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The art and craft that passes through our hands is always worthy of sharing. We are introducing this blog with the hope that it will allow you to connect with something special too.

 

A SCHOOLGIRL PAINTED BOX

Currently for sale ~ a slide-lid box with schoolgirl painted decoration. Produced in Western Massachusetts and dated July 4, 1831, the box is remarkable for the clarity and vibrancy of its well preserved landscape decoration painted from life and print sources. It maintains its original resin-based finish and has a warm, golden brown patina. 

Watercolor and ink on maple with original resin-based finish, replaced bone escutcheon, 3 ½ x 11 x 7 3/8 inches. Inscribed in ink with verse, “White” and “Green” and “July 4, 1831.” With a later ink inscription on underside: “Mrs. Belle B. Gibbs.” In a fine state of preservation with original painted decoration.
Watercolor and ink on maple with original resin-based finish, replaced bone escutcheon, 3 ½ x 11 x 7 3/8 inches. Inscribed in ink with verse, “White” and “Green” and “July 4, 1831.” With a later ink inscription on underside: “Mrs. Belle B. Gibbs.” In a fine state of preservation with original painted decoration.

While school may look different this year, it’s comforting to know that learning does not always require a classroom and is instead a lifelong process. You might even be reading this blog with the intention of learning. Befittingly, education and “the home” are indirectly the subjects of this blog post.

Before the advent of public education in the mid-nineteenth century, a girl’s education might include the instruction of “Painting on Wood.” Societal roles for women were limited to the domestic sphere and this was reflected in their education. Whereas boys were taught traditional academic subjects, young women were instructed in the disciplines of “female accomplishments,” which included music, dance, watercolor painting, penmanship, and needlework—a far cry from today’s afterschool SAT prep and martial arts practices [1].  Formal education was only available to those born into upper and middle class families and this was especially true for girls.

After the Revolutionary War, female academies flourished. Approximately 400 schools for girls are on record between 1780 and 1820 [2]. In addition to “accomplishments,” girls learned reading, writing and basic arithmetic. In the neoclassical period in the United States, Greek, Latin and geography were also often taught [3]. Accomplishments were understood to be equally necessary in the education of young women in preparation for their futures as wives, mothers, and community members. Accomplishments such as “Painting on Wood” endowed them with virtue and sensibility, as well as a sense of class delineation [4].

Lithograph of Deerfield Academy. Deerfield Academy, Deerfield, Massachusetts, ca. 1830-1850.
Lithograph of Deerfield Academy. Deerfield Academy, Deerfield, Massachusetts, ca. 1830-1850.

Charles F. Montgomery observes that “A little before 1800, ornamental painting became a part of the curriculum in girls’ schools in the United States; and as early as 1812 this was extended to include the painting of tables and work boxes” [5]. Much like pictorial needlework, watercolor paintings on wooden furniture were often considered the student’s greatest achievement. These boxes were proudly displayed in the “best” room of the house where guests were entertained or given as tokens of friendship to loved ones. One can imagine this box being at one time both the focal point of a room and also conversation—the artist’s pleased parents showing it off to neighbors and potential suitors to the profound embarrassment of their teenage daughter.

Boston cabinetmakers John and Thomas Seymour, Isaac Vose, and John Doggett can be credited with starting the trend of New England female academies teaching “Painting on Wood” while the aesthetic interest in “fancy” painted furnishings has its origins in London and Great Britain [6]. In the first decade of the 1800s, the Seymours produced fashionable neoclassical furniture with painted designs using design books by Thomas Sheraton and Robert Adam at their disposal. John Ritto Penniman, a decorative painter who collaborated with Thomas Seymour to produce painted furniture, trained teachers and artists who in turn taught the accomplishment to female students.

Pier table attributed to Thomas Seymour with decoration by John Penniman, Boston, Massachusetts, 1809. Nichols House Museum. This decoration is based on two plates in Thomas Sheraton's influential publication, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book (1793), which in turn borrowed from Robert Adams's designs.
Pier table attributed to Thomas Seymour with decoration by John Penniman, Boston, Massachusetts, 1809. Nichols House Museum. This decoration is based on two plates in Thomas Sheraton’s influential publication, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book (1793), which in turn borrowed from Robert Adams’s designs.
Detail of painted decoration by John Ritto Penniman on commode by Thomas Seymour, Boston, Massachusetts, 1809. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Detail of painted decoration by John Ritto Penniman on commode by Thomas Seymour, Boston, Massachusetts, 1809. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Boxes and other pieces of furniture for “fancy painting” were purchased from local cabinetmakers or from shops in larger coastal cities. In American Painted Furniture of the Federal Period, Dean A. Fales, Jr. notes that “fond parents often obtained from cabinetmakers boxes or tables on which their daughters could demonstrate their newly acquired proficiencies” [7]. In rural areas, teachers provided their students with simple sewing boxes made of pine or poplar [8]. Shops also sold imported paints and India ink, as well as decorating patterns. Before the watercolor or pen and ink decoration was applied, the artist sealed the box with a shellac then referred to as a “varnish” [9]. This box is dovetailed and made from maple, suggesting it was the work of an established cabinetmaker. 

Early nineteenth-century life is anecdotally captured in Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian, an often-cited primary resource originally published in 1879 by Sarah Anna Emery of Newburyport, Massachusetts. In this account, the author describes various “female schools” established in 1812 in the Newburyport area: “Miss Mary Ann Colman was a good teacher of water color [sic] painting; the fruit and flower pieces executed at her school were natural and well done. She also taught painting on wood; several work-boxes and work-stands, painted under her instruction, are still to be seen in the residences of some of our older citizens” [10]. Teachers encouraged students to make frugal use of all available surfaces for painting and penmanship and the slide-lid box offered by David A. Schorsch and Eileen Smiles features well preserved decoration on all sides. 

Part of what makes this box so special is its imaginative scenes painted from life. Scenes of local New England landscapes are interpreted to include mountains, red-roofed Federal houses, outbuildings, fences, gardens, and a rowboat. Although certainly idealized to a degree, these scenes capture an element of the artist’s lived experience…her early nineteenth-century surroundings seen through rose colored spectacles, if you will. 

The other vignettes are rendered from print sources and depict pastoral scenes with stone thatched roof cottages, fences, trees, and a castle ruin. Students frequently copied designs from English drawing books and other print sources showing pastoral landscapes, classical ruins, and other romantic scenes [11]. In Women’s Painted Furniture, Betsy Krieg Salm writes, “Students nearing the end of their formal educational experience and with newly gained views of the world chose designs with creative energy for their final pieces of needlework and painted furniture” [12]. The scenes interpreted in watercolor and ink on this box are accordingly romantic and perhaps even express the imagination, hopes, and desires of its adolescent makers. 

In addition to displaying their artistic talent, many schoolgirl boxes feature handwritten poems, prayers, and other sentimental expressions. Drawing on wood with India ink was another popular and overlapping pastime for young women. On the front of this box, flanking the diamond-shaped bone escutcheon and steel lock, is a poetic verse in tiny block lettering above the names of the artists, “White” and “Green,” and the date, “July 4, 1831,” in ornamental calligraphic lettering: 

How swift fly the moments oer comforts that were,
How transient, how changing the pleasures of the time;
Awhile they may blossom enchantingly fair, 
Then darken, and leave not a trace of their prime.

The fairest and fondest-loved flowers may perish,
In timely may wither, the sports of each blast;
Even hope fades away, yet mem’ry will cherish
The dream of the sorrow and joys that are past.

Additionally, the underside of the lid is inscribed in script: 

This work is trifling, yet my friend, 
Perhaps to you ‘twill sometimes End, 
A memory of those days that’s past, 
When joy, and pleasure fleeted past.

 

The verse may be a reference to the death of President James Monroe on July 4, 1831. Monroe was popular in his day, overwhelmingly elected president in 1816 and 1820, during a period of increased nationalism after the War of 1812 known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” 

Another interesting aspect of this box is that it was produced by two students, “White” and “Green” (aptly colorful names). As is the usual way of group projects, its entirely possible that one student took on the brunt of the work while the other received equal credit. We wonder which of the two executed both their names in wonderfully graphic lettering on the bottom right.

Both of the young women were likely nearing the end of their education (adolescence) and on the precipice of marriage and family (adulthood). Yet rather than hopeful, the tone is elegiac and mournful. The verse, contrasted with the wistful pastoral imagery and the context in which the box was made, conveys a range of recognizable and moving coming-of-age emotions. 

Nina Fletcher Little’s wonderful book Neat & Tidy: Boxes and Their Contents Used in Early American Households, first published in 1980, surveys boxes of a variety of forms and materials from the most utilitarian to the most ornate. This box was likely used as a work box or sewing box, or it had another purpose now obsolete. Neat & Tidy reveals that the special qualities behind commonplace objects, such as boxes, almost always pertains to the anonymous people who owned them and the environments in which they lived. That is certainly true of this special box. Despite being nearly 200 years old, there is so much about it we can relate to. In that regard, it’s function is far from obsolete.

~ Laura Cunningham, Research Associate

 

 

[1] Amelia Peck, “American Needlework in the Eighteenth Century,” metmuseum.org (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History), accessed September 10, 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/need/hd_need.htm.

[2] Betsy Krieg Salm, Women’s Painted Furniture 1790-1830: American Schoolgirl Art (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2010), 108.

[3] Ibid, 11.

[4] Catherine Kelly, “Miniature Worlds, Object Lessons.” Common-Place, History Cooperative, The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 3, no. 2 (2003): 5. 

[5] Charles F. Montgomery, American Furniture: The Federal Period in the Henry Francis Du Pont Winterthur Museum (Atglen, PA: Shiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001): 462. 

[6] Betsy Krieg Salm, Women’s Painted Furniture 1790-1830: American Schoolgirl Art (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2010), 11.

[7] Dean A. Fales, Jr., American Painted Furniture 1660-1880: An Illustrated Survey of the Most Beautiful and Fascinating American Antiques (Random House, 1988): 177. 

[8] Betsy Krieg Salm, Women’s Painted Furniture 1790-1830: American Schoolgirl Art (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2010), 10. 

[9] Ibid, 6. 

[10] Sarah Anna Emery, Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian (Newburyport, MA: William H. Huse & Co., 1879): 223. 

[11] Betsy Krieg Salm, Women’s Painted Furniture 1790-1830: American Schoolgirl Art (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2010), 3. 

[12] Ibid, 62.