Connecticut's Golden Age Of Furniture Design

A young Windsor furniture maker's "fateful liaison" with an unmarried woman in June 1766 helped pave the way for the Connecticut Valley's golden age of furniture production.

Eliphalet Chapin's wayward ways with a neighboring damsel named Hannah Bartlett and his subsequent refusal to marry her led to a paternity suit — and to Chapin's hasty departure for the bustling port of Philadelphia, then the American colonies' leading furniture design center.

Although it's not known where he worked, Chapin incorporated many of Philadelphia's sophisticated rococo design features into his own design lexicon.

"It's almost a story of redemption," said Richard C. Malley, head of research and collections at the Connecticut Historical Society. "He's a young guy, he made a mistake, he went away and was transformed in a couple of different ways — as a craftsman and, ostensibly, as a citizen."

In a landmark 2005 volume on Connecticut Valley furniture, Susan Schoelwer details the lawsuit, which began in January 1767, according to Hartford County Court case files:

"To Wm. Wolcott, Esquire, one of his Majesty's Justices of the Peace for the County of Hartford comes Hannah Bartlett, Jr., of Windsor in the county, a single woman & informs said Justice that your informer is now pregnant with a child which when born will be a bastard babe begotten on her body by fornication by Eliphalet Chapin of said Windsor on or about the 20th day of June last past & your informer prays that the said Eliphalet may be made to answer unto this complaint & stand chargeable with the maintenance of said child when born..."

Schoelwer, former director of museum collections at the Connecticut Historical Society and now curator at George Washington's Mount Vernon, writes that Chapin missed several court appearances and was evidently a flight risk. A 50-pound writ was issued, and two parcels of land totaling about 30 acres that he owned in Enfield were attached.

But four years later, in 1771, with help from his brother and money he'd earned in Philadelphia, Chapin was able to regain title to his land and to re-establish himself — "despite a lingering shadow of disrepute" — setting up shop in East Windsor, which split off from Windsor in 1768.

While Chapin's predicament was "far from uncommon and in many respects unremarkable," Schoelwer writes, the paternity suit and his four years in Pennsylvania were a transformative experience that "pried him loose from Connecticut Valley woodworking traditions."

Native Stands Of Old-Growth Cherry Trees

The Connecticut Valley was largely rural at the time. The region's furniture tradition included elaborately carved and painted "sunflower" oak chests by Peter Blin in Wethersfield and others up into parts of Massachusetts in the late 1600s and early 1700s, but furniture generally was quite plain. Connecticut was separated from European and English style centers, Malley said, so there was always something of a lag.

"When we transition by the middle of the 18th century, we get into Queen Anne styles, for which Wethersfield was certainly one of the centers," Malley said. "And you get into cherry as the primary wood."

Cherry trees grew all over the state, he said. "People find that hard to believe today; even I do. But apparently native stands of cherry — and these are old-growth — they were quite common."

Malley said Chapin's paternity suit "was probably a good thing" in terms of furniture history. Chippendale styling was becoming popular in Connecticut and Chapin streamlined it for more provincial Connecticut tastes and infused it with some distinctive flourishes.

Antiques expert and dealer Leigh Keno, who is president of Keno Auctions and well-known with his twin brother Leslie Keno for their appearances on 18 seasons of "Antiques Roadshow" on PBS, agrees.

"I think it's one of the great scandals of American furniture history," Keno said in a phone interview. In addition to bringing home more advanced construction techniques that he learned, Chapin "took foliage, which he would have learned in Philadelphia... very high-style naturalistic rococo work, very leafy .... he took the essence of the leaf and stylized it. What he ended up with was beautiful, and it's popular with collectors."

A cherrywood dressing table attributed to Chapin's shop, thought to be made in 1783 for Amasa Loomis, is a case in point.

Malley pointed out that its style with ball-and-claw feet and quarter columns was introduced by Chapin. He also notes that Amasa Loomis was a man; men, who wore wigs back then, used dressing tables, as did women.

This dressing table, in the Connecticut Historical Society's collection, is embellished with a subtle monogram "AL" of gracefully carved vines and spooned-out leaves. While monograms were a common embellishment on 18th-century silverware, they were rare on furniture, especially in New England, the late Thomas Kugelman, a renowned collector and expert on Connecticut Valley furniture, explains in an essay for the historical society.

Kugelman was the co-author with his wife, Alice Kugelman, and with Robert Lionetti, of the definitive volume, "Connecticut Valley Furniture: Eliphalet Chapin And His Contemporaries, 1750-1800." In it they write that Chapin style was so influential by the 1790s that "cabinetmakers as far south as Wallingford and as far north as Northampton were using elements of the Chapin idiom."

'Pockets Of Style'

Keno said Connecticut furniture is "distinctly American," in part because so much of it was made with native cherrywood, and for its regionalism. Idiosyncratic design features and "wonderful eccentricities" make it "extremely appealing to many collectors."

"It always amazes me how distinctive makers were, how far they were from one another in the time, back in the time when it was a day's ride by carriage," Keno said. "You get these wonderful pockets of style."

Pieces made by mid- to late 18th-century furniture makers in Colchester, including Samuel Loomis, boast some particularly noteworthy eccentricities — steep bonnet tops that are nearly vertical, spiral finials, extensive carving, including fans, shells, sunbursts, tendrils, vines, berries, wreaths and propeller-like pinwheels, as well as little "Colchester curls" that appear at the bottom of chests, near the feet.

"We talk about bells and whistles when we talk about Colchester," Malley said, "especially large case pieces, whether they're high chests or chests-on-chests. There's a lot of carved detail."

Keno called the Colchester style Baroque and "almost over the top."

In some pieces there's barely a square inch that doesn't have some sort of carved design treatment.

Numerous Apprentices

Numerous craftsmen and apprentices trained with Eliphalet Chapin and then spread his style farther afield. His second cousin, Aaron Chapin, worked with him for nine years before leaving in 1784 to open his own shop in Hartford and become famed in his own right.

"Aaron was on the cusp of the new Federal style that [was] being introduced," Malley said. "It's an entirely different aesthetic."

Neither Eliphalet nor Aaron signed his work, Malley said, so it often takes some sleuthing to determine when a piece might have been made, and for whom. In the case of a massive 9-foot desk and glass-fronted bookcase, it was signed or initialed by three workmen whose stints working at Eliphalet Chapin's shop overlapped, which helps date the piece from 1786 to 1790.

Stylistically, the cherry piece is a transition piece, Malley said, reflecting the new Federal style but with elements of Chippendale style. The bowfront, a Chippendale design feature, would have involved an extra cost, Malley said. But the design of the pediment up top, incorporating small wood balls, or spherules, into carrot-shaped openings, is less frilly and dainty than Chapin's earlier fretwork designs. The urn finials at the top also are closer to the Federal period.

Under the bookcase are two narrow drawers called bosom drawers. "It looks like a set of boobs," Malley said. "We calls 'em as we sees 'em."

The piece wouldn't fit into a traditional 18th-century house, because ceilings would have been too low, Malley said. But one person in town back then — John Watson, a successful merchant who raised sheep — had built the first Federal-style house in East Windsor, and it had 12-foot ceilings.

"It was the only house in town that could take a 9-footer," Malley said. Watson also was "known to have the best private library in town" — 130 books, according to Kugelman — "so this would be a perfect piece for him to store and show it off."

Watson's probate inventory includes a secretary and bookcase valued at $15. It was the highest valued piece of furniture listed.

Chairs And Standard Parts

The times were changing. While Eliphalet Chapin's designs were noted for scrolled pediments and elaborate fretwork, Ebenezer Williams, who eventually bought Chapin's shop, advertised in the Courant in April 1790 that he was making Windsor chairs there:

"The public are hereby informed that the subscriber carries on the Windsor Chair-making, at the shop of Mr. Eliphalet Chapin in East-Windsor, where ladies and gentlemen may be supplied at the shortest notice with all kinds of Windsor Chairs faithfully executed in the neatest manner — the smallest favor gratefully acknowledged by their humble servant, Ebenezer Williams."

By the mid-19th century, Malley said, furniture production dropped off in Connecticut. Lambert Hitchcock, who produced chairs in Riverton in the 1820s and 1830s, had pursued a completely different approach.

"He takes the notion of standard parts — mass-produced — and assembling, and also doing a lot of turning rather than carving, so you don't need the same level of skill and training in making furniture. ... If you can turn these on a lathe, what you need is a good lathe operator who can follow a pattern, rather than someone who can carve."