MHS for the Media

"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 fourcenturies.org.  

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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.

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“Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land” Opens at the Massachusetts Historical Society

Manuscripts, broadsides, artifacts, and portraits from the Society’s collections illustrate the role of Massachusetts in the national debate over slavery

Proclaim Liberty bannerIn the decades leading up to the Civil War, Boston became a center of the national antislavery movement, and in 1831 William Lloyd Garrison, "all on fire" for the cause, began publication of The Liberator, the country's leading abolitionist newspaper. There was strong resistance to the radical movement  not only in the slave-holding South, but among Northerners as well. Open at the MHS through May 24, "Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land": Boston Abolitionists, 1831-1865, features manuscripts, broadsides, artifacts—including the imposing stone for The Liberator—and portraits of key players to illustrate the role of Massachusetts in the national debate over slavery, and to demonstrate how the movement was communicated and followed.

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The MHS Commemorates the 150th Anniversary of the Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation

Pen used by Abraham Lincoln to sign historic document will be on display

Linocln PenTo commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Society will open two exhibitions on January 1, 2013.

Opening in the Society’s Presidential Gallery, Forever Free: Lincoln & the Emancipation Proclamation will focus on this momentous undertaking that changed a nation and will feature the pen Lincoln used to sign the document. The exhibition will also display a bronze cast made from a plaster study model of the Lincoln statue Daniel Chester French made for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. as well as broadsides, engravings, and manuscripts that tell the story of how the city of Boston celebrated Emancipation.

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