The Parson’s Hearth

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When Joseph Capen moved to Topsfield, Massachusetts, in 1682 to become minister of the Congregational church there, his prospects did not seem bright. Two of the last three preachers had difficulties collecting their salaries, and another went on trial for intemperance. These conflicts degenerated into charges and countercharges of slander and drunkenness. Most of Topsfield’s population lived in one- or two-room houses that offered little protection from a New England winter—or from Indians, if they decided to resume the wars that had recently raged through the colony. Boundary disputes regularly set neighbor against neighbor and town against town, and, often enough, community gatherings such as militia drills would deteriorate into drunken brawls that ended in gunfire. Wolves roamed the streets of the town at night, stalking the hogs and sheep.

 
 
 

By the time Capen died, in 1725, however, Topsfield had put most of its early problems behind it. The busy, prosperous community had come to serve, along with other Massachusetts towns, as a functioning cog in the machinery of England’s expanding colonial empire. And though Capen himself was far from solely responsible for this great transformation, his role as the town’s religious leader made him, like other New England Puritan ministers, a leading actor in the development of a stable and increasingly modern social order in the Massachusetts colony.

Standing on a small rise near the Topsfield common and built entirely from local oak, stone, and clay, the Capen house almost literally grew out of the ground in which it was planted, unlike the more formal dwellings of a slightly later period, which often copied foreign models. Of the surviving seventeenth-century houses in New England, only Capen’s can be dated precisely (day and year are carved into a beam on the second floor); the frame was raised on June 8, 1683.

As in most New England houses, life in the Capen residence centered on the hall and its wide hearth. Here fire gave heat and light to the family and guests throughout all but the warmest months of the year. The work of spinning, weaving, brewing, tanning, and shoemaking, both for home use and for market, was done by the light of the hearth.

This arrangement of undifferentiated, multipurpose space was typical of every aspect of the early olonists’ world. Tables formed by boards laid across trestles could be rearranged quickly and easily to serve a variety of needs. Chests had no drawers to separate and categorize their contents. On the town’s common lands, which at one time encompassed fully five hundred acres, all the citizens of Topsfield pastured their live stock and gathered timber for building or for burning.

Areas reserved for private activities were rare anywhere in Topsfield. One of these was the parlor of the Capen house, considered the “best room” of the house. In typical colonial-New England fashion it lay opposite the hall on the other side of a massive chimney. Here the head of the family and his wife slept. Nearby stood the chest on which was commonly displayed the family’s Bible and silver plate. Special visitors were entertained in the parlor.

The large size of the Capen parlor suggests the fact that it was drafted into use for semipublic events as well. Shortly after the Reverend Capen’s arrival, John Gould, one of his parishioners, was charged by neighbors with uttering treasonous words against the king and was imprisoned in Boston on the basis of their testimony. At a meeting in Capen’s house, probably held in his parlor, the minister brought the two sides together and managed to achieve a reconciliation.

Topsfield hardly lacked social distinctions, of course. A small group of families in the town—the Goulds, Perkinses, Peabodys, Townes, and Averills—whose sons and daughters intermarried, owned the largest pieces of land, paid the most taxes, and held the highest positions in the government. They were the constables and clerks of the town meetings, the appointees to the court in Ipswich, the officers of the militia, and the highway surveyors, fence viewers, hogreeves, and tithingmen who oversaw almost every facet of the community’s day-to-day activities. They were frequently identified in the town records by their honorific titles of Mr., or Reverend, or Lieutenant, while everyone else is referred to simply by name or sometimes as “goodman,” “goodwife,” “commoner,” or “freeman.” Commoners sat on benches in the meetinghouse during Sunday services, the men on one side and their wives on the other, while the village elite sat with their families in their own pews nearest to the pulpit (and occasionally petitioned for the right to have windows cut in the wall of the meetinghouse next to their pews for light).