Essex County cupboard anatomy

Essex County cupboard

For a couple of weeks or more I’ve been splitting, hewing & planing oak for this cupboard I have to build. In the blog here and in videos I mention various parts of the cupboard by name (the stiles, the cornice rails, inner stiles, etc) – all without having introduced the various parts to the audience. I have the cupboard frame in my head but realize that few here do. So here I’ll try to identify the bits – which for right now are just a growing pile of boards in the shop. 

One way to see this frame more easily is to strip off all that applied decoration. I took a photo of one of the related cupboards and traced its framing as best I could. It’s built in two cases; lower & upper. The lower case contains 4 drawers. The distinctive feature of the lower cases in this group is the overhang at the front that is created in the side framing. That leaves room for the lower pillars you see here. The two middle drawers are tucked behind these pillars. Those drawers are narrower than the top & bottom drawers by about 3″-4″.

This sketch shows the basics of that side framing in the lower case. It’s clearly not to any scale, it’s just a sketch. The inner stile marked on both of these drawings is about 1 7/8″ thick x 4+” wide.

side framing lower case

It might make sense in the photo below showing the four drawers open. That’s the edge of the inner stile beside the pillar.

side view lower case

The upper case’s format is pretty standard, but its embellishments are top-of-the-line. Its overall shape is sort of an interrupted octagon. At the front is a central door, loaded up with applied moldings that create a great sense of depth. Then the angled sides of the cupboard reach back to the rear stiles. Next, the top over the cupboard is back to rectangular, a 3-sided cornice creating another overhang. Those corner blocks that I refer to as “cornice stiles” are supported by the pillars. The pillars have tenons at both ends and are loose-fitted into the top of the lower case and the underside of those cornice stiles.

photo by Gavin Ashworth

I think I’ve said before, but here goes again. More than 20 years ago, Bob Trent, Alan Miller & I studied about 12-13 of these and related chests of drawers for an article for American Furniture. A staggering body of work that really doesn’t span all that many years, 1670s & ’80s mainly if my memory is right.

You can read it online, with photos shot by Gavin Ashworth. http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/554/American-Furniture-2001/First-Flowers-of-the-Wilderness:-Mannerist-Furniture-from-a-Northern-Essex-County,-Massachusetts,-Shop-

I can’t wait to start framing it; but for now the parts are stickered & drying some. I’m planing up the drawer parts now. Then on to some incidental bits – this oak log is going fast.

the Essex County cupboard group overview pt. 1

[the photos here are from a variety of sources and formats. Some I downloaded from museum websites, some are scans of prints, some shot with an ipad, etc. – all this is to apologize for the poor quality of some of these photos. Some citations at the bottom]

white oak

Well, now I have a log for my cupboard project – I’ll go pick it up (some of it anyway) on Monday. Thanks Rick. It looks like it’s in a tilted-over part of the world, I better be careful. Otherwise it seems promising.

In the meantime, I’ve been reviewing my notes from 20+ years ago when Bob Trent, Alan Miller & I worked on an article for American Furniture. These books, notebooks & files are a small part of the research – there’s scads of letters and notes to go with them. The large notebook at the bottom of the heap is mostly field-notes – measurements and descriptions from examinations of the 12 cupboards we saw when working on our article.

It’s an amazing body of work by some anonymous joiners/turners. There’s about 12-13 cupboards, but there are also chests of drawers, chests with a drawer below, two “dressing boxes” – small, table-top chests with numerous compartments dividing up the insides and some ordinary boxes for general storage. At least one table too, a folding example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The date range runs from 1678 – this chest of drawers at Winterthur – dated on the middle part of the bottom drawer. The owner’s initials are carved on the top drawer; IMS, for John & Margaret Staniford.

The other end of the date range is 1701, incised on this chest with a drawer at the Hoxie House in Sandwich Massachusetts. I took this lousy photograph, pretty much on the fly one day. The date and the initials IP are carved on small plaques at the bottom of the middle panel.

IP 1701

Here’s a hideous crop showing the dates/initials – just like above, when you see “I” think “J”. Usually.

The decoration found on the whole group is so varied and impressive, it’s really mind-boggling. Lots of geometric combinations formed with applied moldings, then always accented with applied “split” turnings (which aren’t split). This shot of the Massachusetts Historical Society cupboard has a little of everything, except carving.

I first got closely involved with them when Bob Trent & I did a presentation at the Dublin Seminar in 1998. Our presentation there was called “Repairs Versus Deception in Essex County Cupboards 1830-1890” – pretty dramatic title. It’s not illustrated in the article, but our lecture included this cupboard, which we only knew from a photograph in Irving P. Lyon’s 1930s article “Oak Furniture of Ipswich, Massachusetts, part IV, the Small-Panel Type” in Antiques Magazine.

Well, some of Lyon’s findings hold up some don’t. Note in the caption that he doesn’t know what to call it. I don’t know what to call it either, technically it’s a chest of drawers. But it’s not a chest, so maybe it’s a cupboard of drawers. But it’s not a cupboard. It just looks like one. Eventually, it came out of the woodwork, was re-restored and is now at Chipstone if I remember right. Lyon was right in one respect – “probably unique” – we’ve never seen anything like it.

dated 1683

There’s one we never found – the base of a cupboard, shown here in Wallace Nutting’s book Furniture Treasury (1926 or so). Let us know if it’s in your barn or something. One of them was a hen coop in the 19th century.

Irving P. Lyon’s 6 articles on Oak Furniture of Ipswich are well worth having, even with a grain of salt (it’s not all from Ipswich by a long shot). They are collected in Robert F. Trent’s Pilgrim Century Furniture, Main St/Universe Press, 1976. Irving W. Lyon, Irving P. Lyon’s father, illustrated a couple of these cupboards in his The Colonial Furniture of New England (1891, reprinted 1925 etc). I already mentioned Wallace Nutting’s Furniture Treasury, his Furniture of the Pilgrim Century also includes some of this work. And on & on. The short article I did with Trent is in Rural New England Furniture, Dublin Seminar, 2000. (it’s the papers for the 1998 conference of the same name.) The longer one we did when Alan Miller worked along with us is online, but the printed volume has all the illustrations, the website sometimes has fewer. http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/554/American-Furniture-2001/First-Flowers-of-the-Wilderness:-Mannerist-Furniture-from-a-Northern-Essex-County,-Massachusetts,-Shop- The volume it’s in is the 2001 edition of American Furniture, edited by Luke Beckerdite. That pile of books shown up there also has Jonathan Fairbanks and Robert Trent, New England Begins, 3 vols, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1982) and Richard Randall American Furniture in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1965). Winterthur’s collection search is here https://www.winterthur.org/collections/online-collections/