November, 2008

Historic furnishings – Setting the Scene for the Seventeenth Century

November 5th, 2008 by admin

When you come to visit the 1627 English Village you’ll find as you approach the site, you will feel more and more as though you are entering a foreign, unknown place. Walking past the lush Eel River or past the rustling cornfields, through the looming entrance gate in the palisade that protects the village, into a cluster of small gray houses, and into a gently lit cottage – You feel as though you are in a remote country setting. In the cottage is someone speaking English to you (you think) and there is a glowing, open fire, gleaming brass, thick bright wool carpets and curtains, and the smell of something fabulous cooking (It is probably onions searing in butter!)

These are not just movie or theater props set up for a few months of the year, to recreate a couple hours of a drama, at a certain time.  It is a setting that is permanent, tangible and credible; it takes you into the depths of colonial 17th-century life, telling the stories through your senses, so you can feel it.  From the beginning of your visit, it may leave you with a reel of questions and thoughts running through your head; Who is this man singing in the field with the cows? What is that woman carrying in her basket? Where did the men get all the tools for building the storehouse? Won’t that woman get burned cooking in that big pot, so close to the fire? Where did all the cozy, woolen bedding come from? How could people have lived like this? It’s so simple, it’s so basic, it’s so tangible and it’s so real. How can people live here? Do they really live here?????  Almost every adult and child that enters the 1627 English Village finally comes to that question.

No, they don’t really live here, yes, it is a full sensory experience – -it’s a very physical world, it is three-dimensional, it has substance and shape and it’s seasonal.  You may feel as though you have walked onto a film set. (And, a few production crews have been here recently and they did a fabulous job filming 17th-century life in Plimoth – The History Channel’s film: Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower aired on PBS in 2006, and an upcoming show called American Pilgrim on the Travel Channel will be premiering on Monday, November 24 at 11pm EST, immediately after an episode of ‘Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations’.) But, it is not a set; Plimoth Plantation is a recreation for you to experience what it feels like to live at a time when all these material elements were necessary for life in a colonial village.  (The crashing waves and vibrant foliage this time of year just add to its natural beauty!)

It all means something for us at the museum and it was made for you. It is as real as we can make it and it’s always changing, but it’s always the seventeenth century.  The village is furnished with many household items that we are able to reproduce on site in the English Village or in the Crafts Center, including iron hardware and tools, furniture, earthenware pottery, household bedding, kitchen linens, clothing and stuff that we buy from other like-minded crafts people or manufacturers.

We do not know everything the colonists had, but we have a good idea of some of the things they might have had. As Curator of the Colonial Reproduction Collections at Plimoth Plantation, I am responsible for overseeing the setting, the “stuff” that belonged to the colonists, or what we call the “material culture” of Plimoth Plantation.  We look at four areas of research, carefully studying and using the most cutting edge information from our colleagues at the MFA, the MET, from Jamestown archaeologists, and other museum professionals on this continent and abroad.  We’re always looking to update and change our recreation of the past. The areas of study we look at are 16th and 17th century:

  • Archaeological remains and surviving objects
  • Court records, particularly wills and inventories, documents and period writings
  • European prints and paintings – particularly those created by artists in the Netherlands
  • Traditional Crafts and Technology

I will go into some details about all these areas of research in later postings. One of the things important for recreating the period furnishings, such as earthenware pottery, bedding and furniture is looking at surviving objects that were made in the places where the colonists originated. In particular, when our joiner reproduces chests, cupboards and stools, or just about anything, he goes to look at the real thing (as often as he can!) in various museums and private collections.  He brings with him lights, camera, ruler and magnifying glass. His final rendition is generally not the exact piece, but he gets all the nuances of an original with hand sawn boards, split and riven undried oak, carved panels and even scratch lines from the original layouts of the carving design. Many of his carved chests, boxes and cupboards look especially decorative in the simple, cozy village houses.  (To learn more about Peter’s period wood working techniques and research see the article “Manuscripts, Marks, and Material Culture: Understanding the Joiner’s Trade in Seventeenth-Century America” in American Furniture, 2002, edited by Luke Beckerdite, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2002), pp. 125-146.).

Come and visit us this autumn. This is a place where your can leave behind everything that is modern, and enjoy the different-ness of another time, a foreign place that will leave you wondering; Could I live here, without my stuff?

If you can’t come see us or you love what you see and want to bring a piece of it home, have a look at some of the custom made furniture that you can order from the museum’s joiner, Peter Follansbee.  A sturdy and simple cupboard like the one in both photos is an excellent example of a period piece that would fit quite easily into anyone’s home and remind you of your visit to the seventeenth century. (The museum’s Blacksmith, Mark Atchison, made the ironwork on this piece).

Use it as an incidental table or cabinet in the entryway.  It’s great for organizing mittens and gloves, umbrellas and maps etc. (It also makes a nice resting place for a 17th century carved box – where you can store phonebooks, note pads, etc.) I have a similar cupboard at home in the kitchen where our laptop rests for daily communications and we stash canned goods and snacks in the storage area.

If you are having a new addition to the family it is a wonderful piece of baby furniture! A seventeenth century cupboard like this would make an excellent changing table (I wish we had one when we had twins three years ago – we settled for a lovely period chest of drawers as their changing table which has worked quite well for us!)  A cupboard has the added benefit of a large storage area for extra diapers, wipes, lotion, onsies, etc, everything that is so necessary when your baby is new.  Then later you can use it to store the myriad of toys that a baby and toddler will own in the next few years! However you choose to use it, it will bring a little simple 17th-century beauty to your surroundings.

*This gorgeous photo of Kathleen at the hearth (at the beginning of the article) in the Allerton house was taken by photographer Gavin Ashworth, NYC, this past spring for an upcoming furniture article in American Furniture by Peter Follansbee, Robert Trent, and J. Alexander on shaved/plain chairs. (Gavin also shot the photos for “Manuscripts, Marks, and Material Culture: Understanding the Joiner’s Trade in Seventeenth-Century America”.) Gavin took this shot with natural light –so beautiful to our modern eye –yet, as a visitor to the 17th century we wonder how these colonists lived without electricity, something so necessary in our everyday life.

Gavin shoots all manner of Fine and Decorative Arts for major Institutions and Private collections but he is best known for his photographic work for American Furniture and its companion journal Ceramics in America.

Posted by;

Maureen Richard

Curator, Colonial Reproduction Collections

If you are interested in buying any of the American Furniture journals call the mail order department at 508-746-1622 x8332. Please check for custom-made 17th-century furniture on the museum’s homepage, Artisan Furniture.

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