The Six-Board Chests
It is incorrect when discussing the manufacture of early New England furniture to speak of a single Connecticut Valley tradition. Even the first settlement along the Connecticut River at Wethersfield (1634) cannot be said to have been composed of a homogenous group of individuals. As the pioneers came from diverse English backgrounds – from northern England, the West Country, and East Anglia – the surviving furniture made by the woodworkers in this community from this early period reflect this geographical and thus stylistic variety. When the first families came up from Connecticut to settle Hadley in 1659 due to a religious schism, they carried particular woodworking traditions with them.
The Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum contains two six-board chests dating to the late seventeenth century. Samuel Porter, born in England, one of the founding fathers of Hadley and Moses Porter’s great-grandfather, maintained a large joiner’s shop in Hadley. When he died in 1689, his woodworking tools were valued at ₤6.2.6 and included all the necessary tools for making a six-board chest. It is entirely possible, then, that this Samuel Porter made the six-board chest engraved with SP for himself or for his son Samuel (Moses’s grandfather, b. 1660), who was the first recorded male born in Hadley. On the front and sides of the chest are geometric designs delicately carved into the wood. The use of geometric designs on seventeenth-century New England furniture often indicates that the woodworker studied in London, or with someone from the London area, when learning the art of furniture making. It is known that the elder Samuel Porter came from Felsted in Essex, close in proximity to the British capital, further supporting the hypothesis that he made this chest himself.
The other, less decorative six-board chest in the museum’s collection belonged to Westwood Cooke, the great-uncle of Moses Porter, and is dated 1699. Both of the museum’s chests are made from yellow pine. This was a relatively soft wood, readily available at the time (it has now all but vanished from the region), and easy to plane. It has been asserted that board chests decorated only with incised moldings (made by molding or “creasing” planes) come predominantly from the stretch of the Connecticut River Valley between Springfield and Deerfield, and were overwhelmingly the possession of men. The two chests in the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum fit this description exactly, and have remained in the house that Moses Porter built since 1752.
- The Great River: Art & Society of the Connecticut River Valley, 1635-1820. (Hartford: Meridan-Stinehour Press, 1985).
- Beckerdite, Luke and Hosley, William N. American Furniture. (Hanover: Chipstone Foundation, 1995).
- Hosley, Jr., William N. and Zea, Philip. "Decorated Board Chests of the Connecticut River Valley" in The Magazine Antiques, May 1981.