Chapman/Pierson highboy

Discovery is exciting, precisely what keeps people hunting through moldy cellars, dusty attics and decaying barns, yard sales and crack-of-dawn flea markets. Collecting’s a disease, one that can be highly contagious, a fever that grips you … which reminds me of a recent visit to my Greenfield, Ma., home, one that bore sweet, salubrious fruit, far from forbidden.

Historic Deerfield President Phil Zea, renowned furniture expert, stopped by to poke around a bit, check out a few things I’ve been trying to pin down around Old Tavern Farm. I’m talking about remnants: things like a peculiar, weathered bench, unpainted, crevaced grain; a flaky-red butter box; an amazing early board, 3×8, one piece, breadboard ends, prostrate on the filthy haymow; also other interesting boards stacked above, 16-feet long, two inches thick, cleated together, their original use a mystery. These items of interest have been on-site for a century or two. I find them captivating and figured Phil would, too. Plus, of course, such brainstorming sessions stimulate tavern talk, always welcome. Public houses were fascinating places, bustling with activity, and living in one has a spiritual texture.

It’s funny the way things evolve, how you often wind up on an unintended subject or tangent, which leads to something else and totally consumes you like a deep, black, greasy mudhole. This promised to be just such an occasion and was when our focus turned to a cherry, Queen Anne, flat-top, high chest of drawers in the dining room. I call it the Chapman/Pierson highboy, with a full provenance dating back before the Revolution in Saybrook/Killingworth, Ct. A dignified and graceful piece with a strong vertical thrust, it can stand on its own as an important piece of 18th century Americana. What enhances its value, though, is a hand-written chalk inscription on the inside of its backboard, above the waist and behind the bottom two drawers of the top section. There, a rare maker’s mark in large white script reads: “Killingworth October the 15th 1772, A Case of Drawers Made By John Chapman A Joinor [sic].” At some point, someone even attempted to trace over it with chalk, splicing in the word “when” above and between the words Drawers and Made, all part of its history now. Who knows when that was done? Who cares?

Chapman built the piece for the wedding of Rebecca Parmalee of Killingworth. She married, Jan. 7, 1773 in Killingworth, Samuel Pierson of the same town, he the grandson of Yale founder Abraham Pierson. Upon purchasing the piece a few years back, I immediately embarked on a discovery mission. I wanted to know more about the original owners, the maker and the provenance, all of which came together nicely thanks to a circa 1955 western New York newspaper article. But I wanted more, even what these people ate for breakfast if I could find it.

When I contacted Connecticut Valley furniture scholar and author Thomas P. Kugelman (“Connecticut Valley Furniture: Eliphalet Chapin and His Contemporaries, 1750-100”), he had no knowledge of the joiner John Chapman. My inquiry and accompanying digital photos piqued his interest, though, and he promised he’d look into it when he got a chance. His follow-up arrived sooner than expected. Having researched state archives at the Connecticut Historical Society, he wrote that he was able to prove Chapman was a woodworker through his probate records. Chapman’s 1782 estate inventory listed “a sett of Joinours Tools” valued at 5 pounds, 3 shillings, no meager expense at the time.

Chapman (1731-82) was born and raised in Saybrook, Ct., which borders Killingworth and once spilled into it. Whether he ever lived in Killingworth itself, as the inscription seems to suggest, is unimportant, but son John did. Chapman descended from original Saybrook settler Robert Chapman, whose bloodlines ran throughout that region on both sides of the Connecticut River (Middlesex County on the west side, New London County on the east). Because Saybrook vital records place John Chapman there for his birth and death, it’s safe to say he was a Saybrook man. Also,¬†Chapman is identified in deeds as a joiner from Saybrook’s “Ferry District.” The record of¬†Chapman’s land transactions show several in Killingworth, including one with the Samuel Pierson associated with the high chest.

During the Zea visit, my final request, on a whim, was that he evaluate a blind dovetail centered on the back side of the highboy’s curvilinear skirt, where a drop once descended between two accentuated scallops. I wondered if he was familiar with drops attached separately by a long, vertical dovetail instead of cut out in the template. Yes, he had seen the design detail but said it was uncommon because of the precision required. Given the degree of difficulty, he leaned toward a fancy drop, perhaps a maritime motif like a fish, lobster or whale’s tail, instead of the common, simple turned drop. I welcomed this opinion because I too figured it had likely been a fish or lobster tail, all three being embellishments associated with New London County furniture of the period. Kugelman hadn’t agreed. He assumed it had been a simple turned drop. We may never know for certain, but it’ll surely remain a topic of conversation for years to come.

During general discussion, Zea and I discussed where and how I found the piece and why I chose it over others. The answer was simple. I had searched 10 years for a high chest similar in style to the one that had stood in my home from 1772-1836. That piece, made of maple and today painted black, has been in Deerfield’s PVMA furniture collection since 1876 and is known as the Mary Stebbins Hinsdale high chest. Stebbins, from Belchertown, was married Jan. 8, 1772 to the second Samuel Hinsdale to own my home. The high chest was part of her wedding outfit. It is strikingly similar to the Chapman/Pierson chest I discovered marooned in an upstart western New York shop, with the same “Wethersfield style” and nearly identical dimensions, a tall, slender, vertical thrust that was not easy to find in today’s market. I know. I tried.

My reason for choosing the piece jostled our conversation to a different realm, infinitely more interesting, and really got Phil’s wheels spinning. The reason was that he said he was very familiar with the Hinsdale high chest. In fact, he probably knows more about it than anyone, because he did much of the research. He knew it had a Greenfield provenance but never connected it to Old Tavern Farm, which seemed to intrigue him. Even more significant was the fact that he had attributed a Saybrook origin to the Stebbins/Hinsdale high chest. In his opinion, my piece and the one that once stood here were, “from the same bolt of cloth.”

Imagine that! Talk about coincidence. An arduous search for an elusive highboy resembling another that once stood in the same building turns up an example that may have been the handiwork of the same man, was at least influenced by work in same coastal Connecticut neighborhood. Although more research is obviously needed, it isn’t unlikely that the chalk information on my piece could lead to the cabinetmaker who crafted the PVMA chest.

What an exciting development; amazing, in fact. It all speaks to the importance of signed furniture to research. Is it not discoveries like this that make collecting fun, keep devotees aching for more? Yes, without a doubt.

Discovery can be mind-blowing when lucky. I can’ wait to dig and scratch a little more regarding this one.

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