A Trip to the Mountains

Untitled View of Mount Ascutney, Henry Fitch Taylor, c. 1908
Untitled View of Mount Ascutney, Henry Fitch Taylor, c. 1908

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Untitled Landscape of Mount Ascutney

Attributed to Henry Fitch Taylor (1853-1925)

Created: Vermont, c. 1908

Materials: Oil, canvas, wooden board
Dimensions: 8 1/8” x 10 3/8”

On display at the Nichols House Museum

To see this object in the Nichols House Museum online collection, search for 1961.125 here: http://nicholshouse.pastperfect-online.com/36637cgi/mweb.exe?request=ks

For the artists and families who summered in Cornish, New Hampshire, at the turn of the twentieth century, the surrounding mountains defined the landscape, particularly the view of Mount Ascutney. The landscape inspired myriad designers, artists, and writers, and provided a perpetually dramatic backdrop for everyday activities.[i]  Artist Henry Fitch Taylor and his wife, Clara Davidge Taylor, owned a home in Cornish and participated in the life of the colony, whose members included sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, painter and illustrator Maxfield Parrish, and architect Charles Platt. The Taylors knew many Cornish residents, including the Nichols family, who owned a home called Mastlands (due to the tall, straight white pine trees on the property which were harvested to serve as masts of sailing ships) where they summered from 1880s-1930s.[ii]

Mastlands
Mastlands, summer home of the Nichols family

The view of Mount Ascutney influenced how homes and gardens were designed in Cornish so that the dwellings could take advantage of the best views possible.  A visit to Cornish in 1906 by the horticulturalist and author Frances Duncan led her to observe:

“[Most] Cornish folk have wisely taken to the hills, and overlook the valley and Ascutney, each with a view of his own; for there are views and to spare at Cornish… [but] Rare is it in Cornish that the garden runs an opposition show, or challenges comparison with the loveliness of the mountains.”[iii]

The veranda at Mastlands

Although the gardens in Cornish were the pride and joy of the homeowners of the colony, they were designed to accent the spectacular natural beauty of the mountains surrounding the area. Rose Standish Nichols wrote in 1911 of her first garden she designed for her parents’ summer home:

“But when seen from the safe distance of the piazza, where we live most of the summer, [the garden’s] deficiencies of detail are lost in space and the masses of bright-colored flowers against the gray background of stone wall, with the exquisite contours of purple Mount Ascutney rising high above the dark pine forests in the distance, fill one with a sense of abiding peace and beauty.”[iv]

A view from the garden at Mastlands, designed by Rose Standish Nichols
A view from the garden at Mastlands, designed by Rose Standish Nichols

Rose’s mother could not have agreed more- she wrote home to her husband in 1886, “The lovely views of Ascutney and the hills are a constant delight.”[v]

Henry Fitch Taylor was one of America’s first Impressionist painters and later was one of the first to embrace the early modernist movement.[vi] His works spanned from oil painting to cement carvings to carved wooden panel sculptures. Always interested in pushing boundaries in the art world, he was also instrumental in organizing the ground-breaking 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, often referred to as the Armory Show, in New York City.[vii] Taylor was a member of two New England art colonies, the Cos Cob Art Colony of Greenwich, Connecticut, and the Cornish Art Colony, where he spent the later years of his life.

This small oil painting may have been painted en plein air, outdoors, with the view of Mount Ascutney directly before him. The paint is quite thick in some places and thin in others, but the bright colors (since darkened with age) are suggestive of Taylor’s interest in color and color theory. Although the Nichols House Museum does not know how Rose Nichols’ came to own this painting, it evidently meant a lot to her. She had it hanging in her bedroom at the time of her death in 1960.

Taylor’s small, colorful oil painting of Mount Ascutney is a little reminder of those vibrant, creative Cornish summers the Nichols enjoyed, on display in the Boston home.

1964 RSN bedroom
Rose Nichols’ bedroom at 55 Mount Vernon Street, Boston, Massachusetts, c. 1964

Interested in learning more about the artists of Cornish and Rose Nichols’ time there? The Nichols House Museum is hosting a lecture Tuesday, October 28 at 6:00 p.m. entitled “Life at Mastlands: Rose Nichols and the Cornish Art Colony” by Margaret Dimock, the museum’s inaugural Julie Linsdell and Georgia Linsdell Enders Research Intern. Please call the museum at 617-227-6993 to reserve a seat for this free lecture.

Mount Ascutney, located in Windsor and Weathersfield, Vermont, is located across the Connecticut River from Cornish, New Hampshire. It rises 3,144 feet, and is geographically termed a “monadnock” or “inselberg”- a mountain or rocky mass that has resisted erosion and stands isolated in an essentially level area[viii].  Although not the only mountain able to be seen from Cornish, Mount Ascutney is distinctive for its granite outcroppings along its peak. Mount Ascutney and surrounding areas became a Vermont state park in 1935.[ix]

By Ashley Jahrling Bannon, Assistant to the Director of the Nichols House Museum

 

[i]  A Circle of Friends: Art Colonies of Cornish and Dublin, exhibition catalog. University Art Galleries, University of New Hampshire, Durham: Mark-Burton Inc., 1985.

[ii] Hutchinson, B. June. At Home on Beacon Hill: Rose Standish Nichols and Her Family. Board of Governors, Nichols House Museum. South Korea: 2011. Pg. 79-114

[iii] Duncan, Frances. “The Gardens of Cornish.” The Century Magazine. Vol. LXXII, no. 1. May, 1906.

[iv] Nichols, Rose Standish. “How Not to Make a Flower Garden.” House Beautiful, September, 1911. Pg. 104.

[v] Hutchinson, At Home on Beacon Hill, 79. Elizabeth to Arthur, July 9, 1886.

[vi] Oaklander, Christine I. “Cos Cob’s Surprising Modernist: Henry Fitch Taylor, An Exhibition at Bush-Holley Historic Site September 30 to December 31 2005.” The Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich.

[vii] Oaklander, “Cos Cob’s Surprising Modernist.”

[viii] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/monadnock

[ix] http://www.vtstateparks.com/htm/ascutney.htm

A (Small) Dinner Party

Nichols House Museum-  1906 menu
Nichols House Museum- 1906 menu

Menu, Club Dinner, March 28, 1906

Menu card

Made: Boston, Massachusetts, 1906

Materials: Paper, ink, graphite

In the permanent archival collection of the Nichols House Museum

Visitors often comment on the small size of the Nichols family dining table—it seats six people. The elegant room with tall ceilings and golden walls understandably conjures images of large, elaborate parties. The Nichols family did host large events from time to time, such as their daughter Margaret’s wedding reception when they hosted 235 guests, but they also entertained for small groups more regularly at their Beacon Hill home. Each family member held dinner parties for their friends, or even to honor and welcome visiting dignitaries and international guests. Arthur Nichols often hosted dinner parties for his doctor friends, signified by the designation “Club Dinner” on some of the menu cards, which are preserved in the Nichols House Museum archival collection.

Each course on the menu cards is separated by a simple drawn line, and the courses roughly follow the order suggested in Fannie Merritt Farmer’s popular 1906 cookbook, The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, available on Google Books.[i] The courses would have been prepared in the kitchen by the cook, laid on a sideboard in the dining room by the kitchen maid, and served by William (Arthur’s manservant). For large events, the family hired wait staff to serve at table. Arthur Nichols loved good food, often describing his favorite meals in letters to his family.[ii] This menu from March 28, 1906 may have incorporated some of his favorite foods to impress his guests.

Below is a brief description of the unusual (to twenty-first century eyes) food included on the menu:

White Soup, Farina balls: Creamy almond soup with wheat dumplings. Farina is still sold in stores today as a hot wheat cereal.

Planked Shad Roe: Shad is a fish from the Chesapeake area, which, when cooked on a plank of wood in front of the fire, is imbued with a smoky flavor. Its roe, or egg sack, is considered a delicacy.[iii]

Potato Balls: Mashed potatoes with optional additions mixed in, such as sliced ham, onions, eggs, and herbs; then they are shaped into balls and fried in oil.[iv]

Sweet Breads: This is a term to describe the edible organs of various animals, often the thymus and pancreas glands of calves and lamb. Sweetbreads are described as both sweeter and juicier than regular cuts of meat and are considered delicacies. For a modern take on sweetbreads, visit this Serious Eats blog post.[v]

Tomato Salad: This dish is probably a composed salad, such as a whole tomato that has been cored, filled with creamy dressing or cheese, and placed on a bed of lettuce.[vi]

Guava Jelly: Guavas are fruit originally from Central and South America and are high in pectin, making them perfect for jellies and candies. This cheese course gets a tart, strawberry-like accent with the guava jelly.

Sherbert and dulces: For the dessert course, sherbet, as defined by Fannie Farmer, is “water ice [frozen fruit juice, mixed with water and sugar] to which is added a small quantity of dissolved gelatin or beaten whites of eggs.”[vii] “Dulce” is Spanish for “sweet,” which may refer to either candies or even small cookie-like pastries.

 

[i] Fannie Merritt Farmer, The Boston Cooking-school Cook Book, 1906. http://books.google.com/books?id=UXkEAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=fannie+farmer&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ke7HU-eqJtOGyASkiIKQBA&ved=0CDcQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=fannie%20farmer&f=false

[ii] B. June Hutchinson, At Home on Beacon Hill: Rose Standish Nichols and Her Family, 2011. Page 47.

[iii] “Planked Shad,” midatlanticcooking, August 20, 2012. http://midatlanticcooking.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/planked-shad/

[iv] Farmer, Boston Cooking-school, http://books.google.com/books?id=UXkEAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=fannie+farmer&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ke7HU-eqJtOGyASkiIKQBA&ved=0CDcQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=fannie%20farmer&f=false, 313, 315

[v] Chichi Wang, “The Nasty Bits: Sweetbreads,” Serious Eats, June 14, 2011. http://www.seriouseats.com/2011/06/the-nasty-bits-sweetbreads.html

[vi] Farmer, Boston Cooking-school, http://books.google.com/books?id=UXkEAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=fannie+farmer&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ke7HU-eqJtOGyASkiIKQBA&ved=0CDcQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=fannie%20farmer&f=false, 333-334

[vii] Farmer, Boston Cooking-school, http://books.google.com/books?id=UXkEAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=fannie+farmer&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ke7HU-eqJtOGyASkiIKQBA&ved=0CDcQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=fannie%20farmer&f=false, 433

 

By Ashley Jahrling, Assistant to the Director

Much More than Mourning

To the memory of Lucy C. May1961.161 -- 2

Needlework Picture

Made: Possibly New Hampshire, c. 1800

Materials: Silk, metal threads, paint, glass

On display at the Nichols House Museum

To see this object in the Nichols House Museum online collection, search for 1961.161 here.

 

A Multi-layered Artwork

Look closely at this piece of needlework embroidery. At first glance, it is a depressing scene. A young woman grieves for her siblings —Thomas (10 days old), Lucy (4 years, 8 months), and Abiel (6 weeks). However, to early nineteenth-century eyes, this piece was much more than a reminder of human mortality.[i]  Although the artist is anonymous, this advanced needlework offers insight into early nineteenth-century American society, including the education available to women, patriotism in the new country, and even how local economies were affected by female schools in their communities.

Nineteenth-century Female Education

The young woman who made this piece likely attended a school where she learned fancy, decorative embroidery. Around 1800, many female schools opened around the country to teach well-to-do young women music, painting, and embroidery alongside literature, geography, and other subjects (depending on the school teacher’s curriculum). Creating a needlework picture, such as this one, showcased the student’s skill and patience with a needle and thread — not only with basic stitches, but with fancy embroidery, too.[ii] She would be well-prepared to decorate her future home’s textiles and family’s clothing.

1961.161 -- 2 detail urnAmerican patriotism and classical imagery

Girls spent months completing needlework pictures with subjects and motifs reminiscent of classical and/or religious designs. The mourning scene, with common motifs such as urns, a weeping willow tree, and female mourners in long white dresses, were inspired by ancient Greece and Rome, which were popular democratic symbols in the new American republic.[iii] The refined figure of the young woman who values family was a respectable, appropriate, and common image of its day. Its popularity began with similar images that commemorated the death of George Washington in 1799, an event which sent the whole country into mourning.[iv] The image pervaded popular culture and was used as inspiration for family mourning pictures such as this one.[v]

Social Refinement

Proud parents hung their daughters’ schoolwork in the parlor, signaling to visitors (and potential suitors) that the family was prosperous enough to send their daughter for extra schooling.[vi] The family also showcased their daughter’s skill, emphasizing the importance of education in their lives.

Mixed Media 1961.161 -- 2 detail windmill

The skillful embroidery of this piece is its central achievement. However, there is more here than embroidery, and more than one set of hands. Before the embroidery was completed, the pattern was initially drawn, painted, or printed onto the cloth, and student and teacher worked on the design and color choices. After the needlework was completed, other artisans helped to finish the piece. A local portrait painter likely added the painted background, face, and floral details after the embroidery was finished, as seen by the blue paint on the stitched windmill and roof in the lower left corner. The frame was also made especially for the piece by a professional framer. This popular style of a gilded frame with black and gold reverse-glass painting highlighted the light colors of the needlework. Because its production involved purchasing silk threads from the store and hiring painters and framers as well, this one needlework hints at the school’s centrality in its local economy. And of course, the parents had to pay extra for the project’s materials and labor!

Overall, this piece is much more than a memorial to the untimely passing of the May children. It exemplifies a time in American history when needlework was at the intersection of female education, patriotism, and community.

 

[i] Betty Ring. Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers and Pictorial Needlework 1650-1850. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1993. “The majority [of mourning needlework pictures] appear to have been made as a record and a decoration, rather than an expression of current grief, and they were the result of fashion rather than melancholy.” 21.

[ii] A modern-day tutorial on different embroidery stitches: http://www.dmc-usa.com/Education/How-To/Learn-the-Stitches/Embroidery-Stitches.aspx

[iii] Fenimore Art Museum blog on the trend of mourning pictures painted in watercolors: http://fenimoreartmuseum.blogspot.com/2009/04/eunice-pinney-mourning-pictures.html

[iv] For information on the national mourning period after George Washington died, please see http://nationalheritagemuseum.typepad.com/library_and_archives/mourning-art/ and http://www.mountvernon.org/educational-resources/encyclopedia/mourning

[v] For an example of a similar piece in the American Folk Art Museum: http://www.folkartmuseum.org/?p=folk&t=images&id=3464 and to see their wider collection of early American needlework: http://www.folkartmuseum.org/needleworks

[vi] To see the type of Federal-era rooms needlework like this would inhabit, check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s article and pictures:  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/fede/hd_fede.htm.

Dumbwaiter

Made: American, by unknown craftsmen

Materials: Oak, rope, brass, and iron

To see this piece at the Nichols House Museum, visit us!

http://www.nicholshousemuseum.org/visit.php

Currently On Display at the Nichols House Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The antiquated wooden dumbwaiter at the Nichols House Museum is a popular feature of the semi-hidden butler’s pantry, located on the second floor off the dining room. This two-tier wooden contraption carried food, plates, and utensils from the kitchen on the first floor to the dining room on the second, saving time and energy. A fascinating piece of home technology built directly into the structure, it now silently hangs between the two floors it traveled so frequently. Its installation in 1897, however, gives an indication of the busy household it served 100 years ago.

Pantry 2nd Floor compressed
Looking down the Butler’s Pantry. The dumbwaiter is to the left, out of the frame.

The Nichols household at the turn of the twentieth century would have included three live-in servants – a cook and two maids. There would have been other household staff, as well.[i]  For larger dinner parties, extra wait staff would have been hired. The Nichols family built the butler’s pantry twelve years after they moved to Beacon Hill. The butler’s pantry was a boon to the family and its staff, as it added a staircase connecting the first floor kitchen to the dining room, a sink, extra storage, and the dumbwaiter. Food could be sent up from the kitchen via the dumbwaiter, platters were stored on the new shelves, dishes could be washed in the soapstone sink, and servants could move between the dining room and the kitchen using the back staircase without disturbing the diners. The space also allowed for a final touch on the plated dishes before they were carried out to be served.

Speaking tube
The speaking tube connects downstairs into the kitchen.

The dumbwaiter was an essential part of this hustle and bustle. It was quick, and lowered the risk of a fall on the stairs. The speaking tube located next to it (which couldn’t be used too loudly as it would disturb the dining party) again facilitated communication between floors without the need of running up and down stairs. Victorian diners knew servants were necessary to help run a household, but the less they were seen and heard, the better. The butler’s pantry, and the dumbwaiter, facilitated this separation between the servants and their employers.

Origins of the term

Although the term “dumbwaiter” may sound demeaning to modern-day ears, the old-fashioned name hints at the benefits of installing such a system – privacy, and a silent, labor-saving device that reduced hired staff.

Today the term “dumbwaiter” often refers to the food lift seen here at the Nichols house, there is another type of dumbwaiter which more accurately describes the origin of the term. During the 18th century, a dumbwaiter was a stationary piece of furniture, whereas by the mid-19th century it referred to the contraption we have today.[ii] The 18th century version was a small, stationary table with shelves that would be left next to each guest at a dining table to serve themselves without the aid of wait staff.[iii] Each guest would have their dumbwaiter with all the food implements and courses already laid upon it. This style of “dumbwaiter” allowed guests to discuss important topics without worrying servants could overhear. At his home Monticello in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson not only had small wine dumbwaiters installed on either side of his fireplace mantel (in the style of the Nichols’ lift), but he also owned multiple stationary dumbwaiters as well for hosting private dinner parties.

The Nichols House Museum now offers Servant Life Tours of the house- if you are interested, please give the museum a call at 617-227-6993 to arrange a special tour!

By Ashley Jahrling, Assistant to the Director

[i] See B. June Hutchinson, At Home on Beacon Hill: Rose Standish Nichols and Her Family, for a description of the many servants, both male and female, who worked at the Nichols House.

[ii] For an analysis of the changes over time of the phrase and type of dumbwaiters available, see Dead Media Archive http://cultureandcommunication.org/deadmedia/index.php/Dumbwaiter and www.oed.com

[iii]Visit the Monticello website to learn more about Thomas Jefferson’s entertaining and lifestyle at his home in Virginia: http://www.monticello.org/site/house-and-gardens/dumbwaiters and http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/design-and-decor-convenience.

 

Wooden “Bible” Box

Made: In England during the late seventeenth century, by an unknown craftsman

Materials: Oak and iron

To see this object in the Nichols House Museum online collection, search for 1961.64 at http://www.nicholshousemuseum.org/collection.php

Currently On Display at the Nichols House Museum

1961.64 -- 1 edit
Often referred to as a “Bible box,” this box would have stored much more than a Bible in a seventeenth-century household.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adore this piece? Read on to find out how you can own a Nichols House Bible Box!

Three hundred years ago, this dark wooden box would be unrecognizable. Smelling of fresh wood, likely cheerfully painted in the popular brazen colors of the period, and sporting newly wrought iron hardware from the blacksmith, this box would have been an eye-catching but functional piece of decor.[i] During the seventeenth century, a family would have kept small valuables ranging from money and documents to fancy linens inside this box—it was easy to grab in case of a fire. Its slanted top also increased its functionality as a portable podium or desk. During the late nineteenth century, this style of box came to be known as a “Bible box” when people began collecting them as antiques.[ii]

Creation

The English joiner, or carpenter, who made the box, carved the front panel when the wood was freshly split, or green, as it was wet, soft, and easier to carve than if it were dried and aged. Oak is a type of hardwood, and it hardens as it dries.[iii] The wood did not warp during this drying process after it was carved because 1) the wood was of high quality without knots or curves and 2) the wood was cut lengthwise (split) with the grain rather than cut crosswise (sawn) into rounds against the grain. Splitting the wood kept it more stable.[iv] The hand-carved design, if you look closely, is not symmetrical. Naturalistic designs like this one were very popular in England and New England during the period.[v] The box is held together with wooden pegs, and has an interior shelf to keep the contents organized.

1961.64  detail
Detail of the carved front panel.

Change over time

Over the years, this box has undergone a complete transformation. The box may have lost its original lock when the key was lost, forcing the owner to break it open. The original paint was likely stripped around the turn of the twentieth century when it was popular to refinish old furniture, similar to the repurposing of old furniture today. The box was probably in this condition when Arthur Nichols purchased it for his daughter Rose on February 16, 1912. He specifically recorded in his diary: “Sale at Libbie’s of a consignment of old furniture, clocks, china, crockery and bric-a-brac from England has lasted five afternoons, attracting a large company. I bought a table, two mahogany candle-boxes… [and] an oak bible box was bought for Rose.”[vi]

A Reproduction

Interested in owning your own Bible box? Come to our annual Spring Fête on June 5 at the Boston Athenæum! The talented Oliver Bouchier from Payne-Bouchier, Fine Builders, will reproduce the box as an item in our silent auction.[vii] Bid on your own piece of history at the Spring Fête – for tickets, please visit our website.

By Ashley Jahrling, Assistant to the Director

 

[i] For a brief discussion of paints and finishes on 17th century English and American furniture, see the New England Antiques Journal article by John Fiske and Lisa Freeman, https://www.antiquesjournal.com/Pages04/Monthly_pages/feb07/twins.html and joiner Peter Follansbee’s blog post on finishes for 17th century reproduction furniture  http://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2010/02/21/what-finish-to-use/.

[ii] According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “Bible box” was first recorded in 1904.

[iii] For a breakdown on the difference between hardwood and softwood, visit http://www.diffen.com/difference/Hardwood_vs_Softwood

[iv] For an article chronicling the process of creating furniture in the 17th century style, see Stephanie Stone’s article on Peter Follansbee’s work at: http://www.greenwoodworking.com/PeterFollansbeeSleuthing. Peter Follansbee’s blog, Peter Follansbee, joiner’s notes, can be found at: http://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/.

[v] For a discussion of seventeenth century furniture styles, see The New England Antiques Journal article by John Fiske and Lisa Freeman, https://www.antiquesjournal.com/Pages04/Monthly_pages/feb07/twins.html. See also the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History on American Furniture, 1620-1730: The Seventeenth Century and William and Mary Styles: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/will/hd_will.htm.

[vi] Arthur Howard Nichols Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[vii] For more information about Payne-Bouchier, Fine Builders, visit their website http://www.paynebouchier.com/

Tall Case Clock by Elnathan Taber (1768-1854)

Made: c. 1790 in Roxbury, Massachusetts; Birmingham, England

Materials: Mahogany, eastern white pine, brass, metals, paint

To see this object in the Nichols House Museum online collection, search for 1961.371a-d at http://www.nicholshousemuseum.org/collection.php

Currently On Display at the Nichols House Museum

Before watches or cellphones, a long case (or tall case)[i] clock was a functioning piece of home technology signifying status and wealth. Not only were clocks expensive (costing upwards of a few thousand dollars today), but in the agrarian past when time was based on the sun and the seasons, a clock signaled that its town-dwelling owner valued punctuality in an increasingly regimented world.[ii] But such a device had to be cared for. A clock had to be wound every so many hours or days (depending on the model) so it would continue to keep time. Its chimes could be heard throughout the house, interrupting household activities.  This clock, made by Elnathan Taber about 1790 in the Nichols House Museum collection, is an eight-day model, a top-of-the-line piece with the newest technology of the eighteenth century. The brass gears inside the wooden case did not need to be rewound for eight whole days…. failure to do so would silence the clock. [iii]

How a clock moves

Within a mechanical clock, the pull of gravity moves the weight down with each pendulum swing, which also moves the hands around the clock’s face. [iv] In a grandfather clock, the weight slowly (in this model, over the course of eight days) dropped the length of the clock’s trunk, and combined with the precise and (ideally) frictionless swing of the pendulum, the clock kept more accurate time than smaller clocks of the period. Numerous factors could slow a clock down, from dust in the gears to seasonal changes of humidity, all which minutely affected a clock’s meticulously created movement. Making sure the clock functioned properly was part of the art of clock making. Not only did the piece have to look nice, its gears had to function well, too. In the collection of Old Sturbridge Village, one of their Elnathan Taber clocks has hand-written instructions inside describing how to wind and care for the clock.[v]

The men behind the clock

This clock was made by Elnathan Taber (1768-1854), a clockmaker based in Roxbury, Massachusetts who was said to be the best apprentice in the shop to renowned clockmaker Simon Willard (1753-1848).[vi] These two men lived and breathed clocks. Although many artisans made pieces for clocks including mechanics, artists, forgers, and cabinetmakers, it was the clockmaker who had the knowledge to coordinate the ordering and assemble the pieces. For example, Elnathan probably ordered clock cases from a local cabinet maker, while the gears came from a factory in Birmingham, England. Elnathan apprenticed under Simon Willard after Simon made a name for himself in the Boston area for his fine clocks.[vii] Simon made household clocks and also installed large clocks in public buildings, including Old South Meeting House and the US Senate.  Elnathan worked with Simon for years and later bought the business and, in a marketing strategy, also acquired the right to label his clocks “Simon Willard.” Simon was well known for producing quality clocks, so his name carried the public’s trust in its quality. The clock in the museum collection, however, bears Elnathan’s name but dates from a period when he would have been working alongside Simon at his shop. The clock features a patriotic eagle over the hood, and an allegorical image painted in the lunette, the arched top part of the dial. Tall clocks were investments in the eighteenth century, a sign of the growing social importance of accurate time-keeping.

By Ashley Jahrling, Assistant to the Director

[i] Grandfather clocks were known as long case or tall case clocks before an 1876 song “Grandfather’s Clock” by Henry Clay Work popularized the new term http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/index.php/exhibits/bio/C198. Listen here: https://archive.org/details/MyGrandfathersClock.

[ii] Philip Zea, “Timekeeping: The Lifestyle of Accuracy- An Interpretive Essay for the J. Cheney Wells Collection of New England Clocks at Old Sturbridge Village.” 1986.

[iii] Jessica Chappell, “The Long Case Clock: Engineering Behind a Grandfather Clock.” Illumin, Vol. 1 Iss. IV. University of Southern California, 2001. https://illumin.usc.edu/184/the-long-case-clock-engineering-behind-a-grandfather-clock/

[v] Old Sturbridge Village, Tall Clock by Elnathan Taber. 57.1.2. http://resources.osv.org/explore_learn/collection_viewer.php?N=57.1.2

[vi] Walter A. Dyer, “The Willards and Their Clocks.” Country Life in America, June 1915, pg 47.

[vii] For more information about the Willard family of clockmakers, see: Joseph Downs, “Three American Clocks,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. Vol. 32, No. 5, May 1937. 129-137; The Willard House and Clock Museum at http://www.willardhouse.org/.