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Title

Connecticut Room:

Author

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Date

1998

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
BACKGROUND
This room, first installed in the museum in 1928, is from a farmhouse built around 1750 probably in an area called Foxon, which connected the towns of East Haven and North Branford, Connecticut. Only the paneled wall comes from the original house; the rest of the room is a re-creation.

In all respects, the house was like most small rural New England farmhouses of the 17th and 18th centuries. Since furniture and architecture changed slowly in remote rural areas, both this house and its furnishings are in a style that is less up-to-date than would be found in a large urban area like Boston.

Typically, these structures had two rooms on each floor and were built with a heavy wooden framework sheathed with clapboarding, a massive central chimney, and small windows. The rooms on the ground floor functioned as a "hall" or kitchen and a parlor. Although the two rooms on the second floor were used either as bedrooms for the children in the family or for storage, often children slept downstairs, especially in the winter, for warmth. The door to the right of the fireplace led to this second story.

THE ROOM
The small fireplace and the elaboration of the paneling with classical details show that this room was undoubtedly the parlor of the house. The parlor served not only as a main reception room and place for important family occasions, but also as the master bedroom. The chimneypiece provided the functional and architectural focal point of the room. There would have been another fireplace, two or three times as large, on the kitchen side of this wall, used for cooking. The fireplace in this room was used primarily for heat, but it also provided light. A limited amount of light would also enter the room through the small windows. Additional light was provided primarily by candles placed on the tables and to a lesser extent by candles mounted on the walls.

Because the fireplace wall was the most important part of the room, it was the only one that was paneled and painted. The paint on this paneling matches the original paint, but it has been touched up. Once much brighter, it has faded with age. This wall has been further decorated by adding two pilasters (flattened columns) with a rosette at the top of each. The rosette motif comes from the Connecticut Valley rose and was a common symbol found in homes in this area. The other walls in the room have been stuccoed and whitewashed, a much cheaper treatment. The floor is made of wood and has been sanded, in keeping with 18th-century practice. (A house like this would not have had a carpeted floor.)

To keep in warmth, the ceiling is low, and the windows are small. The small size of the windows can also be attributed to the high cost of glass at this time because most glass was still imported and expensive to produce. The glass in these windows was probably greener and less clear than the glass that is there now.

FURNITURE
The furniture is very functional and simply constructed. Most of it is in the style of fashionable furniture of an earlier period (late 17th century to very early 18th century) and is typical of a middle class home in a rural area where styles change more slowly.

Decoration of the furniture consists primarily of two types:

  • spindles that have been turned on a lathe, as we can see in the gate-leg table and chair legs
  • surface carving, as we can see on the Connecticut Chest, the Bible Box, and the crest rails of several chairs
  • In addition, many of these pieces, or their carved decorations, would have been painted.

Examining the labels below, you will notice that a variety of hard and soft woods were available to the colonial craftsman. Oak, birch, maple, and hickory were used when strength was especially important. Pine was utilized when wide boards or something easy to work with was needed (as in the Connecticut Chest). Walnut became especially popular at the very end of the 17th century because its fine grain was more suitable than many other woods for more elaborate turning and carving.

Chest
American, New England, late 17th century
Oak and pine
Gift of Mrs. C. C. Bovey 28.60

The chest is made of six oak panels with a hinged lid of pine, durable woods which could withstand a great deal of wear. The pieces are connected to each other with mortise and tenon joints. The chest is decorated rather simply with spindles that have been cut in half, painted black to resemble the more expensive ebony, and glued to the chest. The chest is also decorated with bosses, round black knobs, that have also been painted black to resemble ebony. The only other decoration of the piece consists of the three arched panels which have been carved with a shallow, serrated ornament. This serrated ornament was typical of furniture produced in New England at this time

A chest such as this was a necessity in colonial homes because they had no closets. Blankets, linens, and clothing would have been stored in it.

Document or Bible Box
American, Massachusetts, 1680-1710
Pine
Gift of Mrs. C. C. Bovey 30.3

This small wooden box has been decorated with simple geometric designs inscribed with a compass and the initials F. R., probably the initials of the original owner. As its name suggests, the family Bible or other valuable possessions and documents would have been stored in this box. Treated as a small chest, the box could be locked for safekeeping.

Our Document Box has a flat top, but usually these boxes had a hinged, slanting lid which made it suitable for both writing and reading.

Side Chair
American, New England, 1725-1750
Pine and maple
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Robert Vincent Cram 62.66.2

Arm Chair
American, New England, 1725-1750
Pine and maple
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Robert Vincent Cram
62.66.1

This side chair with its carved, crested toprail and slatted back is typical of the banister chairs used in rural areas throughout the 18th century and in style centers during the William and Mary period. The arm chair is from the same set.

Armchair
American, New England, 1720-1750
Ash and maple
Gift of Mrs. C. C. Bovey 27.63

This banister chair is reinforced by a double row of stretchers, simply turned, as are the legs and siderails. The toprail is roughly crested and remains uncarved.

CHARACTERISTICS OF WILLIAM & MARY CHAIRS
The two chairs listed above are William and Mary chairs of the banister-back type, produced primarily between 1690 and 1730. Their characteristics include the following:
  • They are stiff, formal, and not terribly comfortable.
  • They are primarily composed of straight members, relieved only by heavy turning and carving.
  • The back is constructed of split banisters (more accurately called balusters). These were made by gluing together three pieces of wood (two straight pieces with a smaller straight section placed between them), turning them on a lathe, and splitting them apart. The middle section was used, and the outsides were discarded. Usually, these banisters were mounted with the flat part facing the sitter (for greater comfort).
  • They have rush seats.
  • These seats were covered with big pillows that were even fatter than the ones currently displayed.
  • They had turned legs and stretchers.
  • They had carved feet, often rounded as we see in these chairs (ball feet).
  • They had either curved and pierced crests (62.66.2) or plainer crests.
  • The finials were decorated.
  • These chairs were painted black, red, or dark green to disguise the fact that the chairs were made of several different woods. Eventually, one or more of these chairs may be painted black or dark green.

Child's Chair
American, probably New Jersey, first half of the 18th century
Maple and ash; rush seat
Gift of Mrs. C.C. Bovey 29.12.13

This is an example of a slat-back chair, a style contemporary with the banister-back chairs above. Notice the stretcher and turned knobs at the top of the stiles. Just as children were treated like small adults, the chair is a small version of the slat-back chair for adults.

Pair of Side Chairs
American, New England, 1730-1760
Maple and ash
Gift of Mrs. C. C. Bovey 14.73, 74

These chairs are a good illustration of a transitional style. Notice that they combine the William and Mary turned legs and stretchers with the Queen Anne style back (the serpentine stiles and vase-shaped splats).

Four-post bed
Reproduction, Connecticut, about 1750
Cherry

This simple four-post bed is the type that might have been found in this house. The hangings are a modern recreation of what might have been on such a bed. Made of wool, they have been dyed bottle-green, a typical 18th-century color. (Natural dyes would have been used during this period.) The thick mattress is filled with foam which is meant to imitate the straw or down with which it would have been filled.

Textiles were very costly during this period so that a bed like this with its hangings was often the most expensive and, thus, the most important piece of furniture in a household.

Candlestand
American, 1725-50
Gift, 1924; The Friends of the Institute
Wrought iron and brass
24.58

This was an important furnishing because it supplemented the meager light from the small windows and fireplace. Since candles were very expensive, it is appropriate that there are so few in this room. (Compare this to the lighting in the Charleston and MacFarlane rooms.)

DECORATIVE ITEMS
Decorative items are certainly few in comparison to the Providence and Charleston Rooms. They include:

Looking Glass
American, New England, early 18th century
Japanned wood, glass
Gift of Mrs. C. C. Bovey 28.61

The looking glass is small because mirrors were expensive at this time (compare it with the mirror in the Tudor Room, another early room, and those in later rooms from wealthier homes, such as the Charleston Drawing Room). It is surrounded by a black frame that is an example of japanning; that is, the wood has been covered with paint and varnish to simulate the more expensive Asian lacquerware. During the 18th century, there was a vogue in both Europe and America for things Oriental, such as lacquerware, and those who could not afford genuine articles purchased cheaper imitations such as we see here.1

PORTRAITS
Portrait of Abigail Gowen, 1763
Joseph Badger, American, 1708-1765
Oil on canvas
70.33.5

At this time, the majority of paintings in America were portraits made to remember family members. (The camera had not been invented yet.) Even paintings, therefore, served a functional purpose. Most artists like Badger were part of the limner tradition, which means they were itinerant, moving from town to town. Painting was only one of the things they did to earn their living. (Badger, for example, was also a glazier.)

Badger's portraits of children (of which there are thirty) are considered his best work. The little girl who is the subject of this work, Abigail Gowen, lived from 1759 to 1850.

As is typical of limner works, Abigail is placed against a plain background to focus our attention on her. In addition, her body is somewhat flat and the artist has used muddy colors. Less typical is the three-dimensional quality the artist has given to her face.

Portrait of Mary Crosswell, 1763
attributed to Joseph Badger, American, 1708-1765
Oil on canvas
70.33.5

This painting, which is also attributed to Badger, is a portrait of Abigail Gowen's mother. The subject is also the great, great grandmother of Rhodes Robertson who donated the paintings.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
A copy of the Introduction to 300 Years of American Seating Furniture by Patricia E. Kane is on file for your use.

Consult The American Chair, 1640-1820, research by Dorothy Johnson, available in the docent files.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Comstock, Helen, American Furniture, Schiffer Publishing Limited, Exton, PA, 1962.

Hayward, Helena, ed., World Furniture, Crescent Books, New York, 1965.

Kane, Patricia E., 300 Years of American Seating Furniture, New York Graphic Society, Boston, 1976.

Mendelowitz, Daniel M., A History of American Art, 2nd ed., Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., New York, 1970.
Naeve, Milo M., Identifying American Furniture: A Pictorial Guide to Styles and Terms, Colonial to Contemporary, The American Association for State and Local History, Nashville, TN, 1981.

TOUR TIPS
In addition to the general tour tips on pages 221-222, on an American Literature and Art tour, compare this room with early American letters and diaries and sermons such as Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

ENDNOTES
1. For information on the technique of japanning, see Jonathan L. Fairbanks and Elizabeth Bates. American Furniture 1620 to the Present. (New York: Richard Marek Publishers, 1981), p. 130.

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Source: Docent Manual entry for <i>Connecticut Room,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009