement. In addition, it provides us with unique insights into Rose Nichols’ interest in early American decorative arts.

Oak chest, carvings attributed to Rose Standish Nichols, early twentieth century. Photographed in the Nichols House Museum lobby, awaiting conservation treatment and photography.

Like various other reform movements of the early twentieth century, the Arts and Crafts Movement aimed to improve society. Proponents of design reform, such as British theorists John Ruskin and William Morris, advocated for well-designed, handmade objects in the interest of bettering people’s existence. “Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe beautiful,” stated Morris. 

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution of the previous century, the Arts and Crafts Movement inveighed against dehumanizing factory work and mass production and instead called for a return to beauty, morality, and joy in everyday life. A stark departure from the Gilded Age aesthetic that sought ornamentation and admired technological advancements in production, the Arts and Crafts Movement valued singular, handcrafted objects made from “honest” materials that empowered makers and fostered individual creativity [1]. Thus, practitioners of the Arts and Crafts Movement looked to medieval craftsman and guilds for inspiration which, in turn, ushered in a Colonial Revival. Founded in 1897, the Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston (SACB) was the first arts and crafts organization established in America, placing Boston at the forefront of the national movement. 

Boston played a unique, leading role in popularizing the Arts and Crafts Movement in America as well as colonial revival fashions. Education was a cornerstone of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Boston’s longstanding emphasis on education, dating back to the first English settlers, dovetailed the precepts of design-reform, as did its restrained, puritan tastes. In the publication for her 1997 exhibition at the Davis Museum, Inspiring Reform: Boston’s Arts and Crafts Movement, curator Marilee Boyd Meyer writes:

Boston patrons were particularly responsive to the colonial revival, a style that embodied rationality, balance, and moderation, and also celebrated their historic past. One North End settlement house workshop, providing vocational training for young and Italian and Jewish immigrant women, explicitly made the historical connection by naming itself Paul Revere Pottery [2].

Paul Revere Pottery was established in Boston’s North End in 1908 by Edith Guerrier and Edith Brown. The group of immigrant women under the two Ediths’ tutelage were known as the Saturday Evening Girls (SEG). The SEG club provided its members with an opportunity to earn a living wage in a positive work environment, and their Paul Revere Pottery is recognized as one of the most emblematic and important contributions to the Arts and Crafts Movement. Rose Nichols and her younger sister Margaret are likewise representative of the prominent role women played in design-reform, demonstrating that the movement was as much about the future as it was the past. 

Last spring’s exhibition, Makers’ Marks: Art, Craft, and the Fiber of Change, discussed Margaret Nichols Shurcliff’s activities as a carpenter and cabinetmaker, as well as her involvement with the immigrant community in Boston. Shurcliff taught carpentry skills to immigrant boys in an effort to help them find work. In 1920, she hosted the first meeting of what would become the ACLU of Massachusetts in her home at 66 Mount Vernon Street. A bookcase made by Margaret Nichols Shurcliff to fit a corner of Rose Nichols’ bedroom, see below, is among the Nichols House Museum’s examples of reform-minded, Arts and Crafts style furniture. 

Bookcase, attributed to Margaret Nichols Shurcliff, early twentieth century. Nichols House Museum Collection.

Like her younger sister, Rose Nichols was also a talented craftsman. Rose, however, was a woodcarver rather than a furniture-maker. In her memoir, Lively Days, Margaret Nichols humorously wrote: “Rose was the artistic one in our family and Marian the scholar…I was content to remain the brawny hard worker” [3]. 

Rose Nichols’ artistry is apparent in the florid carvings adorning the newly acquired chest, as well as the four reproduction mannerist style chairs which are prominently displayed in the Nichols House Museum library. Rose purchased these chairs from the Boston furniture company Irving & Casson, asking that they be left uncarved (she is also responsible for the chairs’ caning). Irving & Casson was one of many Boston furniture companies offering historic styles from Gothic to Louis XV and XVI to colonial in the first decade of the twentieth-century [4]. 

RSN chair
Oak Chair, carving and caning attributed to Rose Standish Nichols, American, early twentieth century.

The carvings on these chairs were modeled after a seventeenth-century oak chair, which was given to the Nichols family by Rose Standish Whiting of Plymouth–Rose Standish Nichols’ namesake and godmother, who claimed an elite Puritan lineage (yes, those Standishes). There is also evidence of Rose’s interest in seventeenth-century furnishings in her postcard collection, see image below. This precedent of Rose acquiring and subsequently reproducing seventeenth-century carvings in the spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement is bolstered by the research conducted around this new acquisition, the chest.

Oak chair, English, late seventeenth century. Nichols House Museum Collection.
Early twentieth-century postcard from the Victoria and Albert Museum, found in the Rose Standish Nichols’ Postcard Collection.

The fact that the chest’s carvings are the work of Rose Nichols is supported by both oral history and its provenance. In addition, the hardware on the chest helped us to date this piece to the early twentieth century. In-and-of-itself, the hardware is an interesting study in Arts and Crafts period metalwork. As with the library chairs, Rose likely purchased the chest, uncarved, from a furniture company; it’s sharp lines and clean joints suggest the frame was machine-made.

IMG_1767 a
Oak chest, carvings attributed to Rose Standish Nichols, early twentieth century. Photographed in the storage unit from which it was retrieved. The chest is currently pending onsite conservation treatment and photography.

Rose Nichols’ carvings recognizably imitate a chest in Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection by the celebrated seventeenth-century Ipswich joiner, Thomas Dennis. In the 1660s, Dennis, along with his partner, William Searle, brought to Essex County, Massachusetts the florid style of carving they had learned in Devonshire, England–an example of regional styles crossing the Atlantic to the New World [5]. 

Dennis Chest
Chest attributed to Thomas Dennis, Ipswich, Massachusetts, 1663-1680. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The guilloche pattern, seen on the upper rail of the Metropolitan Museum’s chest and on the upper and lower rails of Rose Nichols’ copy, was very much a part of the Exeter decorative vocabulary brought to New England by Searle and Dennis [6]. The left and right panels on the front of the chest show a tree-of-life (an arrangement of flowers and leaves issuing from a vase), which was a popular seventeenth-century motif seen in many artistic mediums.

The tree-of-life panel on Rose Nichols chest. Rose Nichols’ chest employs this motif on the sides of the chest rather than the frontward facing panels.

That Rose Nichols was aware of Thomas Dennis is confirmed by an entry in her unpublished manuscript on American decorative arts, which is housed by Historic New England. Rose Nichols likely saw the chest in the catalog for the 1909 Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of American Industrial Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition was the first of its kind and the second of two Metropolitan Museum exhibitions tied to the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in New York and New Jersey, which commemorated the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson River and the 100th anniversary of Robert Fulton’s commercial application of the paddle steamer. The Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of American Industrial Arts was the first exhibition dedicated to American decorative arts and the catalyst for the 1924 opening of the museum’s American Wing.

The Dennis chest arrived at the Metropolitan Museum in 1909 as part of a significant collection of American furniture amassed by Boston lawyer H. Eugene Bolles, which was then purchased and donated to the museum by Mrs. Russell Sage, a New York philanthropist and the widow of a wealthy financier. Bolles’ collection was comprised of more than 600 pieces, which he appreciated for their “associations with customs, surroundings, and life of a provincial and colonial history” [7]. 

Catalog entry from the 1909 Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of American Industrial Arts. A large plate showing the chest accompanies this entry.

The Dennis chest and others like it may have motivated Rose to acquire a seventeenth-century example for her growing collection of art and antiques. In 1910, Rose Nichols purchased a seventeenth-century oak dower chest from an antique shop in Wiltshire, England. Now, the dower chest sits at the base of Rose Nichols’ bed in her third-floor bedroom at the Nichols House Museum. Inspiration for this placement can likewise be observed in Rose Nichols’ collection of postcards, see below. To learn more about this chest visit the December 2016 Object Spotlight entry.

Oak chest, English, late seventeenth century. Nichols House Museum Collection.
Rose Standish Nichols’ bedroom, 1964. Although originally kept in the foyer of her home, Rose Nichols later moved the blanket chest to the end of her bed. Nichols was perhaps inspired by colonial interiors, such as the one depicted in the following postcard.
Twentieth-century postcard from the Stockbridge Mission House in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Interiors such as this inspired Colonial Revival decorating trends through the 1940s.

By 1902, the Boston Architectural Club Yearbook was featuring illustrations of interiors furnished with “seventeenth-century joined chests; William and Mary gate-leg tables; Queen Anne chairslowboys or highboys; Chippendale chairs, tea tables…and Federal sideboards…” [9]. Visitors to the Nichols House Museum will observe these historic furnishings in our period rooms as well as colonial revival imitations from the early twentieth century.

Rose Nichols is quoted in a 1956 Boston Globe article as having said the following: “It was the spirit of the Puritans to try to broaden their interests toward wide horizons, and that same spirit I’ve tried to keep alive in everything I’ve done.” After receiving conservation treatment, the newly acquired oak chest will be on view in the Nichols House Museum lobby. Stay tuned for further details on its unveiling!

By Laura Cunningham, Programs and Collections Coordinator

[1] Erica E. Hirschler, introduction to At Home on Beacon Hill, by B. June Hutchinson (Boston, MA: Nichols House Museum Board of Governors, 2011), xviii.

[2] Marilee Boyd Meyer, introduction to Inspiring Reform: Boston’s Arts and Crafts Movement, ed. Marilee Boyd Meyer (Wellesley, MA: Davis Museum and Cultural Center, 1997), 15.

[3]  Margaret Nichols Shurcliff, Lively Days (Boston, MA: Nichols House Museum Board of Governers, reprinted in 2001), 47.

[4] Edward S. Cooke, Jr, “The Aesthetics of Craftsmanship & The Prestige of the Past: Boston Furniture-Making and Woodcarving,” in Inspiring Reform: Boston’s Arts and Crafts Movement, ed. Marilee Boyd Meyer (Wellesley, MA: Davis Museum and Cultural Center, 1997), 44.

[5] Frances Gruber Safford, American Furniture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: I. Early Colonial Period: The Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007), 198.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Edward S. Cooke, Jr, “The Aesthetics of Craftsmanship & The Prestige of the Past: Boston Furniture-Making and Woodcarving,” in Inspiring Reform: Boston’s Arts and Crafts Movement, ed. Marilee Boyd Meyer (Wellesley, MA: Davis Museum and Cultural Center, 1997), 45.


A Matter of Time

Simon Willard was the most successful in a long line of Willard clockmakers who became renowned craftsmen of New England. Their pieces were found in many a Boston home, including the Nichols’ house. Arthur wrote in his diaries about the “Willard clocks of authentic make” that the family owned. These included three improved timepieces, a tall case clock, and a shelf clock [1]. One improved timepiece that the Nichols family owned now hangs in the Library. The clock itself has a mahogany base with eglomise glass panels along the front of the neck and case. Painted on the case panel is a young woman in a countryside setting.

Mahogany wall clock, American, 19th century.

In 1802, a patent was granted to Simon Willard for his improved timepiece, or banjo clock, as it came to be known due to its shape. The patent, written by Willard himself, is notably vague in its terms, as compared to the usual rigid detailing found in patents [2]. Willard writes that the size of the clock is usually around 2 feet tall but this can vary, the clock is powered by weight instead of spring, that the pendulum falls in front of the weights for easy access, and that the case would be made of thick glass [3]. Because these terms were so broad, any attempt to replicate would fall under the patent, and as a result, so many banjo clocks that remain have a patent reference somewhere on their glass. Simon’s family, apprentices, and friends carried on producing his patented banjo clock with success. Arthur included this clock in his list of authentic Willard clocks the family owned [4]. Due to its detailed painting, it is possible that this clock was made by Aaron Willard, Simon’s brother, as his clocks often were painted and gilded ornately [5].

Portrait of Simon Willard, courtesy of the Willard House and Clock Museum.

The banjo clock on display at the Nichols House Museum possesses the most common patent reference, with a simple “Patent” painted onto the neck of the clock. There were many variations of the patent references, and they often varied in placement as well. Some were adorned with “S. Willard’s Patent,” or “Willard’s Patent,” while some went as far as “S. Willard’s Patent E Pluribus Unum.” The longer patent references would have been displayed on the bottom glass, though a shorter reference on the throat was most common [6].

Detail from mahogany wall clock, American, 19th century.

Like many surviving Willard School banjo clocks, the Nichols’ clock has a replacement finial [7]. At some point, the original finial was replaced with a federal style brass ball. The timepiece also has brass bracket ornamentation alongside the neck. Brass is similarly present in the clock’s face. Though obviously still present, brass was used less frequently in improved timepieces, making them slightly more affordable than many clocks of a similar size, like shelf clocks.

The Willard Patent Timepiece was an immediate success. The clocks appealed to people because of their compact size, their low price when compared to tall case clocks and shelf clocks, their simple handling, and their sturdiness, as these clocks would be attached to the wall while other clocks were freestanding and easily broken [8]. Unlike many clockmaking innovations, no one was ever able to make any improvements to Willard’s design [9]. On top of its practical improvements, the banjo clock was one of the first innovations to establish American clockmaking as an independent entity from European clockmaking [10].

Detail from mahogany wall clock, American, 19th century.

This piece would have appealed to the Nichols family due to their interest in collecting fine art and antiques from the American federal period. It still hangs where Rose placed it in the library, and it is a highlight of the Nichols House Museum collection.

By Kara Wasilauski, Fall 2017 Collections Intern

[1] Nichols House Museum records. 

[2] Willard, John Ware. Simon Willard and His Clocks, Mineola: Dover Publications: 2004. 14.

[3] Willard, John Ware. Simon Willard and His Clocks, Mineola: Dover Publications: 2004. 14.

[4] Nichols House Museum records. 

[5] “A Banjo Clock.” National Museum of American History,

[6] Perlman, Richard. “An Early Willard School Improved Timepiece win an Unusual “Patent” Glass.” NAWCC Clock and Watch Bulletin, September/October 2014. 521.

[7] Perlman, Richard. “An Early Willard School Improved Timepiece win an Unusual “Patent” Glass.” NAWCC Clock and Watch Bulletin, September/October 2014. 521.

[8] Willard, John Ware. Simon Willard and His Clocks, Mineola: Dover Publications: 2004.13.

[9] Willard, John Ware. Simon Willard and His Clocks, Mineola: Dover Publications: 2004.13.

[10] “A Banjo Clock.” National Museum of American History,


Reading with Rose: Tea Time

If you’ve ever visited the Nichols House Museum, you will already know that Rose Standish Nichols was an avid tea drinker. This is not only reflected in the museum’s physical collection but in its history. For years, Rose hosted salon-style tea parties, attended by a carefully cultivated group of influential society members with a connection to the host herself or the topic of the day. For our December blog post, we will examine the relationship between tea and our matriarch, Rose.

Cover. The Book of Tea (1906).

The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo was published in 1906. Kakuzo was an influential art critic who eventually became curator of the Oriental art department at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Born in Yokohama in 1863, he attended Tokyo Imperial University, where he met a fellow art critic who strove to defend traditional Japanese art against westernization. Kakuzo became an outspoken defender of the traditional Japanese art forms, co-founding and later becoming head of Tokyo Fine Arts School. He later founded the Japan Academy of Fine Arts. It was toward the turn of the century that he came to the Boston MFA, where he continued to assert the importance of traditional Oriental art. His books, including The Book of Tea, were published in English so that even Westerners would be able to understand his ideas and opinions on Oriental art. Kakuzo died in Japan in 1913. [1]

Front. Postcard from RSN collection.
Back. Postcard from RSN collection.

In Kakuzo’s book he mentions tea in connection with three major Chinese dynasties: Tang (618-906), Sung (960-1279), and Ming (1368-1644). Tea became the “undisputed national drink of China” under the Tang Dynasty; began to be “powdered and whisked” under the Sung Dynasty; and began to be sipped from porcelain instead of wooden bowls under the Ming Dynasty [2].Rose Nichols’ extensive postcard collection features several images attributed to these dynasties.

Postcard from RSN collection.


In addition to The Book of Tea, Rose also collected many books that could have easily been featured in her reading club. Her salon-style discussion were known to push the boundaries of what some might consider traditional tea-time talk. As Rose was keen on world peace, many of the books she collected reflect her interests in global affairs. It’s quite possible she used these books to draw attention to events and governments her guests were unaware of. An extensive traveler, Rose collected such broad topics as covered in books like the ones you see below, including George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1946) and Olive Schreiner’s Woman and Labor (1911).

Some books from Rose Standish Nichols’ library collection. Featured here in the parlor where she held weekly discussions.

The relationship between Rose Standish Nichols and tea has continued to influence the museum. Our interpretation of this independent, accomplished woman’s house would be incomplete without calling attention to how and why Rose hosted lively discussions over tea in the parlor of her home for decades. If you have yet to visit the museum, come by before February 3rd, 2018 to see our pop-up exhibit, Peace and Prosperity: Rose Standish Nichols and Tea, which includes special items that showcase the relationship we’ve examined here today.


[1] Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Okakura Kakuzo.” 16 March, 2016.  Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

[2] Moxham, Roy. Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003.

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate





A Tale of Two Sideboards

‘Tis the holiday season and at the Nichols House Museum we have visions of more than just sugar plums. The museum is now decorated for the holidays and we invite you to visit 55 Mount Vernon Street to both experience and imagine Christmastime in the City over 100 years ago.

In the late nineteenth century, the house would have been decorated with bows of evergreen and other festoons during the month of December. This fell under the purview of Elizabeth Nichols, the family’s matriarch, who choreographed the holiday decorating. In 1881, London based Cassell’s Family Magazine instructed the lady of the house: “To bring about a general feeling of enjoyment, much depends on the surroundings… It is worth while [sic] to bestow some little trouble on the decoration of the rooms.” [1]

The dining room in particular was a space for merry-making and festivities centered on food and drink. This month’s Object Spotlight features two pieces of furniture that operated as a backdrop for dining culture during this historical era. The dining room at 55 Mount Vernon is home to two sideboards which face one another on opposite sides of the room, making them ripe for comparison.

The American Empire style sideboard shown below dates to 1830-1845. It has cherry case and a tiger maple top that is backed by a curved gallery and upper shelf, also in cherry, allowing for the display of silver, glass, ceramics and other costly wears (now, Rose Nichols’ Irish silver teapot and English lusterwear teapot along with a pair of glass lamps). Two drawers with pressed glass knobs sit atop two cabinets, all made from a striking bird’s eye maple. The cabinets are flanked by two rounded columns, in tiger maple, which culminate in molded capitals and plinths. The block and ogee feet feature subtle leaf carving and the brass work is limited to small escutcheons around the cabinet keyholes. All in all, the contrasting woods at play make this sideboard an impressive piece and a visitor favorite.

Cherry and maple sideboard, American, 1830-1845.

In the decades following the birth of the new nation, surging populations and increased American territory created widespread, lucrative markets for craftsmen. [2] With democracy came a renewed interest in ancient Greece and Rome which was compounded by the archaeological excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the previous century. Classicism dominated all aspects of American society including the furnishings of the period. The Empire style, termed after the First French Empire and characterized by monumental scale and architectonic motifs, is a later manifestation of the neoclassical revival. These key features can be observed in the Empire sideboard along with other objects on display in the Nichols House Museum, including the Isaac, Vose & Co. fall front desk (secrétaire à abbatant).

The sideboard is noticeably missing from both Arthur Nichols and Elizabeth Nichols’ individual inventories of the house suggesting that it was acquired by Rose, likely after her inheritance of 55 Mount Vernon, although there are no surviving records relating to Rose’s purchase of it either. However, the sideboard did occupy its current location prior to Rose Nichols’ death in 1960.

If the neoclassical taste of the early nineteenth century represented cool-headed rational thought, then the dramatic ornamentation of the late nineteenth century represented an excitement that could not be contained. Overlapping revival styles typified the century, including the Renaissance Revival which played a prominent role from the 1850s to 1880s. The second sideboard this essay will discuss dates to the late nineteenth century and blends elements of the Renaissance Revival with the Rococo Revival of the 1840s-60s. [3]

Walnut sideboard, American, late 19th century.

The period of economic prosperity and industrial growth that followed the Civil War gave rise to a thriving upper middle class to which the Nichols family belonged. In his 1992 book, Death in the Dining Room, scholar Ken Ames defends the fashions of the late Victorian culture, which are often dismissed upon first glance as being heavy-handed in their approach and explains the significant role sideboards played in dining culture of the period. Ames writes,

These sideboards represented a highly visible cultural phenomenon around the middle years of the nineteenth century…While they induce in us a certain degree of awe, we tend to see them as alien, foreign, decidedly odd. On one level they are fascinating; on another, slightly repulsive. Today it is difficult for us to believe that normal, well-socialized people in Victorian America voluntarily put these boldly expressive objects in their dining room and ate daily in their presence (67).

This sideboard is made of walnut (a popular wood used in Renaissance Revival furniture) and features a dramatic grapevine crestrail with Bacchus at the center. Its serpentine shelving is supported by twisted, carved columns and features a mirrored back panel. As with the Empire sideboard, two drawers sit atop two cabinet doors yet the undulating, serpentine lower case is in stark contrast with clean lines of its earlier counterpart. Grapevine and rosette carved knobs feature prominently on the lower case.

Walnut sideboard, American, late 19th century.

It’s interesting to observe that this rather ostentatious sideboard was contemporary to the modern modes of science, technology and education that were taking shape in the late nineteenth century; Arthur Nichols himself was a physician, a man of science, and a public health advocate. The end of the nineteenth century opened a door for a more secular society and yet the furnishings of the period often still had one foot rooted in myth.

Detail from walnut sideboard.

The opportunity for displays of highly civilized behavior that dining provided would appear to be in direct conflict with the chaotic, bacchanalian and pagan iconography seen in this sideboard. Instead, the classical underpinnings reinforced claims of a civilized society all while providing a theatrical backdrop for the nineteenth century rituals of dining which were glorified in holiday festivities.

Ken Ames suggests a link between sideboards and holiday dining writing, “…the similarities and differences between sideboards and the holiday are illuminating. Both were products of a value system that pervaded the West in the nineteenth century” (88). Ames posits that the same nationalism that is observed in design motifs of the nineteenth century also allowed holidays such as Thanksgiving to become a codified part of American society. [4] Further, the food and drink iconography seen in sideboards of the mid-to-late nineteenth century made these pieces of furniture especially relevant to holiday festivities such as Christmas dinner.  

To those of us at the Nichols House Museum, these sideboards evidence the evolution of objects over time. The flamboyant ornamentation of the 1890s sideboard is a wild departure from the clean lines and sensical proportions of its counterpart made just 60 years earlier in the Empire style. Notes titled “Evolution of Furniture” from Rose Nichols’ manuscript collection at Historic New England reveal that she was keenly interested in this:

Courtesy of Historic New England.

The title of this essay is a play on A Tale of Two Cities which was published in 1859 by Charles Dickens. Both Dickens and Rose Standish Nichols were regular visitors to the Omni Parker House where Dickens even took up residence for five months (1867-1868). Dickens first recited A Christmas Carol for The Saturday Club at the Parker House. Rose Nichols’ library does not include any works by Dickens but a Dickensian spirit is certainly alive in the Nichols House Museum’s dining room this time of year. The Nichols House Museum wishes you the Happiest of Holidays and we hope you’ll visit the museum soon.

By Laura Cunningham, Programs and Collections Coordinator

[1] “Victorian Christmas – History of Christmas.” BBC, 2014.

[2] Gerald W. R. Ward, Nonie Gadsden, and Kelly H. L’Ecuyer, MFA highlights: American decorative arts & sculpture (Boston: MFA Publications, 2006), 56.

[3] The rococo revival is epitomized in this exquisite example in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston collection which is referenced in Ames’ book. According to Ken Ames, this MFA Houston sideboard has more carving per square inch than any other mid-nineteenth-century sideboard in the public domain and features a synopsis of all of the major iconography of Victorian dining culture.

[4] Kenneth L. Ames, Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture (Philadelphia PA: Temple University Press, 1995), 92.


Reading with Rose: Second Star to the Right


“The child’s map of Kensington Gardens,” from The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens, 1920.

This November marks the 115th anniversary of the publication of J.M. Barrie’s The Little White Bird. Less known today than the idea it gave birth to, this novel was the world’s introduction to one of the most popular literary and cultural figures to date: Peter Pan. This month we will take a look at three books by Sir James Matthew Barrie held by Rose Standish Nichols in her library collection.

Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1892.

James Matthew Barrie was born May 9, 1860 in Kirriemuir, Scotland. The ninth child of David and Margaret, Barrie’s academic aptitude was identified and nurtured early in his life. He began his academic career in 1868 as his brother Alexander’s pupil at Glasgow Academy. Throughout the next several years, Barrie continued to follow his brother to various schools, including Dumfries Academy, where he composed his first play for the drama society. In 1878 Barrie enrolled at Edinburgh University, where he received his MA in 1882. With his education complete, Barrie began work almost immediately as a journalist. His literary career coincided with his journalistic one–he wrote six novels while contributing to fifteen journals. [1]

Rose Standish Nichols owned three of Barrie’s works:  two story-collections, When a Man’s Single (1888) and Auld Licht Idylls (1888), and the novel The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens (1902;1920). The former are widely regarded as autobiographical fictions, while the latter is mainly remembered as the work that introduced the world to the boy who wouldn’t grow up. The Peter Pan in The Little White Bird only slightly resembles the one we have come to know through various film and stage adaptations, but his life began here.

Title page.

Rose’s copy of The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens was published in 1920 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, the owners of Scribner’s Magazine in which the tale first appeared in America. This version of Peter Pan’s story was revised to include the earlier tales from both The Little White Bird and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, a children’s book published in 1906 that expanded the mythology of Peter. Her copy of When a Man’s Single dates to 1890; Auld Licht Idylls to 1891. Rose would have been twenty years old and already traveling through the United Kingdom.

Inscription from Rose Standish Nichols’ copy of Auld Licht Idylls. 

Barrie’s works gained widespread attention and admiration during the 1890’s, when many of his plays were put on. He continued to write (mostly plays) throughout his life, but it was undoubtedly Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up that became his most endearing and successful work. In 1913 King George V made Barrie a Baronet, and in 1922 Barrie was awarded the Order of Merit. Barrie’s plays continued to be produced on stage–to varying degrees of success– until his death in 1937. He is buried alongside his family in Kirriemuir. [2]

J.M. Barrie’s London residence, near Kensington Gardens, is marked as a member of London’s Blue Plaque Heritage landmarks.       [Victoria Johnson, 2014.]

[1] R. D. S. Jack, ‘Barrie, Sir James Matthew, baronet (1860–1937)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2014.

[2] Ibid.

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate