Ancestral Pride

Susannah Nichols
Susannah Nichols
Timothy Nichols
Timothy Nichols
Thomas Johnston
Thomas Johnston

Companion portraits of Timothy Nichols III and Susannah Towne Nichols
Benjamin Franklin Mason (1804-1871)
Created: Boston, 1835
Materials: Framed oil on canvas

Portrait of Thomas Johnston
Attributed to Robert Feke (ca. 1705 – ca. 1750)
Created: Boston, 1741-1750
Materials: Framed oil on canvas

On display at the Nichols House Museum

(To see these objects in the Nichols House Museum online collection, search for 1961.368.1, 1961.368.2, and 1961.266 here:

“The following memoranda have been made with the desire of gathering and preserving so much of our family history as can be collected from existing sources.  It is unfortunate that this work was not undertaken by one of an earlier generation, when descendants of advanced age were living, whose remembrance went back to Colonial days, and who might have communicated facts and reminiscences now irrevocably lost. 

To other hands must be assigned the task of tracing our English ancestry.  The writer is happy to have carried back our pedigree to the immigrant ancestor, and trusts that in the solution of this problem he may be considered to have contributed his share toward the elucidation of the family genealogy.”

Arthur H. Nichols in his Preface to his compilation of Some Descendants of Richard Nichols of Ipswich. Boston, 1910

As a new family settling in on Beacon Hill in 1885, the Nichols family was keen to establish themselves as a prominent family with strong Bostonian roots.  They accomplished this by emphasizing their ancestry, as Arthur and Elizabeth Nichols could both proudly trace their ancestors back to Massachusetts in the 17th and early 18th century, respectively.

The practice of completing family genealogies was popular throughout the nation during this time, but particularly among New Englanders, as families sought to emphasize their European ancestry and New England roots as a way to secure their social status as an established American family. This passion for genealogical research was supported by the foundation of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) in 1845, followed by the establishment of the National Genealogical Society in 1903.[i]

By 1910, Arthur had joined the New England Historic Genealogical Society and completed a genealogy of his family, successfully tracing his roots to a New England colonist, Richard Nichols, who settled in Ipswich, MA, in 1638.

Proud of his family history, Arthur peppered his genealogical account with anecdotes including the following description: “The Nichols family are characterized by their large frame and sound constitution and are remarkably free from tuberculosis, cancer, insanity, and other hereditary disorders.  They are of phlegmatic temperament, industrious, frugal, in intellect above mediocrity and always capable of earning a living.  Not one of our line has been an inmate of the poor-house or penitentiary.”

The family’s ancestral pride is evident within their home at 55 Mount Vernon Street, as three ancestral portraits are part of the permanent collection.  For many years, companion portraits of Arthur’s grandparents, Timothy and Susannah Nichols, hung in the entry.  The portraits were commissioned by Arthur’s uncle, Charles Nichols, in 1835, and inherited by Arthur during the early 1900s. Rose kept the portraits in the entry hallway, making the family history immediately apparent to anyone as they entered the home.

Another ancestral portrait, acquired by Rose in the 1930s, was that of Thomas Johnston – an ancestor of Elizabeth Nichols, and a Massachusetts colonist in the early 1700s.  Johnston was a skilled artisan – he painted many portraits, japanned furniture, engraved maps, and cut gravestones – but is well-known in Boston for installing the organ and organ case in Old North Church.   It is clear that this portrait was important to Rose, as she briefly moved it to the parlor from its location in the dining room, in order to feature it in a photograph that would be published in an article for J.P. Marquard’s “Holiday” magazine.

By leaving the family home as a museum open to the public, Rose secured the Nichols family a lasting place of prominence on Beacon Hill for decades to come.

By Allison LaCroix, Collections Intern, 2015


[i] “About NEHGS,” New England Historic Genealogical Society,; “About NGS,” National Genealogical Society,

A Grand Tour

Untitled bronze ibex, by Giorgio Sommer
Untitled bronze ibex, by Giorgio Sommer

Animal Figurine (Untitled)

Giorgio Sommer, foundry of (1834-1914)

Created: Naples, Italy, late nineteenth to early twentieth century

Material: bronze

Dimensions: 6.5″ x 5.25″ x 1.938″

On display at the Nichols House Museum

To see this object in the Nichols House Museum online collection, search for 1961.493 here:

Rome, June 5, 1931

The [boat] landed us at Naples on June 1st.  The afternoon of our arrival we three at the S. Lucia took a motor drive and tea at the Bertoline high above the Brittanique [sic]…  The next day Aunt Nourse went with us to Herculaneum and Pompeii.  After seeing a little of the best in both places + lunching at Sorrento we returned to Naples in time for Miss Jones and her maid to catch the five o’clock train to Rome.  My last day in Naples I took the boat to Sorrento, where Giuliana Benzoni met me at the dock and motored me to her mother’s quaint villa remote from the town and with a superb view of the Bay of Naples… After that I shall go to Venice to stay until the last of June. For July I have made no definite plans.

-Excerpted from a letter from Rose Standish Nichols to her sister Marian Nichols, Collection of the Schlesinger Library, Harvard University

Rose Nichols loved to travel, as did many Americans of the nineteenth century with the means to do so. Europe was a favorite destination of hers, and she would stay for months at a time. These trips would be both for pleasure and for work, as many of the manor homes and gardens she visited found their way into travel articles for publications such as House Beautiful, and also served as inspiration for her commissioned garden designs. Her three books exclusively feature European gardens, thus elevating her travel to more than a vacation.

The tradition of visiting Europe for educational purposes began in the late 16th century when young, wealthy gentlemen traveled with a tutor throughout Europe on what became known as “The Grand Tour.”[i] The Grand Tour served to complete a classical education with the ultimate experience of seeing in-person ancient art and ruins. By the nineteenth century, it became easier for more people to travel to Europe due to advances in transportation and the increasing broad interest in ancient cultures and Renaissance art.[ii] As the twentieth century opened, Rose Nichols was one of the pioneering women who traveled to Europe to further her artistic and professional career, as so many men had done before her.

In addition to inspiration and education, another tradition of The Grand Tour was returning home with souvenirs, such as antiquities or pieces of fine art. However, a booming business in reproductions of ancient pieces catered to those who could not afford the originals.[iii] Giorgio Sommer, a well-known photographer, also ran a bronze foundry in Naples, Italy, which created replicas of famous ancient and Renaissance works- see his descriptive 1922 advertisement here.[iv]

The small figurine of an ibex at the top of this post was one of these so-called “Grand Tour Bronzes,” bought as a souvenir by the Nichols family after a trip to Italy. Rose must have particularly enjoyed this particular piece… not only did she own this small replica, but she incorporated a pair of much larger ibexes in her garden design for The House of the Four Winds in Lake Forest, Chicago.[v] This garden itself was inspired by the Generalife Gardens at The Alhambra in Granada, Spain.[vi] Rose’s European travels made a lasting impression, informing her of the broader world and providing inspiration she and her clients appreciated.

House of the Four Winds, c. 1908. Smithsonian Institution, Archive of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection
Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archive of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection

[i] The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. “The Grand Tour”

[ii] Indiana University Art Museum. “The Grand Tour: Art and Travel 1740-1914.”

[iii] Holman, Thomas S. “Souvenirs of The Grand Tour: The Collection of Thomas S. Holman.”

[iv] Cook, Thomas. Cook’s Traveller’s Handbook,  Naples and Environs. “Giorgio Sommer,” 1922.

[v] For information on garden design in American, visit Smithsonian Institution, Archive of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection: For more on Rose Standish Nichols gardens, please visit our website for more images and a listing and description of all known gardens attributed to her:

[vi] For comparison, view the image for the Generalife “lower gardens:”

By Assistant to the Director Ashley Jahrling Bannon

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:

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, 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.”



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.

[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.

[iv] Farmer, Boston Cooking-school,, 313, 315

[v] Chichi Wang, “The Nasty Bits: Sweetbreads,” Serious Eats, June 14, 2011.

[vi] Farmer, Boston Cooking-school,, 333-334

[vii] Farmer, Boston Cooking-school,, 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:

[iii] Fenimore Art Museum blog on the trend of mourning pictures painted in watercolors:

[iv] For information on the national mourning period after George Washington died, please see and

[v] For an example of a similar piece in the American Folk Art Museum: and to see their wider collection of early American needlework:

[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:


Made: American, by unknown craftsmen

Materials: Oak, rope, brass, and iron

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

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 and

[iii]Visit the Monticello website to learn more about Thomas Jefferson’s entertaining and lifestyle at his home in Virginia: and


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

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]


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, and joiner Peter Follansbee’s blog post on finishes for 17th century reproduction furniture

[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

[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: Peter Follansbee’s blog, Peter Follansbee, joiner’s notes, can be found at:

[v] For a discussion of seventeenth century furniture styles, see The New England Antiques Journal article by John Fiske and Lisa Freeman, 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:

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

[vii] For more information about Payne-Bouchier, Fine Builders, visit their website