The Nutting Chest

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Foursquare and substantial, the Connecticut chest is instantly recognizable as a product of the seventeenth century. Among the earliest furniture produced in America, it combined simplicity and versatility, for like the sprawling continent itself, the chest’s uses were limited only by the imagination; it might serve as linen closet, trunk, table, and even, on occasion, bed. With its unpretentious charm the Connecticut chest on the opposite page could have come from any one of the nation’s first households. But this one didn’t. It was made in the twentieth century.

During the late 180Os a revival of interest in colonial crafts and architecture spread like a prairie fire across America. By 1917 one of the movement’s torchbearers, a onetime country parson named Wallace Nutting, had begun reproducing early American furniture. The enterprise soon grew into a passion, and this Connecticut (or tulip and sunflower) chest was a popular product of his Framingham, Massachusetts, shop. A plain box with a drawer or two beneath, the piece might be seen as crude or primitive, but Nutting thought otherwise. As he often repeated in his Furniture Treasury , published in 1928 and still the best pictorial archive of early American furniture, the beauty of a piece like the Connecticut chest was precisely in its purity of form.

Like others involved in the colonialrevival movement, Nutting feared essential values had been lost or forgotten in the country’s rapid industrialization following the First World War. Domestic life had been corrupted, he claimed, by mechanization and urbanization, resulting in the commercialization of taste. The 1920s in particular produced “more crazy shapes [of furniture] … than in any previous era,” said Nutting, “because the means of possession and the need of furniture have far outrun trained and careful thought.” His reproductions, by contrast, re-established a connection with the Pilgrim forefathers and their standards of craftsmanship.

In copying the chest, Nutting hailed its Americanness, but it was its austere English style, unsullied by rococo flourishes from the Continent, that led him to canonize it. The chest is made of oak—the wood in vogue during the seventeenth century in England and also readily available in the colonies—and its heavy lines harken back to medieval times. Its construction reveals the best of English joining art. Sturdy mortise and tenon joints connect each element of the stiles and panels. A refined use of carving on the front panels and turned bosses, applied with pegs and painted, give the finished surface added depth. The elegant tulip and sunflower pattern is a novel combination whose motif may have evolved from the thistle and rose carvings denoting the royal houses of Scotland and England.

Despite such foreign influences, Nutting believed what was most important about the Connecticut chest could be found without crossing any national border: It was made in America in less complicated times. Simple as it was, the chest was expensive to produce by twentieth-century standards, and Reverend Nutting refused to reduce his costs by converting from hand to mechanical labor. His ambition, he said, was “to encourage individuality and to make men while making furniture.”

How ironic, then, that he depended on profits from another of his business ventures—the mass production of hand-tinted photographs that sold by the boxcar load—to support the ever-struggling furniture enterprise. Nutting blanketed the country with his “early American” scenes of apple blossoms, cows and sheep, and colonial interiors, hiring hundreds of anonymous colorists to tint them. The “Nutting Girls,” as they were called, were made to follow a prescribed color pattern and signed his name, not their own, to the finished photographs. Yet even his picture industry could not sustain the Framingham shop through the Depression, and Nutting closed for good in 1937.

Nevertheless, the result of his crusade was furniture often so close to the original that it has become the thorn (or perhaps the rose) of collectors and craft historians today. He had always claimed pieces from his shop would increase in value, just as their antique counterparts had. His furniture catalogue reads: “My furniture, when homes have broken up, is never sold as second hand. In all instances that have come to my attention, it has brought more than was paid for it.” True to his vision, a Nutting chest that sold for $275 in 1921 seventy years later commanded a price of $5,700.