The furniture, pictures, ceramics, textiles, glass and metal objects – known collectively as “Decorative Arts” -- found in early houses are both beautiful and tell us about the people who lived in those houses. The decorative arts help us understand the development of style and taste, and at the same time provide important insights into social and economic history.
Strawbery Banke displays items in specific houses and specific rooms based as much as possible on information from paintings and prints that illustrate how furniture was placed in a room, how curtains were hung and floors covered, how plants were potted or tables set for a meal. These visual records show that people 100 or 200 years ago did not use space the same as today; their rooms in general contained fewer objects. In addition, furnishing an early room with pieces belonging to one specific period is to misinterpret the past. Residents of Portsmouth in earlier eras valued old items, especially those with family significance, as much as modern people do.
Each furnished interior at Strawbery Banke provides a window into the past in Portsmouth. The early 1700s furniture in Wheelwright House, showing careful turning of chair legs by a skilled lathe worker, is appropriate for the simple home of a late 1700s sea captain. The mid-1800s Federal pieces in Chase House, such as the veneered secretary with drop panel, are not only fine examples of the cabinetmaker's craft, but also illustrate the wealth of the Portsmouth merchants who owned them, such as Stephen Chase. The Thomas Bailey Aldrich House, created as a museum and literary shrine to the author in 1908, contains an excellent collection of 1700s and 1800s American, English, and Oriental objects. The Aldrich House interior tells us as much about early 1900s museum practices as it does about life when Thomas Bailey Aldrich lived in the house as a boy.
Whenever possible items that can be traced to specific people at Strawbery Banke (or were made by local artisans) are added to the museum's collections. The works of artists John S. Blunt and Thomas P. Moses are prominently displayed. Blunt's painting of Ichabod Goodwin's ship The Sarah Parker ranks among the finest of his works. Important individual pieces of furniture include: chairs attributed to the shops of cabinetmakers Langley Boardman and George Gains; an elegant Hepplewhite sideboard chalked with the name of a prominent Portsmouth merchant, John Melcher; and sophisticated furniture displaying a distinguishing Portsmouth accent: a panel of figured veneer in its base or skirt.
Portsmouth had a strong craft tradition, especially in the woodworking arts. During a period in the late 1700s, Portsmouth shipped more furniture to the West Indies than either Philadelphia or Boston did. However, the artisans who produced Portsmouth's furniture rarely signed or labeled their products. One of the purposes of the decorative arts at Strawbery Banke is to find out more about these important craftsmen who furnished Portsmouth's homes. The decorative arts are one of the major means for bringing history to life for visitors to Strawbery Banke.
For more information, contact Curator Elizabeth Farish. Email efarish AT sbmuseum.org or call (603) 422-7526.