MHS News

"The Cabinetmaker and the Carver: Boston Furniture from Private Collections" Opens 4 October

An extraordinary opportunity to view nearly 50 examples of rarely seen furniture borrowed from private collections in the greater Boston area.

BOSTON, August 2013—Boston has been the home of an important furniture trade since the mid-17th century. As part of the Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture collaboration, the Massachusetts Historical Society presents an exhibition covering several centuries of a rich and varied furniture-making tradition. From 4 October 2013 through 17 January 2014, visitors will have the opportunity to explore nearly 50 examples of rarely seen furniture borrowed from distinguished private collections in the greater Boston area. Ranging in date from the late-17th century to about 1900, these privately held treasures, generously lent by their owners, provide a look at the trajectory of cabinetmaking in the Hub. Supplemented with complementary materials from the Society’s collections the exhibition explores furniture as history and provides a look at Boston’s distinctive urban tradition.

Bostonians, and New Englanders at large, have long been responsible caretakers of the area’s history. The furniture in this show, gathered by passionate and knowledgeable collectors in the last few decades, complements the incomparable manuscript collections of the MHS, whose stewardship of the written record has been so significant since the late-18th century.  

The exhibition begins with a constellation of the earliest surviving furniture made in Boston.  Fashioned by joiners, turners, and chair makers from the 1680s to about 1730, these sturdy early objects in the Anglo-American tradition are evocative of “the world we have lost,” as phrased by the historian Peter Laslett. The display includes a rare high chest of drawers with “japanned” decoration, an interpretation of true Asian lacquer that was popular in Boston at this time.

The show continues with an extraordinary array of Boston’s finest colonial furniture in the late baroque, rococo, and early neoclassical styles. Bostonians’ taste—before the Revolution but after the war as well—remained firmly indebted to English modes.  Case furniture in the blockfront and bombé (or swelled) modes, both characteristic of Boston shops, along with several pieces attributed to John Welch, Boston’s most important specialist carver of the period, will be on display. Desks and desk and bookcases—the work stations of Boston’s 18th-century merchants and ministers, are featured prominently. A cluster of four card or gaming tables provides evidence of the more relaxed social mores of the Georgian era.

Next, visitors are presented with late neoclassical or Empire-style furniture, when stylish Bostonians looked to the designs of ancient Greece, Rome, and occasionally Egypt for inspiration. The objects on display are mainly by Isaac Vose and Son and Emmons & Archbald, two of Boston’s most important shops in the early Republic. A little cabinet, an unusual form attributed to the Vose firm, may have been used by a collector to store miniatures, coins, medals, jewelry, or other small precious items.

The exhibition continues with examples of the eclectic, imaginative styles of the mid- and late-19th century, including the Gothic and rococo revivals, and an example of innovative patent furniture. The adjacent Dowse Library serves as the show’s “period room.” New information, discovered in the course of preparing the exhibition, has identified Edward Hixon as the source of the room’s woodwork and furnishings in 1857. The show concludes with a few masterpieces from the arts and crafts movement of the late-19th century, a design reform impulse in which Boston took a leading role.

Furniture tells us much about the past—about social customs and human interaction, about the relationship between Americans and the world, about the changing nature of technology and the evolution of aesthetics, among many other topics. By providing a snapshot of Boston’s furniture tradition, this exhibition provides another lens through which to examine the city’s long and distinguished history.

A full-color, extensively illustrated catalogue written by guest curator Gerald W. R. Ward and published by the MHS will be available and can be purchased online or at the Society. 

About Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture
Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture is a collaborative project of the Massachusetts Historical Society and ten other institutions that features exhibitions, lectures, demonstrations and publications to celebrate the Bay State's legacy of furniture-making. Visit  

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New Trustees Elected at Annual Meeting

At the Annual Meeting on 12 June, the Society honored retiring Trustees Levin H. Campbell, Sr., G. West Saltonstall, Sheila D. Perry, and Hiller B. Zobel for their years serving on the Board of Trustees. A Staff Service Award was presented to Brenda Lawson, Director of Collections Services for 25 years of service to the Society. The Fellows of the MHS, in their role as its governing body, unanimously approved four new Trustees: Oliver F. Ames, Jr., Levin H. Campbell, Jr., Anthony H. Leness, and William N. Thorndike, Jr.

Oliver F. Ames, Jr.
Oliver F. Ames, Jr. is a partner in the law firm of Casner & Edwards in Boston and is a member of the firm’s Private Client & Wealth Management and Nonprofit Organizations practice areas. Mr. Ames received his law degree from Boston College Law School in 1990 and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1985, where he majored in History and was a Morehead Scholar. Mr. Ames serves as an officer or director of several nonprofit organizations in the Boston area and previously served as a director and vice chair of the Bostonian Society, Boston's historical society. 

Levin H. Campbell, Jr.
Lee Campbell is a middle school history and English teacher who splits his time with school administration.  He has worked in museum education at the USS Constitution Museum and Mystic Seaport. For many years he was employed by Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center in Boston where he was assistant head of a school program (the Willauer School) for middle school age inner city youth. Mr. Campbell is a trustee of the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, as well as Treasurer of the Freelance Players and Urban Improv, a violence prevention program based in Boston. He became a Fellow of the MHS in 2009. Lee received an AB from Harvard, where he majored in European History, and an MA in Education from Tufts University and a Certificate of Advanced Studies from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In his leisure time he enjoys sailing, skiing, and other outdoor recreation.

Anthony H. Leness
Anthony H. Leness is a Managing Partner and co-founder of Lincoln Peak Capital, a private investment firm that assists leading boutique asset management firms in effecting ownership transitions. Prior to founding Lincoln Peak Capital, he was a senior member of the management team and a director of EventMonitor, Inc., a financial technology firm providing advanced analytic and trading solutions to investment management firms. Mr. Leness's previous work experiences include private equity investing at The Beacon Group, LLC and investment banking at Smith Barney, Inc. Mr. Leness received a MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from Hamilton College.

William N. Thorndike, Jr.
William Thorndike founded Housatonic Partners in Boston in 1994 and has been Managing Director since that time. Prior to that, he worked with T. Rowe Price Associates where he did investment research in the nascent field of business services and Walker & Company where he was named to the Board of Directors. He is a Director of Access Information Management; Alta Colleges; Continental Fire & Safety Services, LLC, Carillon Assisted Living, LLC; Liberty Towers, LLC; OASIS Group Ltd.; QMC International, LLC; White Flower Farm, Inc., a Trustee of Stanford Business School Trust, the College of the Atlantic and a founding partner at FARM, a social impact investing fund/collaborative. Mr. Thorndike holds an AB from Harvard College and an MBA from Stanford Business School. He is Chair of the Board at the College of the Atlantic, a former trustee of the Boston Athenaeum and Groton School. He is the author of The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success.

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Recent Discovery of Early Writings and Drawings by E. E. Cummings on Display at the Massachusetts Historical Society

Early childhood writings and sketches of poet E. E. Cummings uncovered at the MHS while organizing Cummings-Clarke Collection

E.E. Cummings Rhinocerous drawingBOSTON, JUNE 2013—Long before Edward Estlin Cummings became known as E. E. Cummings, one of 20th-century America’s most popular poets, he experimented with words and sketches that reveal a delightful childhood imagination. The Massachusetts Historical Society is delighted to display a selection of these writings and drawings in "Estlin Cummings Wild West Show" from June 13 through August 30. The items on display, dating from 1900 to 1902, showcase the poet's early experiments with words and illustrations. Uncovered while organizing and describing a large collection of Cummings family papers with support from the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, these are likely some of the earliest works by Cummings.

In a sketch of a rhinoceros and soldier completed about 1900, Cummings writes, "THIS. RHINOCEROUS. IS. YOUNG. MARCHING BY. A. SOLDIER. He TELLS-TALES TO-HIM". This youthful work displays one of the poet’s earliest uses of capitalization and punctuation, which would later become one of his trademarks. Fanciful drawings and writings, from when Cummings was about seven years old, illustrate his early fascination with the circus, wild west shows, and animals of all varieties. Those on display include a self-portrait entitled "Edward E. Cummings, the animal emperor, famous importer, trainer, and exhibitor of wild animals" as well as ink blots, watercolors, and sketches in pen and pencil of cowboys and Indians, wild west shows, locomotives, zoos, circuses, lions, and elephants. Among the writings is a November 1902 letter to his mother about life on Joy Farm, his family’s retreat in New Hampshire and a letter to his father from written in January 1900. 

The papers of Edward Cummings, a Unitarian minister and champion of social justice in early 20th century Boston, and his family have now been fully organized and described in a collection guide that is available on the MHS website. The large collection consists not only of the papers of Edward Cummings including his sermons, writings, and correspondence with family and his mentor Edward Everett Hale but also his wife Rebecca (Clarke) Cummings, and their children, Edward and Elizabeth. The Society received the Cummings-Clarke collection as a gift from the estate of E.E. Cummings in October of 1969, and from the poet’s sister, Elizabeth Cummings Qualey, between 1969 and 1973.  Although the collection had previously been available for research, the project to describe the collection in more detail has highlighted the importance of these childhood poems and sketches. 

E.E. Cummings was born in Cambridge, Mass. in 1894. He attended the Cambridge Latin High School and received his B.A. from Harvard University in 1915, and his M.A. in 1916. Known for his poetry, Cummings was also an artist and author. He received a number of honors including two Guggenheim Fellowships, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and a Ford Foundation Grant.


Artwork and text: Artwork by E.E. Cummings. Used by permission of the Trustees for the E. E. Cummings Trust.

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Massachusetts Audubon Society Collection Guide Complete

The MHS is thrilled to announce that the newly processed records of the Massachusetts Audubon Society (MAS) are now available to researchers. More than 100 record cartons chronicle the organization from its founding in 1896 as the first Audubon Society in the country through the 20th century as it became a leader in environmental education and advocacy. On deposit from the MAS since 2008, the collection will continue to grow. 

The collection documents the administrative, educational, scientific, and environmental activities of the organization from its founding to 2011. Included are administrative and financial records, records related to individual sanctuaries, historical records, ornithological records, records of related organizations, printed material, photographs, and audio-visual material. "This has been a time-consuming and challenging project over several years, and we certainly appreciate all of the MHS’s many and varied efforts to bring us to this point, both safeguarding the original records and now making them available to researchers," states Bancroft R. Poor, Vice President for Operations/CFO, Massachusetts Audubon Society.

The MAS was founded in 1896 when Boston residents Harriett Lawrence Hemenway and Minna B. Hall formed a group to discourage "ladies of fashion" from wearing the brightly-colored feathers of non-game birds in their hats, a market that had caused the birds to be hunted almost to extinction. Recruiting leading ornithologist William Brewster as their first president, the group became the first state Audubon society in North America. Headquartered in Boston, it was instrumental in the passage of an 1897 Massachusetts law outlawing trade in wild-bird feathers and the 1900 Lacey Act, prohibiting interstate shipment of animals killed in violation of local laws. The Massachusetts organization, which remains independent, also helped to organize the National Association of Audubon Societies (incorporated in 1905), which later became the National Audubon Society.

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George Washington Letter Donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society

Washington thanks Lincoln for gift of cheese and cranberries in letter donated to the Society

Washington letterA letter Pres. George Washington wrote to Gen. Benjamin Lincoln on 5 February 1785 from Mt. Vernon was recently donated to the Society by Dr. Susan C. Scrimshaw in memory of her grandmother, Clara Crosby Ware Goodrich. The letter was published in The Papers of George Washington from a letterbook copy at the Library of Congress; however, the location of the original was not known. In the letter, Washington provides news of recent legislation in the assemblies of Virginia and Maryland regarding efforts to make the Potomac River navigable. Washington was instrumental in getting the legislation passed that led to the formation of the Potomac Company. He also thanks Lincoln for “two cheese’s, & a barrel (wrote thereon Major rice) of Cranberries.”

Dr. Scrimshaw, a Lincoln descendant, notes that the letter was passed down through the women in her family for eight generations. She recollects that it spent much of its time hidden in closets or drawers, and was taken out and admired for special occasions. As a scholar, Dr. Scrimshaw came to realize that the letter should be in a place where it could be cared for professionally and where it would be accessible to scholars. After consultation with her parents and siblings, and careful research on the best home for the letter, Dr. Scrimshaw made the decision to donate it to the MHS, which houses the Benjamin Lincoln Papers. Lincoln served with Washington in the Continental Army and as the first secretary of war under the Articles of Confederation.

“I feel relieved that the responsibility for the stewardship of a piece of our history is now in competent professional hands," explains Dr. Scrimshaw. "In addition, I found the Society a treasure trove of information on my New England ancestors. I know my grandmother would be pleased as well to know that future generations will have access to this letter, no longer a family secret.”

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