Hadley chests among the first American collectibles


Starting in 1877, Connecticut banker Henry Wood Erving and his wife did something virtually unheard of each summer. They went antiquing. They didn't have to fight crowds at antiques shows or malls -- there were neither shows, malls nor crowds. Instead, it seems, they traveled around the New England countryside, following the rumor mill. They'd listen to the rumblings: "So and so has an old this" or, "A family has an old that," and they'd be off in their horse and buggy in pursuit of relics of early American life.

Erving (1851-1941), one of America's first antiquarians, bought an old, flat-carved chest in Hadley, Mass., in 1883, packed it carefully with hay and shipped it home to West Hartford by horse and wagon. The chest had been standing for generations at the end of the second-story hall in an old Hadley homestead, Erving later recalled. Because of where he bought it, Erving referred to the piece as his "Hadley chest" in conversations or correspondence with the small number of kindred spirits who were the pioneer collectors of Americana.

The term "Hadley chest" soon entered every early antiquer's vocabulary, coming to describe those heavy, wide-board, mortise-and-tenoned chests painted and elaborately carved with flat flowers (often tulips) and leaves, which were made in western Massachusetts from about 1680 to 1740 and used for storing clothes and linens.

Among the initial group of American antiques identified and collected in the 19th century, Hadley chests are the first and most dramatic demonstration of regional expression in American art. "Once you see one of these early chests there is no walking away from it without hearing the unmistakable American voice at its first moment of emergence. The Hadley chest is the opening salvo of American Art," according to William Hosley, curator of American Decorative Arts at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., which is having a small but important exhibit of Hadley chests through April 4.

For information about the exhibit, call (203) 278-2670.

This landmark show also will be on view from May 1 to Oct. 31 at Memorial Hall in Deerfield, Mass. Call (413) 744-7476 for details.

One impetus for the show was the Atheneum's purchase last year of a Hadley chest from the Farnsworth Museum of Art in Rockland, Maine, for $100,000, which, Mr. Hosley said, "was the biggest purchase in terms of price I had ever made for the Atheneum." Rather than simply displaying the new acquisition, Mr. Hosley said he called his friends Suzanne L. Flynt, director of Memorial Hall, which has the five greatest Hadley chests, and Philip Zea, curator of Historical Deerfield, who wrote his master's thesis as a Winterthur Fellow on Hadley chests, and suggested xTC cooperating on a small exhibition that would explore and teach about this seminal regional style.

Massachusetts craftsmen

The Hadley chest exhibition debuted in December at Israel Sack Inc. in New York, premier dealers in American antique furniture, which also funded the scholarly yet anecdotal 30-page illustrated catalog ($13 by mail from the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Memorial Hall, Deerfield, Mass. 01342). Using 12 chests and boxes and an architectural fragment, the show's curators explain how the prominent Pynchon family of Springfield, Mass., supported a joiner or two who made the first Hadley chest and how the style spread over western Massachusetts.

Mr Zea believes as many as 500 or 600 pieces of furniture in the Hadley tradition were made between 1680 and 1740 by joiners working in an area from Deerfield and Northfield, Mass., near what is now Vermont and New Hampshire, to Suffield and Enfield, Conn., 50 miles to the south, and that about 250 related chests with drawers, cupboards, boxes, tables and fragments carved and uncarved survive.

The English origins of Hadley chests are unclear, although Mr. Zea and Ms. Flynt note similar carving in a more florid style was done in Lancashire and South Yorkshire in northern England. The identities of the craftsmen who introduced the tulip-and-leaf carving to western Massachusetts are unknown. Joiners passed down designs and methods of construction from masters to apprentices, and family shop traditions continued through several generations in various towns. Mr. Zea and Ms. Flynt suggest the so-called Connecticut "sunflower" carved chests from the Hartford area are part of the Hadley tradition.

The most cosmopolitan Hadley chests, sporting turned half-spindles, applied molding and carved diamonds in the flanking panels, were made in Springfield, thanks to the patronage of the wealthy Pynchon family.

Identification of owners

The practice of marking Hadley chests with its owner's initials was common, but when Hannah Barnard married John Marsh of Hatfield, Mass., in 1715, she brought along a remarkable decorated cupboard with her entire maiden name boldly painted on it. She no doubt used the cupboard to display and store her sizable dowry. Its brightly painted floral decorations on a white background and its light blue, painted and turned columns and heavy moldings must have made the cupboard look very modern, even though by 1715 the Hadley style already was old-fashioned. Hannah Barnard Marsh died in childbirth in 1716 and John Marsh soon married Sarah Williams, who brought another flowered chest into his household, decorated with her carved initials, "SW." The chests stand next to each other in the exhibition, just as they probably did centuries ago.

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