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Rooms With a Past

ABOVE The newly refurbished stair hall in the Codman House recaptures the room's appearance shortly after it was redecorated in 1904.
BELOW The Federal-period parlor at the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm, with the table laid for tea.

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ABOVE Canning supplies and a basket of beans ready to be processed are laid out on the kitchen table in the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm. The beans in the jars to the left of the stove were actually put up in the 1920s.
BELOW The wallpaper and the bed and window curtains in the guest room of the Jewett House were recreated using information gleaned from historic photographs.

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ABOVE The colors of the Jewett hall carpet echo the stained-glass panel made for the window by Boston artist Sarah Wyman Whitman.
BELOW In 1930, when the Codman family redecorated their drawing room, they chose lace curtains to replace earlier ones of heavy printed linen. For reproductions sources, please call SPNEA's Licensing Department at (617) 227-3957, ext. 237.

ABOVE The Federal-period parlor at the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm. The room features a reproduction of a c.1790 French-inspired block-printed wallpaper used on a copy book from Newbury and an ingrain carpet copied from a rare late-eighteenth century example in SPNEA's collection.

Historic houses rarely come with all the answers. This leaves curators with the challenge of sifting through all the evidence and deciding which documents to follow to make the interiors accurately reflect a particular time period. For refurbishing projects completed at three SPNEA properties in recent years, SPNEA's curatorial staff researched a variety of sources to guide their furnishing decisions, including manuscripts, historic photographs, samples of original wallpaper, carpets and textiles, and oral histories.

At the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury, Massachusetts, room vignettes portray the domestic environments of some of the many people who lived and worked on the farm from about 1690 to the 1980s. The early nineteenth-century parlor is set up for a seated tea, a popular entertainment enjoyed by Offin Boardman and his wife. Boardman's diary records a number of such teas. An entry for February 7, 1807, states: "This day a large party to tea, 30 gentlemen and ladies." Customarily, tea and cake would be passed to the female guests, many of whom might be knitting as they sat on window seats or chairs placed against the walls. Later, they would be joined by gentlemen for games and dancing. Some of the furnishings in the room were owned by Offin Boardman. The Chippendale table, acquired in 1998 with the help of several anonymous donors, may be one of "2 tables" appraised at twelve dollars in his 1811 estate inventory, while pieces of the Boardmans' creamware dinner service, reconstructed from sherds found in a privy during archaeology, are displayed in a cupboard.

In the 1930s, the farm kitchen was the center of activity for the women of the Little family. Oral histories with family members, friends, and former employees provided details about the appearance of the room and the variety of activities that took place there. The seasonal ritual of canning was a source of pride for the Littles; the fruits of their labor were anticipated by many who were invited for a meal. This period also witnessed many changes in household management and technology. Electricity was installed in the house in 1924, but the kerosene lamp mounted on the wall near the sink was not removed "just in case." A new "Penfield" enameled sink was purchased a few years later, shortly after being introduced by Kohler, perhaps thanks to Miss Amelia Little's continued interest in domestic science as a result of her studies at Simmons College. On the other hand, the older wood-burning cast-iron stove remained, because the women knew all the tricks to operate it efficiently.

The Sarah Orne Jewett House in South Berwick, Maine, is one of SPNEA's most evocative houses because of its association with the author. In 1984, SPNEA restored the interior finishes to the period shortly after 1887, when Sarah and her sister Mary redecorated several rooms in the family home. While the sisters retained earlier wallpapers in four rooms, they made a dramatic statement in the aesthetic style in the front hall, choosing a bold pattern of tulips on a reflective ground to complement a William Morris carpet in the "Wreath" pattern. Keen interest in Morris's designs followed the 1883-84 Foreign Fair at Boston's Mechanic's Hall, where Morris and Co. exhibited its carpets, fabrics, and wallpapers. After Sarah's death in 1909, Mary replaced the hall carpet with another Morris design and packed the "Wreath" in a trunk in the barn. Until its discovery a few years ago, the pattern was known to Morris scholars only through a partial point paper in the collection of the William Morris Gallery and an incomplete sample at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The reproduction of the "Wreath" and its companion stair carpet has been made possible through grants from the KBR Foundation.

Photographs taken around 1900 show that the Jewett sisters retained more elements of an earlier decorative scheme in the guest room. The early nineteenth-century wallpaper is similar to an 1829 French paper. The dimity bed valance and the easy chair slip cover also appear to date from the same period. To create a unified scheme in the room, the sisters used narrow panels of a modern dimity with fringe on both sides for the window curtains and a makeshift head cloth and curtains for the bed.

Codman House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, has a rich decorative history that can be traced through photographs, invoices, letters, and the furnishings themselves. But by the time the house was bequeathed to SPNEA in 1968, the early twentieth-century wallpapers had been removed and replaced with paint, and most of the faded window draperies had been taken down, leaving little indication of the family's intense interest in interior decoration. Since 1981, SPNEA has been gradually restoring the decorative schemes created by the last generation to live in the house.

After the publication of The Decoration of Houses with Edith Wharton in 1897, Ogden Codman, Jr., was ready to embark on a series of projects that would remove his parents' Victorian decoration of the 1860s and reinstate a more classical eighteenth-century look to the rooms. In the spring of 1904, the hall was painted and papered under the direction of the Lewis F. Perry & Whitney Company with gray and white woodwork and yellow damask patterned wallpaper (requiring over sixty rolls at a dollar apiece). Unused rolls found in the attic provided the pattern for the machine-printed reproduction. The very worn oriental-patterned stair carpet, purchased from W. & J. Sloane in New York, was also reproduced exactly. The redecoration of the hall was supported in part by the Felicia Foundation, HK Designs, and Webster and Company.

In recreating historic interiors, one of the choices curators make is whether to commission exact reproductions, as we did for the Codman hall wallpaper and the Jewett carpet, or to look for alternatives that will give the effect of the original. We followed the latter course for the hall and drawing room curtains in the Codman House. Because of cost, we decided not to reproduce the printed linen used for the hall curtains but found a similar pattern in bright pinks and greens on a black ground, which recreated the intended contrast with the wallpaper. Since the sheer curtains with elaborately embroidered borders in the drawing room, seen in 1930 photographs, have not survived, we chose commercially available lace panels to capture their appearance. The six rooms have changed dramatically and now look much more as they once did. We encourage you to visit them this summer.

-Richard C. Nylander
Director of Collections & Chief Curator

Rooms With a Past