“ALTHOUGH from the time of its founding in the 17th century, New Haven has always enjoyed a special sense of its own identity, for years no early furniture was known to exist that was signed or labeled as having been made there.
Earlier this year, however, a sofa, designed in the American Empire style, was discovered by a Guilford antiques dealer who gave it to the New Haven Colony Historical Society Museum. The sofa had been ‘in stock’ for decades, said Arne Ahlberg, a third-generation member of a well-known family of New Haven antiques dealers.
The significance of the sofa, which museum curator Robert Egleston said was made about 1825, lies not only in its design, but most particularly in the fact that as of today, it is the only known labeled piece of New Haven work.
The sofa is 81 1/2 inches long, and 31 inches high by 25 inches in depth.
It was made of mahogany and mahogany veneers with secondary woods of tulip and pine. The cylindrical crest rail ends in volutes, that is, in spiral scrolls.
The plain, S-curve arm facings also end in volutes and join the plain tablets at either end of the convex seat rail. The front legs end in the then-popular ‘hairy paw’ feet below cornucopia-shaped brackets. The back legs are S-scrolls in shape. Originally, the cornucopia brackets were gilded and some of the gilding remains. Age has worn away the rest.
The paper label, partly discolored so that some of it is almost illegible, is still attached to the rear of the back of the sofa. It reads in part, ‘Cabinetmakers/Blair and Bowditch/Orange Street/New Haven.’
The names refer to two furniture makers, Sherman Blair and J. B. Bowditch, both of whom are well-documented in New Haven city directories of the 19th century and in Atwater’s ‘History of New Haven.’ Those records show them as individual cabinetmakers. Research continues to find the exact dates of their apparent partnership.
Sherman Blair began his career as a cabinetmaker about 1810 or 1812 and was still in business in New Haven with one of his sons in 1850. At that time, the firm specialized in what were known as ‘Premium Patent Sofas.’ They also made and sold tables, chairs, bureaus and desks.
In the New Haven directory, under the section heading of ‘Annual Advertisers,’ a page-advertisement announces: ‘J. B. Bowditch’s Cabinet, Sofa and Bedding warehouse at his spacious rooms, No. 40 Orange Street – West Side’ where ‘may be found the largest and most fashionable assortment ever offered in this city, comprising a splendid variety of Rose-wood and Mahogany sofas; Pier, Work and Center tables. Also, a large assortment of Plain and Useful furniture.’
That paragraph appears below an illustration that shows a sofa, a chest with an attached looking glass, a side chair with a lyre-shaped back splat, the headboard of a bedstead, and a small dropleaf table.
The lower half of the advertisement has an illustration of a rocking chair, a work or sewing table, a center or library table and a footstool.
Under the heading of ‘Chairs,’ the copy offers ‘Rose-wood, Mahogany, Curl Maple, Windsor; with a great variety of Rocking Chairs. Also, a full assortment of Feathers, Beds, Hair and Moss mattresses, and almost every article pertaining to the upholstery business.’
The 1840 New Haven City Directory lists Sherman Blair, a cabinetmaker at 25 Orange Street, with his home at 7 Orange Street.
J. B. Bowditch is also listed as a cabinet manufacturer in the same directory, with a warehouse at 40 Orange Street and a residence at 160 Crown Street.
In ‘History of the City of New Haven,’ edited by Edward E. Atwater and published in New York in 1887, earlier furniture makers were described, including Sherman Blair, who was said to ‘have learned his trade from his apprenticeship with William Haughton on State Street.
Charles B. Lines, recollecting that particular time, said that ‘in 1821, I engaged with Mr. Sherman Blair to learn the art, trade and mystery of cabinet-making,’ as the old apprenticeship agreements described it, ‘but not to enter upon the work, however, until the spring of 1822. I commenced learning the trade as agreed. Mr. Blair was at that time rather the leading man in the business.’
Mr. Lines recalled that ‘besides Blair and Stillman, Oliver Deming on State Street, and James English on Chapel Street, just west of [Yale] College, were in the furniture business.’
‘On Chapel Street, was William Daggett, his shop being between College and Temple Street, and near Howe’s bookstore, Captain Chauncey Treat also did a small business on Chapel Street. In my day, the furniture dealers in New Haven were generally prosperous.
‘During all the time I was in business,’ Mr. Lines said, ‘I was employed largely in the vocation of an undertaker, being frequently called upon to supervise the ‘laying out’ and internment of the dead.’
The combination of undertaking and furniture making was a common one at the time. It was the cabinetmaker who made caskets to order.
The New Haven Colony Historical Society Museum, at 114 Whitney Avenue, is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 A.M. to 4:45 P.M. and on Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 4:45 P.M.”
-Excerpt courtesy of the New York Times, Times Machine, “Antiques: A Work Labelled New Haven,” by Frances Phipps, Sunday, September 22, 1985. (top) “An American Empire style sofa made in New Haven about 1825.” Image courtesy of the New York Times, Times Machine, “Antiques: A Work Labelled New Haven,” photo by Rollin A. Riggs, September 22, 1985