a look at 17th-century New England cupboards

my first version of an Essex County (Massachusetts) cupboard

I’m past the half-way point on my 2nd version of this cupboard and it will pick up speed now. It should, anyway. I wrote so much about the project when I made the first version in 2021/22 that I have ignored this one pretty much. I haven’t been shooting many photos lately, so today I thought I’d have a look at other New England cupboards so you can see how this one is similar and how it’s different. 

First – what is it? A press cupboard, a wainscot cupboard, a joined cupboard, a court cupboard – those terms all can refer to something like these. Below is a 17th century one from Plymouth Colony – the area where I live – for most of the 17th century it was separate from Massachusetts Bay to the north. (photo from Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC)

Plymouth Colony cupboard

There’s a number of these Plymouth cupboards (and related chests with drawers)  – the common format for the Plymouth ones is a lower case with four drawers (2 in the top row and singles below) and a cupboard with doors in the upper case. It has a flat recessed front behind two large turned pillars that support the overhanging cornice. Some of the moldings are integral, others applied. Applied turnings also. To me, the most notable feature of these pieces is the large integral moldings in the lower cases. These are roughly 2” x 2” square and feature what we call a “lipped” tenon – a section in front of the tenon that is molded. (my repro of this joint below)

unassembled view of “lipped” tenon

At least one of the Plymouth cupboards is open below – a common feature in period cupboards of this type. A lower shelf for displaying “plate” – i.e. pewter, ceramics or better – silver. A drawer in the middle section for linens, and a cupboard above. (also the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Plymouth Colony cupboard open below

New Haven Colony along what is now the Connecticut coast had some very distinctive large cupboards. Flat fronted – no overhang, no pillars. Carved decoration in addition to the applied geometric stuff. (Yale University Art Gallery)

Guilford or New Haven cupboard – Yale University Art Gallery

They also had the more typical format – a trapezoidal cupboard, pillars, overhanging cornice – etc. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

From Wethersfield along the Connecticut River comes a large group of chests with drawers and cupboards – carved and applied decorations. Doors below, flat-fronted but with an overhanging cornice. To me, the most distinctive feature of these is they are built in a single, full-height case. Makes them trickier to move than the others, all of which are built in two sections so they can break down for moving. (this one from Yale University Art Gallery)

Wethersfield CT cupboard

The cupboard I’m copying is one of 12 or 13 from northern Essex County, Massachusetts – most likely Newbury. But in Salem, Massachusetts comes this cupboard – now at the Peabody Essex Museum there – similar decoration – elaborate molded decoration, lots of turned bits – arches on the upper panels. Three deep drawers in the lower case. The only overhang is the cornice. An excellent cupboard.

Salem cupboard, Peabody Essex Museum

But the joiners and turners who made the group of cupboards that I’ve been working from went further than any other New England joiners. First off, there’s a lot of their cupboards left for us to study. And each one is something different from the others – some are similar, but most are quite singular. The overhanging sections are one feature unique to this group. Remember this one at Winterthur Museum – Jennie Alexander used to call it the “lunar lander.”

Essex Co cupboard, Winterthur Museum

One more for today – don’t be fooled by this. Irving P. Lyon, writing in the 1930s called it a “cabinet in the court cupboard style” –

Perkins family “cupboard”

I don’t know what to call it – it only has drawers, so I’m inclined to call it a chest of drawers. But it no more looks like a chest than I do. The black & white photo is pre-restoration. Here it is now, part of the Chipstone collection.

1683 Essex Co “cupboard of drawers” restored

10 thoughts on “a look at 17th-century New England cupboards

  1. We seem to have more creative latitude than the English cousins do from earlier and contemporary times. I have not seen a huge number of the British ones, but their main variation seems to be in bottom area treatment, whether shelves or doors, and the size of top overhang, and turnings. Not nearly as much applied decoration on the British ones that I have seen.

    • to me, the biggest shift in the New England ones is the drawers in the lower cases versus doors – chests of drawers were fashionable at that same time – maybe that’s a factor. Hard to say.

  2. I’m not sure if it were a ‘creative latitude’ or a tendency to stay with traditional, restrained ornamentation. In the same way, the ‘Windsor’ chair gathered more curves and more leg-splay when it emigrated, while the British version remained a distinct vernacular piece right through the 19th C up to the age of mass production.
    However, it’s interesting to compare the stylistic variations; add to that the fact that regional tastes in Britain differed and was probably slower to evolve in the countryside.

    In Wales, that type of furniture was termed “Cwpwrdd Deuddarn” – literally, a ‘two piece cupboard’ and compared to the new England variety, was rather unadorned.
    They date from the same era in the mid to late 17th C.
    Later, in the 18th/19th C the same style gained an upper storey as a cupboard or shelves and became a “Cwpwrdd Trdarn”. … literally, a “three-piece”.
    I suspect that this three-tier job says a lot about the improvement in building ceiling height in the next century, if nothing else.

    To see and compare what I mean, both those terms in a standard search will return many of pictures of these Welsh pieces, where they remain a saleable antique.

    There is an excellent reference work, “Welsh Furniture 1250-1950: A Cultural History of Craftsmanship and Design” by Richard Bebb which has much more detail. (ISBN 10: 0955377315 – ISBN 13: 9780955377310)

    Hwyl fawr!

  3. They’ve got a good number of this sort of thing in the Luce collection at the Met Museum and I know there are also some displayed in the attic space there but it’s been closed off the half dozen times I’ve visited over the last decade. Can anyone recommend other museums?

    • A few of these are from the Met collection. Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford CT, Winterthur Museum in Wilmington DE, MFA in Boston, Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, CT. Sometimes Chipstone’s stuff is displayed at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Scattered here & there are single examples in historic house museums, etc. I’m sure I’m forgetting some…

  4. I recall seeing this sort of item from the same period (Jacobean IIRC), usually jet black and overwhelming, on school trips to castles and stately homes in Scotland. Must be quite satisfying to look at an item like this from five hundred years ago and know you can make an exact replica.

  5. I think a press cupboard might have been a wardrobe. Often with hanging pegs above and an open well at the bottom. Fancy ministers often had a bookcase called a book press.

  6. Been a fan of Roy, Alexander and yours fow a while now (and now Salty McT)!

    It’d be interesting to know:
    How many (or any) examples of these forms were off the boat from England?
    Do we know anything about who commissioned the pieces (who were these nouveau riche), or the craftsmen who who made them?
    ~How long were they in style?

    Keep up the great work sir, and kick Salty in the butt for me! 😉

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