The Backstory: Why Is This Here?

Textile consultant Kathleen Smith makes adjustments to the Howards’ bed hangings. Photo by Christina Vida.

When you visit the reinterpreted rooms of the Strong-Howard House, you will feel as if you had stepped into the Howards’ home. Not only will you have the opportunity to touch everything, snooping is encouraged. Captain Howard’s mahogany desk awaits you as does the Howards’ high chest filled with clothes and linens. Want to try out the bed? Feel free. Want to look under the tablecloth? Go right ahead. But you might wonder about an item – why is this here? As part of the reinterpretation, we carefully researched and reproduced each object you see in the home in our effort to share how the Howard family – Nathaniel, Ann, George, Sarah, Nancy, and Annie – lived in Windsor in 1810.

The backstory starts with Nathaniel Howard’s probate inventory – the list of his possessions with their values – taken after he died in 1819. Many of the items in that document would have been in the house in 1810. But without any context, we did not know what those items would have looked like, where they might have been made, or how old they might have been.

In order to compare apples to apples, we compiled a database of sixty other probate inventories from Windsor around 1810 and 1819. This database allowed us to pinpoint other examples of items that were in Windsor and make judgments on the value and condition of Capt. Howard’s furnishings. Low value objects might have been older or in poor condition. Comparatively high value objects might have been newer or fancier. With this broad data set, we could also determine that some of Nathaniel Howard’s possessions were rare: his mahogany desk, his fancy chairs, and his potty stool.

Howard’s inventory was not the only source documenting items in the house. We also relied on Ann Howard’s 1829 will, Connecticut Courant newspaper advertisements, diaries, account records between the Howards and other local families, and George Howard’s memoir written around 1850. Once we had documentation for an item, we then sought out surviving examples, preferably with Connecticut histories. We mined our collections and those of other museums and historical societies; we researched auction databases for images; we sifted through archaeological fragments discovered around the house. After we had physical or visual evidence for what an item looked like, we could then seek out a reproduction.

Excerpt from Capt. Nathaniel Howard’s estate inventory, 1819. Courtesy of Connecticut State Library.

The bed, bedding, and bedhangings provide an example of the levels of research necessary for this project. The Howards’ bed and bedhangings, visible from their dining room, would have been on display to all their visitors. They served as a status symbol for the upper-middle-class family and an advertising tool for Capt. Howard’s store.  Nathaniel Howard’s inventory lists a “bed and bedsted” valued at $12 and “2 setts curtains” valued at $7. In 1829 Ann Howard bequeathed her “best bed and curtains” to her granddaughter in her will. This “best bed” was likely the one in the downstairs bedchamber, adjacent to the dining room and visible to guests. The wooden bedstead (or frame), along with the rope and underbed (similar to today’s box spring), was typically the least valuable portion of the total bed furniture. In our inventory study, the average value of a bedstead, underbed, and rope was $1.50, whereas the average value of bed furniture valued together was $14.36. The expensive textiles and feathers required for the bed, pillows, bolster, and curtains account for the increase.  Capt. Howard’s bedding valued at $12, with the additional expense of one set of curtains appraised at $3.50, would have been worth around $15.50 – or slightly above average – in keeping with his middle class status.

The bedstead and rope reproduced by Country Bed. Photo by Christina Vida.

In seeking out a slightly-above-average bedstead suitable for reproduction, we already knew we were looking for a bed that could hold curtains. The Connecticut Historical Society owns a bed probably crafted by Eliphalet Chapin with cabriole legs, claw-and-ball feet, and rails outfitted for a canvas sacking bottom instead of rope. This fancy style of bed more likely corresponded with Oliver Ellsworth’s $48 bed with curtains. Instead, we used a typical tapered post bedstead with tester frame to support a cloth canopy, a very normal style for middle-class New England families in the late 18th century. Alan Pease of Country Bed in Ashby, MA, owned a historic tapered post bed with rope holes and recreated it for the Strong-Howard House in cherry wood.

After pinning down the bed frame, we then worked with Kathleen Smith of Textile Reproductions in Montague, MA, to create the bed, underbed, bolster, pillows, linens, quilt, and curtains. Historically, a feather bed would have been filled with chicken, goose, or down feathers and an underbed would be stuffed with straw. However, the Society did not want to introduce these organic materials into the Howards’ bedroom. Not only do they attract pests, they can also be allergens to our visitors. So how did we create the feel and appearance of a fluffy bed? In place of tightly-packed feathers, we chose inert fiberfill. And instead of straw, we used loads of Styrofoam packing peanuts. Once the bed and underbed are covered with ticking, sheets, and a quilt, it looks and feels like historic bedding.

Kathleen Smith sewing the underbed stuffed with packing peanuts. Photo by Christina Vida.

Valued at $7 or $3.50 apiece, the Howards’ two sets of curtains would have been close in value to Hezekiah Chaffee, Jr.’s two sets of bedhangings valued at $6.50 in 1821 and Solomon Allyn’s “best bed curtains” appraised for $3.97 in 1810. While Chaffee and Allyn were wealthier than Capt. Howard, a fashionable set of bed curtains for the winter and summer seasons would have been a suitable advertisement for the fine fabrics available in Capt. Howard’s store.  Without any surviving examples of bed curtains from the Howard family, we relied on published examples of Connecticut Valley bedhangings, particularly an 18th-century valance owned by Historic Deerfield. We chose a solid green wool fabric that was common for winter hangings and a gold trim tape that creates a finished appearance. The second set of hangings will be made of a printed calico typically used during the spring and summer. The wool and calico are the types of fine, if not elaborate, fabrics that Capt. Howard stocked in his store.

Left: Kathleen Smith hangs the summer bed curtains. Photo by Christina Vida. Right: the view of the fancy bedding from the dining room. Photo by Julie Bidwell.

As you enjoy the Howard family’s home, we hope that you will know that your experience with each object is rooted in research. Our trained docents are always nearby to answer your questions and provide the stories – and the backstories – that help us create meaningful connections with past.

 

By Christina Vida, curator, 2014

2018-07-23T15:28:25+00:00