Four Centuries Of Massachusetts Furniture In An Unprecedented Collection

September 24, 2013

From the earliest colonial days, enterprising Massachusetts craftsmen had to furnish inventive ways of living.

"It really wasn’t from the land," said Brock Jobe, a professor of American decorative arts at the Winterthur Museum, in Delaware. "They had to find other things that they could do. And one of those was craft. And you have literally thousands of people over the four centuries involved in producing furniture."

Jobe is one of the guiding forces behind Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture—an unprecedented collaboration between 11 museums and institutions, 10 of which are in Massachusetts, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

"It’s surprising to realize that at least a 150 million- not thousand- but 150 million pieces of furniture were made here in the state over the past four centuries," Jobe said. "This state was a premier spot for the production of furniture."

The furniture produced in Boston for the last three centuries had its own identity, Jobe said. 

"You also have people here by the 1730s and 40s who were fourth and fifth generation Americans in every sense of the word," he said. "And they’re coming up with their own distinctive, I hate to use the word provincial, but their own colonial expression." 

Concord Museum features William Munroe's cabinets

Out at the Concord Museum, the singular work of eighteenth-century cabinet maker William Munroe tells the story of an industrious and diligent craftsman who kept meticulous records and notes about his life. 

"1839, he had $20,000 in the bank, and you have to multiply that by 60 or 70 to get a sense of how much money that is," said David Wood, a curator at the museum. "For a craftsman that’s very unusual, and he’s just a unique guy."

Munroe came of age when Boston was flourishing and was flush with cash, Wood said. 

"They were making furniture, and they were turning it over to other shops that were retailing the stuff," Wood said. "And it was very good furniture; it’s just exquisitely crafted."

Munroe had a signature style—from his angles to his inlay, Wood said. 

"It’s the most complicated inlay that you find on any Boston furniture from this period," he said. "And actually this particular pattern is found only on William Monroe’s timepieces, so apparently he was making it himself."

Munroe’s fortunes changed dramatically after the War of 1812. With the economy tanking and no one buying furniture, he turned to pencils—a scarcity in America since they had come from England.

"It was immediate success," Wood said. "As a furniture maker, he was making about $400 a year. And as pencil maker, he started making $4,000 a year. So he never looked back."

But Four Centuries of Furniture does, and with favor.

Check the collection's calendar of exhibitions and events to see where and when you can view the works through December 2014.

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