The decorative arts—the furniture, pictures, ceramics, textiles, glass and metal objects—found in early houses are not only pleasing to look at, but tell us much 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.
Some information about the decorative arts is gained from documents. Estate inventories, for example, provide detailed lists of objects found in specific rooms, and also disclose monetary values placed on those objects. From these we can learn about the wealth of an individual or a family and also about how they valued their possessions. Textiles such as linens, blankets, bed hangings and feather mattresses, often accounted for the most valuable portion of an estate. There is little wonder that great attention was paid to a young lady's training in the needle arts.
Paintings and prints, an important category of the decorative arts, are themselves a major source of information about the furnishing of early interiors. As accurate as any photograph, they 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 tell us that people 100 or 200 years ago did not use space the same way we do today; their rooms in general contained fewer objects. We also learn that to furnish 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 eighteenth century furniture in Wheelwright House, much of it exemplifying the art of the turner (lathe worker), is appropriate for the simple home of a late eighteenth century sea captain. The 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 early nineteenth century Portsmouth merchants, among them Stephen Chase. The Thomas Bailey Aldrich House, which was established as a museum and literary shrine in 1908, contains an excellent collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century American, English, and Oriental objects. The Aldrich House interior tells us as much about early twentieth century museum practices as it does about life here when Thomas Bailey Aldrich lived in the house as a boy in the middle of the nineteenth century
Whenever possible items that can be traced to specific people at Strawbery Banke, or known to have been made by local artisans, are added to the museum's collections. The works of artist John S. Blunt and Thomas P. Moses are prominently displayed. Long recognized as a superior artist of his genre, 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 case furniture displaying a Portsmouth hallmark, 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 eighteenth century, Portsmouth shipped more furniture to the West Indies than either Philadelphia or Boston did. The artisans who produced Portsmouth's furniture, however, 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. Beyond that, 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
or call (603) 422-7526