Colonial Diary Offers Clues About Scandinavian Cupboard

An impromptu weekend trip to a friend’s Lake George summer home, the fascinating mid-18th-century journal of a scholarly foreign traveler, and an interestingly carved and painted 1789 Scandinavian tabernacle or bonnet-top cupboard that had previously stirred my inquisitive juices.

That’s what’s on my plate today, and what I’ll serve in soothing soapstone warmth wafting from the dining-room woodstove to my morning parlor seat.

First, let me introduce the astute foreign traveler. He’s Swedish-born natural historian Peter Kalm (1716-1779), author of The America of 1750: Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America – a classic diary of his colonial travels through budding villages and unspoiled wildlands extending from Delaware to Quebec. Then we’ll take a look at how Kalm’s important two-volume, 776-page work provides unexpected insight into the antique Scandinavian cupboard that has captured my fancy.

Isn’t it dandy how important information can appear when least expected to a reader’s delight?

Though born in Sweden, Kalm, the son of a Finnish clergyman and Scots mother, was educated in Finland. He was, at the University of Uppsala, the student of famed naturalist Carl Linnaeus (commonly spelled “Linne”), one of many important friendships he built among pillars of Finland’s scholarly botanical community.

It was Linnaeus who sent Kalm on his professional North American mission. The assignment was to gather data on North American plants that could be economically useful to Scandinavia. Privately, Kalm also harbored a deep interest in the history of New Sweden, a short-lived upper Mid-Atlantic colony that began in 1638 along the Delaware River, vestiges of which were still obvious during his tours through Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

Kalm’s journal records what he saw along the way from Wilmington, Delaware, to Philadelphia and up through New Jersey to what is now New York City. From there he followed the Hudson River upstream to its headwaters above Albany, Schenectady, and Saratoga before venturing into what was then uncharted territory – a no-man’s land following Lake George to Lake Champlain and into Canada.

He describes in invaluable detail the colonial villages, the isolated farmsteads and their people, the trees, forests, and soils, the birds, snakes, and wildlife, the rivers and streams, their watercraft and fish, and what was left of the Native American people who had once called his study area home. Sadly, most Natives had by Kalm’s time fled to temporary inland refuge west of the Alleghenies.

Indian presence dramatically increased above Albany, and the learned Kalm predictably showed great interest in their lifeways. In fact, I have not read a better description, and I doubt that one exists, of an early Northeastern Native American fishing camp than the one he stumbled across and recorded on June 22, 1749. Nestled into an old, unoccupied Dutch Island located in the Hudson River’s upper reaches, it was an “old ways” sturgeon camp where men, women, and children worked together to gather and preserve fish stores for winter.

Although what Kalm witnessed occurred roughly three generations after the Connecticut Valley’s infamous, May 19, 1676, King Philip’s War massacre of a Native fishing camp at Peskeompskut Falls in Gill, the fish-gathering activity would have been similar, if not identical. It’s also quite likely that at least some of the Native people Kalm observed descended from Connecticut Valley ancestors driven to the untamed Lake George/Lake Champlain corridor after the “Falls Fight.”

Kalm described in detail the fishing camp’s temporary wooden shelters and pelt bedding, canoes and spears, and wooden drying racks with slim filets dangling in the sun. He also shared his fascination with the people – their hair and face paint, their clothing and accoutrements, their barter economy – while describing massive sturgeon often leaping four feet in the air from the shallows they occupied.

His description of the sturgeon camp and its people is an anthropological treasure. He unfortunately did not offer the same minute detail about the material culture of his own people who had settled New Sweden and were by his day under English rule.

Which circles us back to my friend’s interesting painted Scandinavian cupboard, which I believe to be the work of a skilled American joiner of New Sweden roots.

Yes, it could be Dutch or Norwegian, I suppose. But its rich earthy-green color, the carved and painted vine-and-leaf motif on the doors, and other decorative elements framing them suggest Swedish to me after viewing many Scandinavian cupboards online. Not only that but, given its high-style formality, I suspect that some expert may be able to attribute the piece to an important 18th-century Swedish-American cabinetmaker. Not a one of the many Swedish cupboards I viewed online could match its dignified presence.

My friend bought the piece about 10 years ago at the Brimfield Flea Market while in the process of furnishing her new stone vacation home, built on Lake George property owned by her New Jersey family. The May’s Field vendor told her that it was Scandinavian, and may have accompanied immigrants across the Atlantic Ocean to America.

She showed the piece to me back then and, although it greatly interested me, I didn’t take photos and, regretfully, could not delve deeper in the comforts of home. That said, I never believed it was made overseas. I knew off the top of my head that Swedes had been here by the late seventeenth century and possibly earlier. Then, upon discovering recently that they had been here for 150 years by the time it was constructed, my opinion only strengthened.

On my Lake George sojourn last month I did take photos, thoroughly examine the cupboard, and vow to learn more about its history. Also, having read another scholarly book about the construction of Fort William Henry on Lake George’s southwestern shore, I had seen Kalm’s book referenced and was determined to buy it upon returning home. Little did I know that my online purchase would kill two birds with one stone. Not only did Kalm improve my insight into colonial forests, settlements and Indians, rattlesnakes, blacksnakes, sturgeon, and you name it. His book offered a surprise addendum titled History of the Delaware Swedes.

Although he didn’t cover colonial Swedish material culture or its artisans, he taught me much about New Sweden. Then an online keyword search pulled me to the University of Pennsylvania, which seems to have an active group of New Sweden scholars, at least one of whom must specialize in the colony’s furniture and furniture-makers. If so, I may yet get an attribution for my friend’s extraordinary piece, and learn whether it was hung on a wall or the top section of a Queen Anne chest on frame with cabriole legs that long ago disappeared. Though I suspect the former, I’ll reserve judgment for now. It’s a work in progress.

I am, however, supremely confident that my friend’s cupboard is a keeper. So, too, is Kalm’s journal.

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