Ipswich, Massachusetts, 1680
Cynthia V. A. Schaffner, Research Associate
The Hart Room, installed in Gallery 709, is the earliest period room in the American Wing. Its architectural elements are typical of seventeenth-century New England interiors, and the furnishings are fine examples of late-seventeenth-century Massachusetts-made furniture, a melding of late Renaissance and Mannerist designs from northern Europe and England and craft practices brought to the colonies by English joiners and turners.
The room is from the home of Samuel (1645–1725) and Sarah Norton (1647–1727) Hart of Ipswich, Massachusetts. A first-generation New Englander, Samuel Hart was, like his father, a tanner by trade. The house was completed within two years of the Harts' marriage in 1678.
An alternate view of the Hart Room showing the fireplace along the far wall.
The northeastern Massachusetts town of Ipswich was founded on land originally inhabited by Native American tribes, who called the region Agawam. The forests, fields, and farmland of Agawam were colonized in 1633 by a group of Puritans from England. These immigrant settlers renamed the area Ipswich after their English birthplace.
Early residents of Ipswich included country gentlemen, small independent farmers, artisans, and a few London tradesmen. John Dunton, who visited Ipswich in 1686, described it in his Letters Written from New-England as "a Country Town, not very large, and when a stranger arrives, there 'tis quickly known to everyone." Dunton further noted that the town had a "beautifully built Meeting-House, orchards, gardens, and good land for cattle."
A first-period house
The Hart house about 1890. The room on display at The Met came from the first story, to the left of the door
The Hart House was built during America's "first period" of architecture, from 1625 to 1725. The post-and-beam frame of the house was constructed by architectural joiners, or housewrights, using relatively simple tools and an assemblage of light and heavy timbers felled from nearby forests. The unpainted, clapboarded house had a steeply pitched roof with riven (split along the grain) shingles. Essentially medieval in plan, the first and second stories each contained two rooms flanking a central chimney—a layout typical of the earliest frame dwellings in New England.
Arrangement of joists, girts, and summer beam, as illustrated in Norman Morrison Isham's A Glossary of Colonial Architectural Terms (1939)
The Hart Room is a study in contrasts. Compare the massive oak timbers with the thinly leaded lights, or panes, of diamond-shaped glass in the small casement windows. Dark, exposed structural beams such as the girts that frame the outer wall, the connecting joists, and the large summer beam that crosses the ceiling provide a rhythmic counterpoint to the whitewashed plaster walls.
Paneling on the fireplace wall and a detail of the windows in the Hart Room
Decorative focal points include subtle details characteristic of seventeenth-century New England rooms. For example, the paneling on the fireplace wall features bead-molded edges, with two rows of dentils above the fireplace opening. The sides of the ceiling's central summer beam are planed [angled/canted] and terminate in "lamb's-tongue" stops.
Samuel Hart (1645–1725) and Sarah Norton (1647–1727) were married on February 2, 1678. Records show that Samuel was born in Ipswich, Massachusetts, the second son of Thomas and Alice Hart. Sarah's parents, George and Mary Machias Norton, were residents of Salem, nine miles south of Ipswich. Samuel and Sarah had one child, a daughter who would not live to adulthood.
Although Samuel inherited his father's house, homestead, barn, and, with his brother, part of a tanning yard in 1674, he would not cut the first timber for the new house he would build on the land until a few months after his marriage. In addition to his work as a tanner, Samuel served a term as town treasurer and contributed funds toward the town bell in 1699. According to Samuel Hart’s probate inventory, his eight-acre homestead included the house, a barn, and stables.
The tanning trade
As the primary material for shoes, gloves, saddles, and other goods, leather was in great demand during the seventeenth century. The land around Ipswich was ideal for its manufacture, providing both fields for raising cattle and hemlock for curing skins.
In tanning yards such as the one operated by the Hart brothers, cowhides were washed, cleaned, cured, tanned, dried, and dyed until they became pliable leather.
Bark from oak and hemlock trees, ground in a horse-operated mill, was used for softening the skins. Samuel Hart's probate inventory from 1725 lists bark, irons for a grindstone, a bark mill, and horse tackling.
From reproduction to original
When curators were planning the American Wing for its opening in 1924, they wanted to include period rooms from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth century. However, no actual seventeenth-century examples were available at the time. The Museum decided to reproduce what was then called the "parlor" of the Hart House, which was well known to antiquarians at the time.
In 1936, the house's owner decided to sell the actual Hart Room and the chamber above it. The Museum was delighted to have the opportunity to replace the reproduction with the original. Henry Francis du Pont bought the upstairs chamber, which is now on view at the Winterthur Museum and Country Estate in Delaware.
Date and ownership
Left: Daniel Miles of the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory in England taking a boring from the summer beam of the Hart Room. Right: Each ring indicates a year's growth and reflects that particular year's weather patterns. Scientists have studied numerous trees to develop chronologies for specific geographic regions
For many years scholars believed that Samuel Hart's father, Thomas Hart (ca. 1606–1673/74), had built this room in 1640. In 2006, however, tree-ring dating of the timbers in the room yielded the discovery that the Hart House was actually completed around 1680. The practice of tree-ring dating—a technique called dendrochronology—involves extracting core samples from a house's original beams and girts. Tree-ring patterns on the samples are then analyzed to arrive at the year and season when the tree was felled.
In the seventeenth century, timber was not seasoned before it was used for building houses. Newly felled green wood was typically used within twelve to eighteen months of the felling date so that the joints would tighten as the wood aged and shrank. The new date meant that the house containing the Hart Room was built not by Thomas Hart but by his son Samuel.
Infilling the walls
When the Hart House was dismantled, workers discovered clay and brick masonry, or nogging, between the exterior clapboards and interior plastered wall. A form of insulation, nogging provided protection from the cold and helped retain heat from the fireplace. This English infill technique was achieved by layering and filling brick walls with clay plaster mixed with animal hair.
Fireplace wall paneling
For many years, the fireplace wall of the Hart Room was thought to be original. But in the 1950s Museum curators discovered that the paneling had been reworked. Subsequent research revealed that the paneling had been salvaged from another seventeenth-century Ipswich house and installed in the Hart House three decades before the room came to the Museum. While of the period, the stylish, intricate, and expensively fashioned bead-molded paneling is not consistent with the more roughly constructed Hart House.
The fireplace bricks in the Hart Room are from the 1680s and were purchased by the Museum in 1924 from a Massachusetts house being demolished. The bricks are laid with recessed, or raked, joints to simulate worn clay plaster.
The Museum installed the Hart Room with the types of furniture mentioned in Samuel Hart's probate inventory of November 29, 1725. The appraiser listed a cupboard, chests, and boxes for storage as well as tables, four joint stools, and chairs. A "Bedstead with Curtains" dominated the parlor, where the Harts probably slept. Upstairs bedchambers held three more bedsteads and a trundle bed.
The probate inventory also mentions many valuable textiles, such as cotton and linen sheets, coverlets, blankets, bolsters, tablecloths, and bedstead curtains as well as pillow and bolster covers. Cooking tools included a metal skillet, iron pots, a toasting iron, a spit, and a frying pan. The family ate with wooden dishes, tinware and two silver spoons. These were the basic furnishings of a modest but comfortable late-seventeenth-century home.
Seventeenth-century Massachusetts style
Cupboard, 1670–1700. American, made in Marshfield, Massachusetts. Red oak, white pine, white cedar, red cedar, black walnut, soft maple, 58 x 49 3/4 x 23 in. (147.3 x 126.4 x 58.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1909 (10.125.48)
The furniture in this room reflects the craft practices of the English immigrant artisans who settled coastal Massachusetts between the 1660s and the 1690s. The raw materials for furniture making were plentiful throughout New England. As William Wood wrote in New England's Prospect (1634), the colonies awaited only the hand of "an ingenious Carpenter, a cunning Joyner, a handie Cooper," to make the wares needed for life in America.
While some furniture crossed the Atlantic with the settlers, most seventeenth-century New England furniture was produced by local craftsmen. Made primarily of timbers from nearby oak, ash, and maple trees, furniture was constructed by joiners using the panel-and-frame method or by turners who fitted together turned members at right angles. The result was furniture that was strong, solid, and rectilinear in shape.
The art of the turner, Spindle-back armchair
Left: A wood turner at his lathe, ca. 1610, from Harry Bober's Jan van Vliet's Book of Crafts and Trades (1981). Right: Spindle-back armchair, 1660–1700. American, probably made in New England. Ash, 46 1/4 x 24 7/8 x 17 5/8 in. (117.5 x 63.2 x 44.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1909 (10.125.691)
Turners made chairs, stools, and table bases out of wood "turned" on a lathe. This device could hold a piece of wood that the furniture maker then spun and shaped with a chisel. Turned parts were then assembled into a piece of furniture by fitting the round tenons at the ends into round-drilled mortises. This method is known as mortise-and-tenon construction.
Spindle-back armchairs are the best embodiment of the turner's artistry. The carefully orchestrated composition of horizontal and vertical turned spindles gives these chairs a commanding presence.
The art of the joiner, Chest
Left: A joiner's workshop in a woodcut, ca. 1568, from Jost Amman and Hans Sachs's The Book of Trades (Das Ständebuch) (1973 repr.). Right: Chest, attributed to the Searle-Dennis shop tradition, 1685–1700. American, made in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Red oak, white oak, hard maple, white pine, 28 x 42 x 21 in. (71.1 x 106.7 x 53.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1909 (10.125.23)
Joiners produced the most intricate furniture of the seventeenth century. They not only built chests, cupboards, boxes, and armchairs but also provided the paneling for house interiors. The panel and frame was the basic unit of joined case furniture.
The bold, rich surfaces of paneled furniture were created through numerous small, visually separate units of decoration. Furniture makers carved stylized plant forms and simple geometric shapes in low relief or created geometric patterns using applied and turned elements. Most joiners were capable of both techniques, although in some metropolitan areas, carving was a separate branch of the joiner's trade. Traces of surviving paint suggest that designs were often emphasized with paint or stains.
Multipurpose furniture, Chair-table
The Museum's chair-table with the top down (left) and up (right). The round tabletop is a replacement. Chair-table, 1650–1700. American, made in Plymouth County, Massachusetts. Red oak, yellow pine, white cedar, OH. top up 58 3/4 in. (149.2 cm), OH. top down: 32 in. (81.3 cm); top: Diam. 43 in. (109.2 cm); chair base: SH. 19 1/4 in. (48.9 cm), OW (seat molding) 23 in. (58.4 cm), SW. 21 1/4 in. (54 cm), OD. (arms) 20 3/4 in. (52.7 cm), SD. 16 5/8 in. (42.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1909 (10.125.697)
A convertible furniture form, the chair-table has a hinged top that can pivot up to become the back of a seat or down to serve as a table. These distinctive objects were well suited to rooms where many different activities took place, and they were present in homes in the coastal towns of Plymouth County, Massachusetts. With its top tilted up as seen in the Hart Room this piece is an imposing chair. The base, with its applied and turned ornamentation, has a vigorous presence.
Bedstead and bed hangings
Reproduction bedstead with curtains. American. Ash and pine (reproduction frame); wool (modern bed hangings and quilt). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (HR.2009.1)
Seventeenth-century bedsteads rarely survive. This example, which has a simple wood framework, with four tall posts, and head-and footboards, was reproduced from period paintings and documents. Samuel Hart's probate inventory listed a "bedstead & curtains" in the parlor and records several sets of sheets.
The closable bed hangings, which offered both warmth and privacy, were typically made of heavy woolen cloth that matched upholstered furniture in the room.
Tree Rings, Paint Chips, and Faded Text: Using Technology and Period Documents in Reinterpreting the American Wing Period Rooms
Ever since its establishment in 1870 the Museum has acquired important examples of American Art. A separate "American Wing" building to display the domestic arts of the seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries opened in 1924; paintings galleries and an enclosed sculpture court were added in 1980.
Read about these two stylistic categories of American furniture in this Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History essay.