“To tables stooles chayres chests & wooden ware £08-04
to cart wheeles plow chaynes with joyners stuffe & ceder boults £19-03-06″
William Savell, Sr. probate inventory, 1669
Picking up the story of the Braintree chests I started in a previous post, here I’ll cover what we learned about the people who we think made them. The snippets of family histories pointed to the town of Braintree in Massachusetts Bay Colony as the place these works were made. Here’s the first post – https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2022/12/12/a-look-at-the-braintree-joined-chests/
I should take a moment to tell you where 17th-century Braintree, Massachusetts was – it’s much smaller now than then. South of Boston, a coastal town. Its northern end was nearly up to the south side of the Neponset River below Dorchester, down to Weymouth and its western edge was over near the Blue Hills in Canton. It encompassed the present towns of Braintree, Quincy, Randolph and Holbrook.
So the search turned to who in Braintree might have made them. We did this research the old way – pre-internet. In the early years of this project I didn’t even have a computer. Took notes long-hand. I started by reading the town records – births, deaths, marriages – looking for any indications of someone who did woodworking. Then I read all the probate records for the town by browsing through bound volumes of them in the state archives. I made notes of any furniture forms and tools listed for anyone in Braintree. (the woodworkers got condensed into an appendix in the article Alexander & I wrote – https://chipstone.org/article.php/222/American-Furniture-1996/Seventeenth-Century-Joinery-from-Braintree,-Massachusetts:-The-Savell-Shop-Tradition
I forget the order in which we found stuff and most of my notes on this research are filed away in deep storage. An early discovery was this from the Braintree Town Records:
“John Savil Joyner died 19-9-1687”
It’s the only mention of a joiner in the town records for the 17th century. John Savell was born in Braintree in 1642, the eldest son of William Savell and his wife Hannah (Tidd). In 1694, a note of a payment the town made for one of its poor citizens:
“five pounds to John Belcher’s widow’s maintenance, and thirty shilings to Thomas Revill for keeping William Dimblebee, and twenty-five shilings for the ringing of the bel and sweping the meeting-hous in the year 1694, and eight shilings for mending the pound, seven shilings to William Savill for dimblebe’s cofin, and eight shilings to constables for warning the Town, and five shilings for the exchang of a Town cow to Samuel Speer, and ten shilings to Thomas Bas for dept for ringing the bell formerly, this to be raised by rate.”
The William Savell who made Dimblebee’s coffin was the youngest son of William Savell. He was born in 1652 – (not 1650 as the town records cite.) So this family became a focus. What of William Savell, Sr.? He first shows up in New England records working on the “college” that later became Harvard University. In the Notebook Kept by Thomas Lechford is a petition of “William Savil, of Cambridge, joyner” essentially for under-payment for work done for Nathaniel Eaton, the first president of the college. The petition is undated, but seems to be from about 1641.
No indication of a result was recorded by Lechford. The next we see of Savell is when John was born in Braintree just a year or so later. Why did he move from Cambridge to Braintree? No way to tell, but his sister Ann lived there, married to Samuel Bass. They had first lived in Roxbury, and were among the earliest people established in Braintree.
William Savell lived there the rest of his life. He was married three times, first to Hannah Tidd, second to Sarah (last name unknown) and third to the widow Sarah Gannet, who was originally Sarah Mullins. William Savell’s death is listed in the Braintree records:
“William Savill dyed the 2 mo. 6, 1669”
Savell never held any office in the town, and there is no record of his receiving a grant or being made a freeman. However, he owned a considerable amount of property when he died in 1669. The total value of his estate was 798-17-00. On the 19th of February 1668, William Savell Sr. wrote his will. In it he left to his son John:
“the whole House & barn & shop & tooles, stuffe as Timber pertaining to his trade…”
Included in the will is:
“my sonn William savel is to live as an Apprentice with his (i.e., William Savell, Sr.’s) sonn John Savel…until hee bee 21 years of Age”.
The inventory included:
the house and barn & a bitt of meadow £90-00-00
John’s house shop barn & land about 3 Acres £120-00-00
Tables stooles chayres chests & wooden ware £08-04-00
Cart wheels plow chaynes with joiners stuff & ceder boults £19-03-06
The photo below is probably the first house William Savell lived in at Braintree.
It was located on what is now School Street in Quincy, Massachusetts. Taken down in 1899 when they widened the street. That photo and this diagram both came from the Quincy Historical Society.
In an article of agreement in connection with the will, the sons of William Savell, Sr. agree that the widow, Sarah (Mullins Gannett) Savell shall have:
“…her whole estate returned to her that she brought to Our ffather for her own use & to dispose of forever with a chest with drawers & a Cubbert…”
The details of the will provide some useful information; namely the use of cedar as well as “joiner’s stuff”, (another name for oak) and the listing of the chest with drawers, plural. There are two examples of the Braintree chests with two drawers (see the previous post). About 20 years ago, I got to see a 20th century sideboard that included a pair of drawers salvaged from one of these chests. The piece descended in the Hayward/Baxter families of Braintree and Quincy.
The cedar bolts could be for fences or for joinery work. Some of the Braintree chests have what I think are riven cedar floorboards and drawer bottoms. Atlantic white cedar and Northern white cedar both rive very nicely in straight sections.
The note about his son William living as an apprentice with John is because the son William was only 16 or 17 years old at the time. In New England apprentices usually were at least 21 at the end of their term.
John Savell died as noted above in 1687. His will leaves to his “only son John Savell all my housing both dwelling house shop & barn…formerly given me by my father…” We never found any indication that this John Savell practiced joinery.
William Savell the younger did joiner’s work. As noted before, the town paid him for making a coffin for William Dimblebee. Any woodworker could be called upon to make a coffin. But Savell’s probate inventory taken when he died in 1699/1700 records some interesting things.
a green carpitt & covers for chairs £01-08-00
a douzen painted chairs & a sealskin trunk £01-18-00
a wainscott chest and a box £01-01-00
a square table a wainscott chest and a bedstead £02-12-00
timber and weare begun £03-00-00
These are the only references in all the Braintree probate records I read that include the word “wainscot” – here to designate these chests as distinct from other chests. Usually meant to be a paneled or joined chest, usually in oak. Also the value assigned to the “wainscot chest and a box” is approaching the value of a dozen chairs and a trunk…so clearly a nice chest.
Like his brother John, William had a son who did not seem to follow in his trade. Back when we wrote the article, I added this: “Another joiner who was part of the Savell shop tradition is Joseph Allen (1672–1727). He probably trained with William, Jr., before marrying his master’s niece, Abigail, in 1701. Allen’s estate included “3 chists and one box,” two axes, a hand saw, and “joyner tools.” – I wouldn’t make the claim today that Allen “probably trained with Willliam…” too much speculation. He was a joiner, he married William’s niece. But beyond that…
Now – where did William Savell, Sr come from? Saffron Walden, Essex in England. There are records there of his baptism, his sister’s as well – and her marriage to Samuel Bass. The baptism record of William Savell in 1604/1605 in Saffron Walden lists his father as William Savill (1564-1639).
William Savell married Margaret Parker in 1592. He died in 1639, by which time his son William was already in Cambridge Massachusetts. His daughter Ann was born in 1601. She married Samuel Bass in Saffron Walden in 1625 and they were first in Boston, then Roxbury, then Braintree.
The Essex Country Record Office in England has a “counterpart lease for 20 years” dated 2 April 1623. The lease is from a list of people to “William Savell of Walden, joiner and w. Margaret.” So the assumption is that William of Braintree learned his trade from his father in England. Then taught his son John in Braintree and perhaps began the training of his son William.
As we broke the surviving chests into three main groups, they fit a scenario like this:
The Winterthur cupboard and the Smithsonian chest we attributed to William Sr. These are, in our eyes, the most developed carvings. These two objects share a trait as well – board carcases with joined fronts pegged on.
Interestingly, this construction is found in Saffron Walden specifically – but the chests from there look nothing like the Braintree chest. Just the board case/joined front combo.
Below is a photo from Penny Rumble’s article “Some East Anglian Chests” in the 1991 edition of Regional Furniture. She illustrated two chests with this construction, one found “amongst deceased effects in Saffron Walden” and this one, her fig. 7 was in the church at Saffron Walden. I seem to remember more of these turning up after this article.
The body of chests that use the convex molding, the plain bottom front rail, drawer fronts with four pinwheels instead of 6 – those we attributed to John Savell. I think he’s a great carver. There’s some differences between these panels and those found on the previous two pieces – the main one being the spandrels around the arches. Simpler here. Start with what we think is the father – the Winterthur cupboard panel:
Then a chest we think is John Savell:
Then what we think is the younger William:
Then we come to the chests with the flat plow & cove molding, run on the bottom rail as well. 6 pinwheels between the rosettes on the drawer front. These we consider to be the work of young William. Why? Well, for one thing the carving is more stiff, less fluid. Spandrels again – somewhat willy-nilly. The “S” curves in the panels are abrupt. We offer the explanation that he didn’t train with his father – but with his brother. But we just also said his brother was excellent. So what does that mean? It means we’re guessing. But we have three joiners, we have three groups of furniture – all related. All three men worked for around 25-30 years here at their trade.
Another New England joiner came from Saffron Walden. Nicholas Disbrow was born there in 1613/14, the son of Nicholas Disberow. Starting with a 1610 will of William Disberowe of Walden, joiner” that mentioned his wife Katherine and “Nicholas Disberowe my son” – the next record is a marriage between this son Nicholas and Mary Gilbye in 1610 and four years later their son Nicholas was born. He’s the one who came to Hartford.
The elder Nicholas Disberow was paid by the churchwardens of Saffron Walden for “mending of the pulpit & a seat” and for “mending of seats & for nails” in 1628 & 1629.
The following is from: Patricia E. Kane “The Joiners of Seventeenth Century Hartford County” in The Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin, v.35, #3, July 1970:
“NICHOLAS DISBROW is the first joiner known to have come to Hartford. He emigrated first to Dorchester, Massachusetts, and in 1635 to Hartford where, as a proprietor, he lived on a six-acre homelot in “the north side.” In 1660 the townsmen of Hartford allowed Disbrow to build a shop. He was working as late as 1680 when he made a bedstead for John Talcott, a Hartford merchant. The high price of £1-08-00 which he billed Talcott suggests that this was a wainscot bedstead, a form in American furniture which has not survived.
Disbrow’s inventory, taken after his death in 1683, is the single Hartford County seventeenth century joiner’s inventory in which his tools are enumerated. They included:
plane stocks and Irons, seven chissells passer [piercerl betts and gimblets £02-11-06
a parsell of small tools & two payer of compases & five handsawes — £01-05-06
two fros, a payer of plyers, two reaspes a file, and a sett —– £00-10-06
two passer (piercer) stocks, two hammers, and fower axes £00-18-00
two betteles and fower wedges a bill and five augers £01-04-06
…two payer of Joynts & a payer of hooks and hinges
…Joyners timber and five hundred of bord.
I dug out Kane’s dissertation and found that the bedstead reference is recorded in a notebook kept by the customer Talcott, a merchant. In New England furniture studies, Nicholas Disbrow is most well-known for something he did not do. A discovery in the 1920s of a chest inscribed with the legend “Mary Allyns Chistt Cutte and joyned by Nich. Disbrowe” was shortly thereafter deemed a forgery (the signature, not the chest.) Although it has been dismissed as fake, the signature is sometimes still cited as the first piece of signed American furniture. See what happens when stuff gets in print?
Kane also recorded a bit from Cotton Mather about Disbrow:
“In the year 1683, the house of Nicholas Disbrow at Hartford, was very strangely molested by stones, by pieces of earth, by cobs of Indian corn, and other such things, from an invisible hand, thrown at him, sometimes through the door, sometimes thro’ the window, sometimes down the chimney, and sometimes from the floor of the room (tho’ very close) over his head; and sometimes he met with them in the shop, the yard, the barn, and in the field. There was no violence in the motion of the things thus thrown by the invisible hand; and tho’ others besides the man happen’d sometimes to be hit, they were never hurt with them; only the man himself once had pain given to his arm, and once blood fetched from his leg, by these annoyances’ and a fire, in an unknown way kindled, consumed no little part of his estate. This trouble began upon a controversie between Desbrough and another person about a chest of cloaths, which the man apprehended to be unrighteously detain’d by Desbrough; and it endured for divers months; but upon restoring of the cloths thus detain’d the trouble ceased.”
Well, that’s enough of that. There’s more excruciating details. But now my desk is covered with stuff that needs to go back in file cabinets. Here’s some old posts looking at the three types of carvings in the Braintree works.