Object of the Month

Rebeccah of Brook Farm

Doll belonging to members of the Codman and Butterfield families

Doll belonging to members of the Codman and Butterfield families

Image 1 of 1

This charming doll, dubbed Rebeccah Codman Butterfield, is thought to have been made by a member of the Codman family and carried with them to the Transcendentalist community Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.

A Real Doll

Rebeccah Codman Butterfield arrived here at the Society in October and has garnered much attention, less for her girlish good looks than for her fascinating life story. According to a note penned by the donor's mother, Ellis Phinney Taylor, and pinned to the doll's petticoat, Rebeccah's life began long ago but not too far away:

My name is Rebeccah Codman Butterfield. I was born in 1841. My mother made me and I was the darling of the Brook Farmers & their children. Brook Farm was called The Transcendentalists. I grew up with the Alcotts, George Ripley, John S [Dwight], Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, William Ellery Channing, Elizabeth Peabody & Nathaniel Hawthorne--no wonder I look a bit cracked! I was the doll for all the Butterfield children & a beloved member of that brilliant colony.'The Institute of Agriculture & Education. The family was small that first summer at Brook Farm, 15 or 20 persons but soon the neighborhood of Boston & from distant lands brought a large number of scholars--I won't go into those happy [days?] but the group shared all the work, hard or simple, with willing hands, no person interfered with the rights of others in religion or any way. I am getting old and long winded. After 7 years Brook Farm came to its end & I moved to Boston where I led a very happy life & now I belong to Ellis, who treats me well & all her grand children love me--what more can one want?

Teasing out the truth from the romance of Rebeccah's story was less than straightforward. Of all the luminaries mentioned in the note, only George Ripley (the founder), Nathaniel Hawthorne (for a brief unhappy time), and John S. Dwight were actually members. It also seems likely that Rebeccah was a member of the Codman (rather than Butterfield) family and was made by either Rebecca B. (Hall) Codman or her daughter Sarah Rebecca Codman, later called simply Rebecca. Doll-making (and costume) was serious business in the nineteenth century, preparing young doll owners for the domestic work of womanhood. Rebeccah's two-piece head, with its shining brown glass eyes, was probably purchased and attached to the body and her costume made by hand. Although her dress is of a later vintage, it is also handmade, as are her possibly original undergarments, trimmed in delicate hand-knit lace. If Rebeccah's 1841 birthdate is correct, Codman daughter Rebecca would have been a little old to play with dolls, but one could certainly envision a teen setting out for the unknown wanting the comfort of a familiar friend to accompany her. And certainly, the many children living at Brook Farm or attending school there must have found Rebeccah irresistible.

The Codmans of Brook Farm

In March of 1843, two years after the founding of Brook Farm, the Codman family of Boston arrived at West Roxbury to take their place in the community: John, a machinist, and Rebecca (Hall) Codman, their sons Charles and John Thomas, approximately 14 and 17 years of age, and daughter Sarah Rebecca, about 18 years old. The Codmans were no strangers to reform movements--mother Rebecca was an active member of the Ladies' Physiological Society, which promoted awareness and sponsored lectures on women's anatomy and health issues, often delivered by women. The Codmans arrived at Brook Farm at a time of transition. Some of the founding members had departed and the community was beginning to adopt the teachings of Charles Fourier and move away from being a strictly agricultural endeavor. As Rebecca Codman Butterfield notes in her "Reminiscences," "various mechanical industries had been introduced … the various labors of the farm, household, and workshops were committed to general departments, called Series, and these again subdivided into smaller departments called groups … Each Group had its head or chief … who had charge of the work allotted to the Group, and directed how and when it should be done." Charles Codman was young enough to be a pupil at the school and the rest of the family settled down to their labors. A list of the top thirty workers at Brook Farm compiled by Sterling Delano shows the four elder Codmans contributing mightily to the effort. During the period from May 1844 to April 1845, Rebecca and her daughter worked 2,678 and 2,858 hours respectively, placing them in the top ten; father John and son John Thomas were 24th and 26th in the rankings, having contributed 2,322 and 2,298 hours of work.

Life at Brook Farm was not all work, however. Surviving memoirs, including those of Rebecca Butterfield and John Thomas Codman, recall life at Brook Farm as pared down to the essentials, yet intellectually and socially stimulating. After the work was done for the day, music, lectures, dancing, and conversation reigned supreme. Men, women, and children worked, played, and learned side by side. The Codman family remained at Brook Farm until the bitter end, a few short months after the hopes and dreams of the residents of Brook Farm literally went up in flames on the evening of 3 March 1846 (although the financial difficulties faced by the enterprise likely would have doomed them eventually).

Love beside the Brook

Although only one marriage occurred during Brook Farm's existence, John T. Codman recollected fourteen marriages resulting from friendships formed at the Farm, among them, his sister's marriage to Jonathan Butterfield, the printer of Brook Farm's newspaper, The Harbinger. Codman recalls them as the "tall manly handsome-faced, clear-complexioned 'Hero' (Butterfield, whose curls more than rivalled the other), looking for a dark-eyed girl who afterward became his faithful and loving wife." Rebecca Butterfield herself later counted the mingling of the sexes as one of the chief advantages of Brook Farm life. She noted in her "Reminiscences" that much of the misunderstandings and unhappiness of married life springs from a faulty knowledge of each other, gained in the limited acquaintanceship allowed by our present imperfect social system … Young men and women rarely meet in relations to each other which admit opportunities to learn either the strength or the weakness of character, of the opposite sex. Rebecca Codman and Jonathan Butterfield were married in the years after leaving Brook Farm in 1847 and had one daughter, Ella, who was born in 1850 and died in 1884. In their later years, the Butterfields lived in West Medford, Massachusetts, where Jonathan died in 1894 at age 76. Rebecca lived on until 23 December 1911. Among their Medford neighbors was the Phinney family, whose daughter Ellis eventually came into possession of the doll and Rebecca Codman Butterfield's manuscript Reminiscences, among many other items, which have been generously donated over the years to the Society by her descendants. The Society also owns two paintings of Brook Farm, both by Josiah Wolcott, one formerly owned by members of the Codman family (http://www.masshist.org/database/43), the other depicting the farm with a rainbow overhead (http://www.masshist.org/database/451)

Further reading

Brook Farm Association. Brook Farm Records.

Butterfield, Rebecca Codman. "Rebecca Codman Butterfield's Reminiscences of Brook Farm," ed. by Joel Myerson. New England Quarterly, v. 65, no. 4 (Dec. 1992), p. 603-630.

Codman, John Thomas. Brook Farm: Historic and Personal Memoirs. Boston: Arena Publishing, 1894.

Codman-Butterfield papers, 1834-1910.

Delano, Sterling, "'We have abolished domestic servitude': Women and Work at Brook Farm," in Toward a Female Genealogy of Transcendentalism. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014.

Swift, Lindsay. Brook Farm: Its Members, Scholars, and Visitors. New York: Macmillan, 1900.


Back to top