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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Winter/Spring 2005 > When Icicles Hang by the Wall

When Icicles Hang by the Wall

ABOVE Now on tour in the exhibition Cherished Possessions: A New England Legacy, this painting of a New Hampshire farmstead by William H. Titcomb (1824–88) conjures up both the serenity and the hardship of winter in New England. The show closes June 5 at the Bard Center, New York City, and will be on view at the Public Museum, Grand Rapids, Michigan, July 2–October 31.

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The handsome catalogue of the exhibition uses the objects as entry points into the history and daily lives of New Englanders from the seventeenth to the late twentieth century. The great variety of artifacts—paintings, furnishings, costumes and jewelry, historic photographs, and the like—touches upon an equally wide range of topics—revolution, weather, religion, travel, industry, reform, and taste. With a lively text by curator Nancy Carlisle, the profusely illustrated book makes a wonderful gift and belongs in the library of everyone interested in the culture of the region. Order your copy for $50 ($45 members) from the Museum Shop at or call (617) 227-3957, ext. 237.

Particularly in the northern reaches, New England's winters are cold and snowy and long and dark. And yet one of the words most often associated with the season is cozy. One thinks of family and friends gathered around a roaring fire drinking warm luscious brews. This image gave rise in the mid-nineteenth century to the popularity of Currier and Ives winter scenes and paintings like this one.

William Titcomb's depiction of a snowy New Hampshire landscape suggests the dual nature of New England's winter. At once beautiful and threatening, winter was a time of leisure for some, hard work for others, and bitter cold for most. Titcomb's painting, with its sunset-tinged sky and threatening cloud cover, seems laden with nostalgia at the same time that it offers a reminder of winter's harsh reality.

For farmers, winter meant hard work carried out in the bitter cold—feeding and milking cattle, cleaning out manure, gathering eggs, and taking advantage of the snow pack to bring in next year's wood for heating. As many as forty cords would be needed to heat the home, still more for sugaring. But for others, there was always time to play when deep snow made it impossible to travel to school or church until the roads were packed down by teams of oxen dragging heavy rollers. For these, clearing snow from a pond meant an afternoon's skating before coming inside to warm by the fire.

All of this is visible in Titcomb's painting, from the skaters at play to the farmer and his helper returning from a hard day's work, their oxen dragging a sledge loaded with that day's felled timber. In a scene suggesting bone-chilling cold, Titcomb offers the promise of warmth in the smoke-beckoning chimney of a snow-laden house. The fallen tree across the lower front of the painting serves as a reminder that in both Christian and pagan calendars, winter is a season of death before the promise of spring's renewal.

-Nancy Carlisle, Curator

With this issue we expand Historic New England magazine to twenty-eight pages. It is rich with stories that reflect behind-the-scenes work—on jewelry collections, garden ornaments, new programs, and research. The quiet work that supports our programs is vast.

While historic house museums are sometimes perceived as unchanging, additions to the collections, conservation treatment, restoration work, and ongoing research mean that even our most complete sites often have something new. Seasonal change is especially visible at our farms, where agricultural work continues as it has for hundreds of years. New interpretive programs introduce different stories and dimensions of history for adult and school audiences at our thirty-five sites.

Historic New England sees its collections increase every week through gifts, bequests, and purchases made possible by generous donors. Our Stewardship Program always has new properties under consideration, so our role in protecting privately owned historic homes expands regularly.

Most importantly, behind the scenes at Historic New England is a dedicated staff, who know the stories of our sites and collections thoroughly. They care for the houses, landscapes, collections, and information en-trusted to us, and find ways to share those resources with you. Thanks to them, New England heritage is in the best of hands.

-Carl R. Nold
When Icicles Hang by the Wall