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. Thus, proponents of the Arts and Crafts Movement looked to medieval craftsman and guilds for inspiration which, in turn, ushered in a Colonial Revival.

Boston played a 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 [1].

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, especially here in Boston.

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 [2]. 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 Isaac & Casson, asking that they be left uncarved (she is also responsible for the chair’s caning). 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.

RSN chair
Oak Chair, carving and caning attributed to Rose Standish Nichols, American, early twentieth century. Nichols House Museum Collection.
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 [4]. 

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 [5]. 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 (see image below). 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 the collection of American furniture amassed by Boston’s H. Eugene Bolles, which was purchased and donated to the museum by Mrs. Russell Sage, a New York philanthropist and the widow of a wealthy financier.

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.

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

[2] Margaret Nichols Shurcliff taught carpentry skills to immigrant boys so that they could 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.

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

[4] 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.

[5] Ibid.



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. http://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml.

[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.