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Historic New England’s Artifact Collections

Rundlet-May Dining Room
Dining Room at Rundlet-May House, 1807, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

With more than 110,000 objects, Historic New England has the most comprehensive and best documented collection of New England decorative arts and household furnishings in the country. These collections, which date from the mid-seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries, include the whole range of goods needed for day-to-day life, from furniture and clothing to cooking and heating equipment.

In addition to paintings, furniture, and decorative items, Historic New England’s collections include the more ephemeral types of objects rarely found in museum displays: smoking and writing paraphernalia, artists' supplies, servants' furnishings and clothing, and a whole range of kitchen equipment from eighteenth-century iron kettles to 1970s microwaves.

Visit Collections Access to explore Historic New England's online artifact collection.

 

Original settings

Sayward-Wheeler House
Sayward-Wheeler House, c. 1718, York Harbor, Maine

Many of Historic New England’s collections survive intact in the houses for which they were originally purchased. All too often, re-created period rooms in museums are based on written or pictorial evidence which cannot convey the distinctive imprint of the original owner. The survival of furnishings in their original context constitutes Historic New England's most valuable asset.

For example, the Sayward-Wheeler House in York Harbor, Maine, is thought to contain the most intact furnishings from the eighteenth-century of any historic house in the country.

The Rundlet-May House, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, still has the original wallpaper that was installed in 1807-08 when the house was built, along with many of the original furnishings. 

Walter Gropius’s home in Lincoln, Massachusetts retains many of the iconic furnishings brought from Germany and is considered one of the finest examples of Bauhaus design anywhere.

Gropius Interior
Dining and living rooms at Gropius House, 1938, Lincoln, Massachusetts

Remarkable stories

Since its founding in 1910, Historic New England has collected artifacts along with their accompanying family narratives, photographs, and records of use or manufacture. Thanks to this rich documentation, the objects resonate with meaning. Many of Historic New England’s collections provide entry points into history, recounting tales of childhood and family, describing lives of poverty and affluence, and telling stories of slaves and slave traders, entrepreneurs and ne’er-do-wells, mariners and artists, conservatives and radicals, of men and women, old and young.

Crispus Attucks teapotAttucks Teapot 2

This gnarly old teapot, surely the humblest object in the exhibition, probably would not have been saved at all had it not belonged to Crispus Attucks, a slave who was the first victim of the so-called Boston Massacre of 1770. That it survived is testimony to the early recognition of its value as an emblem of martyrdom in the cause of freedom. In Boston, Massachusetts, in the 1850s, relics like this were placed on display to rally support for the Abolitionist Movement.

 

Portrait of Isaac Manchester
Capt. Issac Manchester 2

Isaac Manchester of Bristol, Rhode Island, made a fortune in the slave trade, bringing molasses from the West Indies to New England to be made into rum, shipping rum to Africa to be traded for slaves, and transporting slaves to the West Indies for sale. In this portrait, Cephas Thompson captures the harsh character required of a slave ship captain. After a federal law prohibited American participation in the trade, a depression hit towns like Bristol that were heavily invested in it; ultimately, Isaac Manchester was ruined and died in poverty.

 

John Sheldon six board chest 

In 1704, this chest served as a silent witness to the bloody slaughter that took place in Deerfield, Massachusetts, leaving three-fifths of the town’s residents dead or captive. Marked with initials and the date 1699, it probably belonged to John Sheldon of Deerfield. During the night of February 28, French and Indian soldiers attacked the frontier settlement, killing fifty-six English men, women and children, taking 109 captives, and burning half the town. John Sheldon’s wife and one of their children were killed. Three of his other children and his daughter-in-law were taken captive. Sheldon survived, as did his son, who had run fourteen miles to the village of Hatfield seeking reinforcements.

Six-panel chest 2

 

Saturday Evening Girls pottery

SEG Vase and Bowl

These ceramics are products of a remarkable experiment in social engineering, carried out by and for women. The Paul Revere Pottery grew out of a literary club for Italian and Jewish immigrant girls in Boston’s North End. The club provided cultural and intellectual stimulation for the young women, while the pottery taught them marketable skills and enabled them to earn a living. At a time when fewer than fifty percent of the children of immigrants even attended high school, seventy percent of these girls graduated from high school, and more than fifty percent took at least some college-level and professional courses.

Historic New England’s Artifact Collections