Accessorized for All Seasons; the original blanket scarf

By Elizabeth T. Weisblatt, Nichols House Museum Collections Intern
1961.804 Shawl detail, 1825-1840.  Nichols House Museum.

Visitors to the Nichols House Museum may be surprised to learn that it is home to a sizable collection of textiles, much of which is housed in permanent storage. As someone with a background in textile and fashion history, I was delighted to get the chance to survey the textiles as part of an inventory project I was assigned as the Nichols House Museum Collections Intern. In doing so, I discovered two nineteenth-century paisley shawls, 1961.804 and 1961.805 which I decided to research for the purposes of this blog.

Women’s fashion has for hundreds of years varied in more obvious ways than men’s fashion, overall.  Silhouette changes and focal points (bust, shoulders, etc…) varied over time and how women accessorized often went hand in hand with whatever style was popular. However, there is one accessory that has endured since it debuted in Western fashion–even to today–although it has changed to suit modern needs. Paisley shawls, which were made as imitations of Kashmir shawls, were made popular by expanding trade routes into India. Cashmere wool comes from a goat living only in India and is the secondary fiber of specific goats to the region. One cashmere goat produces three to six ounces of fiber, depending upon the design and size, Kashmiri shawls from this period have been known to take up to eighteen months to three years [1]. Kashmiri shawls were known to have been made popular by Emperor Akbar as part of the royal court attire; they were also used as gifts…and sometimes bribes. There is an account of an English ambassador to the Mughal court in 1616 recorded having indignantly rejected one such offer [2].

First made popular at the end of the eighteenth century, these pieces were not just a sign of luxury, but a way to stay warm while still showing off a form-fitting dress. Empress Joséphine, first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, while not originally enthusiastic about these pieces, warmed up to them quickly (pun intended), and is purported to have had them brought to the French court by the trunk load. Not only did they make fashionable accessories, but their size also allowed them to be made into dresses and capes [3]. For example, 1961.804 is 54.5 inches wide and 121.5 inches long.

L’Impératrice Joséphine (1763-1814) Empress of France, 1808 (oil on canvas) by Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) oil on canvas. Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Palais Massena, Nice, France.

Paisley shawls, as they are known today, got their name from the industry boom created in the town of Paisley, Scotland. While created in America, France, and throughout the UK, Paisley gained a reputation for finely crafted works of art with designers that were willing to delve into very complex designs. When production first began, designers took inspiration from Indian designs and France became known for high-quality imitations [3]. However, as Copyright law of the time had yet to catch up to the rate of production, and designs could only be registered for months at a time, designs were easily traded and copied across city and country borders.

Eventually, because of the subdivision of labor combined with the cheaper cost of living, the town of Paisley became the epicenter in the UK and the town’s name is now synonymous with the design [4]. The town of Paisley became an epicenter for these pieces, in large part because the town had a previous history of textile manufacture, however, France was first in large scale Kashmiri shawl imitation production.

Copyright from January 16, 1851. Each design registered would include one repeat of the design registered, this one attached to a design book. The photograph was taken by the author, Paisley Museum & Art Gallery.

While Paisley shawls may not have been as soft as true cashmere shawls, the use of wool combined with silk or cotton created a much softer texture than pure European wool. These pieces were warm, fashionable, and available at different price points.  

In the early 1790s, both Edinburgh, Scotland and Norwich, England began to imitate Kashmir shawls on hand looms; Paisley followed in 1805. Paisley introduced an attachment to the handloom in 1812, which enabled five different colors of yarn to be used, instead of just two colors, indigo and madder, thus better imitating the Kashmir shawls. Agents were sent from Paisley to London to copy the latest Kashmir shawls as they arrived by sea and, in eight days imitations were being sold in London for £12, the original Kashmir shawl costing £70-100. Paisley shawls offered fashionable accessories to middle and lower class women on a scale unheard of previously [5].

Multiple pieces in the collection show the evolution in the design and use of paisley shawls, as seen in the Nichols House Museum example, pictured below, 1961.804. This early nineteenth-century shawl was made using a blend of high-quality wool and silk fibers are woven using a twill weave. Similar to the design on Empress Joséphine’s dress, the addition of an encasing border denotes the piece as being European in design as freestanding or floating designs were not to the overall tastes of Europeans [6].

1961.804 Shawl detail, 1825-1840.  Nichols House Museum.

The rich red of the shawl still gives the piece what would have been considered an exotic feel, and the flowers that make up the larger paisleys are stylized in a European manner, which would be recognizable and more desirable to the Western market. While a bold use of color, the piece is of a simpler creation, as the loom that created it would be the width of the shawl and use one color throughout, with no alternating or hidden colors, called floats. It is these floats along with the style of the design that can help to date the piece; at the time looms in Europe could only handle the use of five colors. If these colors were only meant to be seen in specific areas, the lengths would be hidden on the underside of the shawl, which also created an inverse of the design on the front. The softness and quality of the shawl, combined with the design motif, lends itself to be a piece most likely manufactured in France, within 1820-1830.

Advancement in loom technology allowed the use of additional, sometimes hidden, threads in the weft (horizontal fibers) which eventually gave way to reversible shawls. Accented borders did not have to be separate pieces, or used solely for decoration.

Paisely detail
Left: Front, close up photo of the large paisley border from shawl 805. Right: Back, close up of floats on the back of shawl 805 showing the pink illustrating the continuation of the inactive, or unused threads in the design.

As popularity grew, so did the need to market pieces to European and American tastes. While India continued to produce Kashmir shawls, the ongoing Industrial Revolution allowed Europe and America to create their own shawls as well, beginning with the invention of the Jacquard Loom in 1801. As weaving technology expanded, so too did the design potential.

Untitled Paisley Shawl Design, c 1840s-1850s. Watercolour and gouache. Paisley Museum & Art Gallery. Designs would be gridded in graphite in order to easily create punch cards. Photo was taken by the author.

1961.805, the second shawl, while coarser to the touch, is a perfect example of technological advancement as well as the expanding market. The patterns in both pieces use the same colors throughout, alternating dominant colors in the pattern.

The use of the Jacquard Loom takes a skilled worker to translate the design into a hole punch card – each hole selects the threads for the pattern and allows the hooks to pass through. The cards would then be stitched together in a chain to be fed into the loom, and the weaver creates the pattern by passing threads over and under one another using a shuttle to pass threads back and forth between the vertical threads (warp) to weave the longitudinal threads (weft).

The innovation of hole punch cards allowed workers to manipulate the pattern without the need of an on-hand assistant, or draw boy. The pattern in 1961.805 makes use of the ability to easily switch dominant colors, choosing red, black, yellow, purple, white and light green evenly throughout. While at first glance it is easy to describe the pattern as patterned stripes, a closer look allows us to see the alternating patterns.


Shawl (1961.805). Mid-Late 19th century. Nichols House Museum.  Left: the shawl design contains three repeats of the striped pattern. Right: close up of a single repeat of the design. The blue and green keep the same pattern, while the red and black stripes share the same pattern. This allows a more complex appearance while keeping the production relatively simple.


Using the same pattern in alternating colors allows variance, without having to limit the color potential. It is pieced with similar all over patterns such as this that are sometimes seen in museum collections and antique stores as an entire coat, as these shawls were luxury heirloom pieces.

Paisley shawls became unfashionable during the 1870s for a combination of reasons, as the popularity of the bustle grew and prevented shawls from draping fashionably, as well as the decrease in price and increase in availability [3]. However, while purchasing new shawls was no longer fashionable, shawls were still usable fashion pieces, although their forms changed.

As previously mentioned, these sizable accessories could be made into dresses (as Empress Josephine was shown to do when first popularized), smoking jackets, or tea gowns. However, the utility and value did not stop at wearable pieces. If a shawl was still in overall good shape, using it as an accent over the couch or as a piano or table accent were common. Minor mending could be done to hide a hole or small tear, and an item strategically placed on top or simply folding the shawl would hide the damage.

Men’s Dressing Gown (CST.2.359), 19th – 20th century. Recycled paisley shawls. The Bowes Museum.

Finding shawls with repairs in the same area, usually circular (from a vase) or square (box or keepsake) were common. If the shawl, however, was too damaged, perhaps passed between family members, cutting and using parts still in good shape was common as well. Pillows, doll’s dresses, curtains, or simply scrap for other shawls would make use of a prized and well-loved piece.

Detail of 1961.804, silk thread used to mend worn areas close to the border. Photograph was taken by the author.

Paisley, Scotland, as the name suggests, was one of the epicenters of creation for these shawls. While by no means the only manufacturer (or the only name for the cone shape design), the town had been a textile-based industry and the popularity of these pieces ushered in for artists, a fervor of design possibilities. While many of these designers remain unnamed, the legacy of the art they produced lives on.

Anonymous Sketch on the back of a design. Late 19th century. Paisley Museum & Art Gallery.  Text reads: “When this is discovered another artist will have died unknown.”

It is my guess that both these pieces came into the collection as collector’s pieces. However, it is certainly possible, given the earlier design of 1961.804, that this was a piece belonging to Elizabeth as part of her wardrobe. There are numerous small clustered repairs around the length edge trim, which fits with it being worn in one popular style for sure. Shawl 1961.85 shows fewer repairs and could have been used as a throw or as an accent at the end of a bed. It is a fine example of popular style, no matter the initial purpose it was purchased for.

  1. Dr Dan Coughlin, Visual Art Curator and Weaver at Paisley Museum and Art Galleries. Personal Notes, January 2016.
  2. Caroline, Karpinski. “Kashmir to Paisley”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. Vol. 22, No. 3, Nov. 1963.
  3. Rossbach, Ed. The Art of Paisley. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co: 1980.
  4. Reilly, Valerie. The Paisley Pattern The Official Illustrated History. Richard Drew, Glasgow: 1987.
  5. Andrews, Meg. “Beyond the Fringe: Shawls of Paisley Design”. Victoriana Magazine.
  6. Levi-Strauss, Monique. The French Shawls. Dryad Press Limited: 1987
  7. Ames, Frank. The Kashmir Shawl and Its Indo-french Influence. Antique Collectors’ Club: 2004.

Further information:

DRESSED: The History of Fashion. April Calahan &  Cassidy Zachary. Podcast. “Cashmere with a “K”: The Controversial History of a Shawl”. May 15, 2018.

A Jacquard loom in action. Demonstrated by Dr Dan Coughlin:


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.