The 1790 House, Woburn, Mass. The origin of my dog-walking, time-traveling adventure.
I was walking my dog the other morning on the property of the 1790 House, which is a fine colonial structure in Woburn, Mass., that houses an auction company’s office. The property is right next to Route 128, which is always very noisy, with a constant stream of traffic flowing north and south.
The historic house borders the Middlesex Canal, which was a concept that became a reality in the late 18th century. The canal connected Boston Harbor to the Merrimack River and had 20 locks with the average depth of three feet. Barges pulled by oxen transported goods all the way to Concord, N.H., and back. The main function of the canal was to transport timber from the virgin forest of New Hampshire to Medford, Mass., for shipbuilding. When the canal was built, it was a very substantial feat of engineering.
As my dog and I walked near the canal, we came to some brush that my dog decided to walk into. I forced my way through the thicket to find my dog, and came upon a magnificent chiseled granite post protruding out of the ground. It had a hand-hammered and rusted iron eyelet near the top for rope lashing. I wondered when the last time was that someone saw this post, lost in time and shrubbery. I realized that objects like these, along with antiques, are connections to the forgotten lives of the past.
An artist’s depiction of the Middlesex Canal in action.
I started wondering what it would be like, slipping back in time to the day that the men set the post. The sounds of the busy traffic almost faded away to the sounds of horses, conversations and the hard manual labor. I could almost see and hear the men struggling to set that post in place. I began to wonder what their world was like when they woke up that morning and what was happening all around them throughout that very day.
When I think of the construction of furniture of the same period, similar thoughts come to mind. A piece of furniture is the evidence of the hands of the past that created it. I can slip back in time again through wonder about the life of the cabinetmaker and what it was really like. I can wonder what was going on that single day when he was working on a particular piece. What the conversations were like as he practiced his forgotten craft? I am sure what was said was very different from what would be said today, and yet, the same in many ways. I can wonder about the cabinetmaker’s sense of humor, as well as the hardships and struggles of New England life that was shaping his thoughts.
I can only imagine what a workshop in Massachusetts was like in the late 18th century. I picture sunlight angling through windows, its rays beaming through clouds of steams or the smoke-filled air carrying the smell of wood being freshly worked. The sounds of hand planing and a crackling fire that attempts to take a chill off the bitter cold.
An engraving of an 18th-century cabinetmaker’s shop. What would these men be talking about as they plied their craft?
Examining the underside of an 18th-century chest of drawers, one can get a sense of what it was like when the piece was made.
When I think of these pieces, I appreciate the beauty of design, the mastery of work, as well as the long-lasting attributes they have, all because they were made with such care and skill. I think of the tools they had, the lighting and the monumental task of creating a piece from tree to completion without the use of a single machine.
When I turn a piece upside down to examine it, I can view the oxidation brought on by the many years. I can touch the hand-hewn glue blocks, feel the work of a planer, scroll saw and chisel. Sometimes I can see writings—notes and measurements—scribbled in chalk or graphite. These are part of the many signs of the hands that carefully worked the piece all those years ago. If it is quiet and I listen hard enough, I can almost hear the sounds of the cabinetmaker at work, if I close my eyes I can the sunlight streaking through the windows and I can smell the smoke and freshly worked wood.
I thank my dog for running off into the brush this morning. He reminded me of my love for antiques and made me ponder forgotten lives. Reminding me I can observe and touch these pieces that show signs of their journey and the people who cared for them through time.
Martin Willis is Worthologist, auctioneer and director of decorative arts for James D. Julia Auctioneers for the Boston region. You can hear his podcasts at the at Antique and Auction Forum, featuring interviews with key players in the antiques and collectibles trade.