The Cabots of Salem & Beverly: A Fondness for the Bombé Form

BY KEMBLE WIDMER
AND JOYCE KING


Fig. 1: Desk and bookcase attributed to the shop of Nathaniel Gould, Salem, Massachusetts, 1765–1781. Mahogany with white pine. H. 96⅛, W. 44⅛, D. 22¾ in. Courtesy, C. L. Prickett Antiques. Photography by Gavin Ashworth. Although Gould commenced his Salem shop in 1758, he did not build a desk and bookcase until 1761 when two were exported by Capt. Joseph Grafton. This is probably the one purchased by the firm of Francis and Joseph Cabot of Salem, believed to have descended through John Cabot (1745–1821), eldest son of Joseph (1719–1767), to the Paine-Metcalf family.

A window was opened in early 2007 on a prominent eighteenth-century Salem cabinetmaker’s business with the discovery of the ledgers of Nathaniel Gould (1734–1781) at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The documents consist of two day, or waste, books, the first with entries from 1758–1763 and the second covering the period 1767–1784.1 A third book, a ledger of accounts on credit, covers the years 1763­–1784 and partially fills in the four missing years of the day books. These documents reveal a highly competent businessman who sold furniture to the highest level of Salem society, in particular, the prominent Cabot family, one of the wealthiest shipping and merchant families of New England.

In January 2007 the firm of C. L. Prickett, dealers in American furniture, requested a genealogy search for a recently acquired bombé desk and bookcase (Fig. 1) in the hope of identifying the original purchaser. It had a history of ownership in the Paine-Metcalf family, having descended from Thomas Newell Metcalf (1883–1998) and his wife Elizabeth Mason Paine Metcalf (1896–1992) (Fig. 2). The preceding four generations of Metcalf-Paine ancestors, covering the period from the early nineteenth century to the 1990s, had resided in the Boston area. Yet the desk and bookcase exhibited the classic signs of Salem, Massachusetts, craftsmanship, and appeared to be one of a larger group of case pieces thought to have been built in the same shop.2

Fig. 2: Genealogy of the desk and bookcase as given to C. L. Prickett by the present day Paine-Metcalf family. Compiled by Joyce King.

Fig. 3: Genealogy of the Salem ancestors of the Paine-Metcalf family. Compiled by Joyce King.

Fig. 4: Title page of Nathaniel Gould’s account book covering the years 1763 to 1781. Courtesy, Massachusetts Historical Society. Photography by Gavin Ashworth

A number of trips were made to the Massachusetts Archives in Boston to search wills and inventories, with the aim of looking for desk and bookcase references in each ancestral line. That examination revealed a number of possible owners, but no conclusive evidence connecting the subject piece to any one individual. At this point a critical research decision was made. During the period 1760–1790, when it was assumed the desk and bookcase was manufactured, there were many highly skilled cabinetmakers in Boston, the commercial and political center for Massachusetts and a city with a population of approximately 16,000. By contrast, Salem’s population was less than a fourth of Boston’s and had only a small cadre of competent woodworkers. Since it was unlikely that a Boston citizen would go to Salem to purchase an item of furniture of this magnitude, the search for the original owner became focused on the Paine-Metcalf ancestors who had lived in Salem during the period of assumed manufacture and had the requisite wealth to afford such an expensive form.

Fig. 5: Cabot family tree showing purchases of furniture from Nathaniel Gould.

Additional research since this chart was first published in American Furniture (2008) has resulted in reassignment of one furniture grouping (Francis Cabot Jr. to his uncle, Francis Cabot 1717–1786); inclusion of another group (purchases of Joseph Lee (1744–1831) during 1770 and 1771; and removal of a third group (purchases by Stephen Higginson /Elizabeth Cabot during and after 1766, which were actually acquired by their son, Stephen Higginson). Genealogy by Joyce King; artwork, Wynne Patterson.

Fig. 6: Chest of drawers (bureau table) attributed to the shop of Nathaniel Gould, Salem, Massachusetts, 1781. Mahogany with white pine. H. 36⅛, W. 391⁄16, D. 219⁄16 in. Courtesy Historic New England. Photography by Gavin Ashworth. This chest descended in the family of Charles Chauncey Foster (1785–1875). In 1816, he married Catherine Cabot (1789–1862), the seventh surviving child of Andrew Cabot (1750–1791) and his wife Lydia (Dodge) (1748–1807).
Using the Paine-Metcalf genealogy, the search for a Salem connection became focused on Elizabeth Mason Paine Metcalf. She was descended from Joseph Cabot (1719–1767) of Salem, by both her paternal and maternal lines (Figs. 3, 5), the relations of whom lived during the assumed period the desk and bookcase was built. Those identified as the most likely line of descent included Joseph, his brother and business partner Francis Cabot (1717–1786), his sister Elizabeth Cabot Higginson (1715–1797), and his brother John’s (1704–1749) widow, Hannah Clark Cabot (1704–1764), in addition to all of Joseph’s children. These Cabots were in turn descended from John Cabot (1680–1742), the progenitor of the Cabot family in America. Having emigrated from the Isle of Jersey in 1700, John the elder had a successful career as merchant and ship owner for over forty years. Cabot had amassed a fortune as one of the wealthiest citizens of Salem when he died in 1742. He and his wife, Anna Orne Cabot (1678–1767), raised nine children, seven of whom married into wealthy and distinguished Puritan families of Salem.3 Most of the family moved to Beverly starting in the mid 1770’s and had relocated to Boston by the early 1800’s.

Fig. 7: Stereo view of Andrew Cabot’s 1781 house in Beverly, Mass., (now Beverly City Hall) in the 1860s. Courtesy Historic New England.

Andrew Cabot purchased a desk and bookcase and a bureau table from Nathaniel Gould around the time he built this house.

The possibility that Nathaniel Gould of Salem was the maker of the specific group of furniture, which included the Prickett bombé desk and bookcase, had been discussed prior to field work.4 When an Internet search was done on his name, an online library finding aid for the Massachusetts Historical Society revealed that his ledgers had been among the Nathan Dane (1752–1835) papers at the society since 1834. Dane was a prominent Beverly, Massachusetts, attorney who appears to have been the agent for collecting debts owed to the Gould estate. A trip to view the actual documents confirmed that the account books were those of the cabinetmaker (Fig. 4).
Gould’s records of twenty-three years indicated that his shop was responsible for prodigious quantities of all types of furniture: 1144 chairs; 198 beds; 198 stands; 405 tables of all types (round, square, card, silver, sideboard, “twilight” [toilet], breakfast, tea, “chaney” [china], “riting” [writing], side, chamber [dressing] and bureau tables [four drawer chests]); 441 desks, of which 289 were probably exported; 76 cases of draws (high chests or chests-on-chests); and 18 desk and bookcases. His ledgers also disclose the date, price, and purchaser of these items. One of the significant observations is the extent of business conducted with the Cabot family. A chart (Fig. 5) shows the association of Cabot members and their purchases from Gould, indicating the importance of this prominent family to Gould’s business. For example, the Cabots only acquired one desk from Gould’s total production of over 400 made, and this to a son-in-law, Joseph Lee (1744–1831), but the Cabots purchased five desk and bookcases, Gould’s most expensive and status proclaiming product. Those five sales represent 31 percent of Gould’s total production of the form.
An additional value of these documents to furniture scholars is the information gleaned from inferences and the fact that Gould’s pricing structure was remarkably consistent from 1758 until 1777, when the ravages of inflation during the Revolution destroyed any normal level of pricing. The consistency of pricing over a twenty year period is particularly important, because it helps define specific details of a piece. If, for example, a chair is described as mahogany with “carved knees” and priced at 36 shillings, 8 pence (£0 36s. 8d.), and a chair of the same price is listed in subsequent entries, but either the wood or descriptive “carved knees” is omitted, it can be assumed that the latter chair was made of mahogany and had carved knees. There are sufficient entries with defining characteristics and consistent pricing in the ledgers to make this a valid assumption. The ability to classify a specific design from the price invoiced, is lost after 1777 due to rapidly increasing prices.

Nathaniel Gould was born in 1734, the eldest son of Nathaniel (1697–1746) and Elizabeth (French) Gould (1698 –1746). His cabinetmaker father came from a family with a history of working in the wood trades. Both parents died in 1746 when Nathaniel was twelve; his uncle James Gould (1696–1771), a wheelwright in Salem, was appointed his guardian. He probably served his apprenticeship with Charlestown, Massachusetts, cabinetmaker Thomas Wood (1708–1800), given it was Wood’s daughter whom Gould married in 1760 in a common apprentice/master arrangement. He remained briefly in Charlestown after completing his apprenticeship because in 1756 he is listed as a Charlestown cabinetmaker when he sold land in Salem inherited from his parents. Within a year he had returned to Salem, and by 1758, entries in his daybook indicate that by then he had established his own shop, which would continue in operation his death in December 1781.5

Fig. 9: Bureau table attributed to the shop of Nathaniel Gould, Salem, Mass., ca. 1759–1770. Mahogany with white pine. H. 38, W. 42⅛, D. 21⅜ in. Courtesy Marblehead Historical Society. Photography by Robert Mussey. Gould made his first two bureau tables for John Tasker (1707–1761): one in 1759 and the second in 1761. His third sale was to Hannah Cabot in 1765, the first of twelve to the Cabot family. This is probably his earliest surviving work. It exhibits a “pot-bellied” shape as a result of the curvature of the sides, ending abruptly at the top of the third drawer rather than transitioning smoothly through the second drawer as seen in figure 6. Gould refined his bombé curvature of the sides early in his career, as the remaining survivors show a more refined shaping.

The earliest piece of furniture sold to a Cabot occurred only a year after Gould established his business in Salem; Stephen Higginson (1716–1761), husband of Elizabeth Cabot (1715–1797), purchased a bookcase in January 1759, followed in March by a standtable (tilt-top table), and in April, by six walnut chairs. The following year Hannah Clark Cabot (1704–1764), widow of Dr. John Cabot (1704–1749), made her first purchase of a table. In 1761 she purchased a bed, two tables, a standtable, and the first large case piece acquired by a Cabot — a case of drawers. Gould used the term “case draws” in his ledgers to refer to one of three furniture types: flat-top high chest, bonnet-top high chest, and chest-on-chest. From the price charged, £120 old tenor,6 Hannah’s purchase was either a bonnet-top high chest or a chest-on-chest; until that time, Gould’s most expensive piece sold. Over the next twenty years, eleven households in this famous family would acquire furniture from Gould.
Fig. 10: August 1, 1768, debit entry for Rebecca Orne in Nathaniel Gould’s daybook covering the years 1767–1784. Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society. Photography by Joyce King. Rebecca Orne ordered both a mahogany and a walnut “case of draws” (first and third entries top of page) and mahogany and walnut bureau tables (second and fourth entries) immediately prior to her marriage to Joseph Cabot. The large “X” over the face of the page indicated that the account had been settled.

Although the Prickett desk and bookcase (fig. 1) probably descended in the Cabot family, no sale of that form was documented as having been made for either John Cabot (1745 –1821) or his younger brother Samuel (1758 –1819), both of whom are in the direct ancestral line. In Gould’s daybook, however, there is an entry for a desk and bookcase sold to the firm of Francis (1717–1786) and Joseph (1719 –1767) Cabot in May 1765. This was the earliest of five secretaries sold to the family. As the eldest son of Joseph, John Cabot (1745–1821) would probably have been entitled to first choice of his father’s estate, and it is assumed the desk and bookcase under investigation was inherited through John Cabot’s line.

Although the line of inheritance of the bombé desk and bookcase in figure 1 cannot be defined with certainty, a bureau table in the collection of Historic New England can be (Fig. 6). It has always been in the Cabot family, having descended from Andrew Cabot’s (1750–1791) daughter Catherine (1789–1862). It and a desk and bookcase were purchased by Andrew Cabot, in 1781 and 1780, respectively; around the time he moved into his new mansion house in Beverly (Fig. 7). The prices charged, £12 and £40, respectively, are atypical for the forms, and reflect the significant inflation during the war (Fig. 8).

Fig. 11: July 1767 debit entry for John Appleton (1738/39–1817) in Nathaniel Gould’s account book covering the years 1763–1781. Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society. Photography by Gavin Ashworth.

Entries in Gould’s ledgers by price, and specific purchases by the Cabots, suggest that approximately 80 percent of all large sales in Gould’s accounts can be tied either to a marriage or building a new house.7 Many of these sales were made for multiples of the same form but constructed of different woods. This indicates that the same forms were used to furnish rooms of varying importance, with the better rooms receiving the furniture made of the more expensive woods.8 Of the seven bureau tables priced at either £2 13s. 4d. or £3 (made of cherry or walnut), only one was not sold in conjunction with a mahogany bureau table. Rebecca Orne Cabot (1748–1818) ordered a mahogany and a walnut bureau table as part of her dowry, and Joseph Lee (1744–1831) (fig. 5) ordered both a mahogany and a cherry bureau table shortly after his marriage to Elizabeth Cabot (1748–1786). Walnut and cherry were generally priced at half the cost of comparable mahogany forms. In all likelihood both orders were intended for furnishing a primary bedroom (mahogany) and a lesser room (walnut or cherry).

Fig. 12: Chest-on-chest attributed to the shop of Nathaniel Gould, Salem, Mass., ca. 1758–1781. Mahogany with white pine. H. 91, W. 44½, D. 22⅞ in. Courtesy the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockwell Nelson Trust, 34–123 AB. Photograph by John Lamberton. Gould used the term “case of drawers” to identify both cabriole leg high chests and chest-on-chests.

Of the fifty-three bureau tables listed in Gould’s accounts, there are only five known surviving examples attributed to his shop.9 Probably the earliest one made by Gould is the example shown in figure 9 and now at the Marblehead Historical Society. All are of the bombé form, are made of mahogany, have ball and claw feet, identical carved scallop shells on the center drops, and are approximately the same dimensions. Since survival rates of Gould’s furniture indicate that only 10 to 25 percent of total production of any given form exists today, the conclusion is that the survivors were originally sold at a price of £6—in addition to the shared traits, this is the only price category that generated sufficient quantity to have had five survivors. It is possible that some or all of the nine bureau tables produced during the Revolution were also identical to the £6 model, but until inflationary prices charged during the war can be converted with confidence, it is speculation as to total production.

A sixth bombé case piece, and possibly a seventh, was acquired by the family in the form of a “case draws,” when Rebecca Orne purchased a large quantity of furniture on August 1, 1768 as part of her wedding dowry (Fig. 10). Three days later she married Captain Joseph Cabot (1746–1774). The first item listed in the day book for this order was a mahogany case of drawers (chest-on-chest) priced at £17 6s 8d. That it was bombé in profile was deduced from a second entry in Gould’s ledgers, to John Appleton in July 1767 (Fig.11). Appleton’s order for a “case of draws of mahagany [sic] swelled ends” only fits the description for one type of case piece—a bombé chest-on-chest (Fig. 12). The amount charged (£17 6s 8d) is exactly what Rebecca Orne paid one year later. Gould sold a total of six of these chests, all priced at the same amount. It is possible that the case of drawers purchased by Hannah Cabot in 1761 was also of bombé form as it was priced at £120 (old tenor), which converts to £16 (new tenor); too expensive to have been a flat-top high chest.

The love for this unique swelled shaping was carried through to the house that John Cabot (1745 –1821) built after he relocated to Beverly (Fig. 13). Both window seats and columns of the fireplace mantel incorporate the curve of the bombé (Figs. 14, 14a). When he moved into the house, he, like his brother Andrew, ordered a bureau table from Gould (Fig. 6). Due to the inability of converting its purchase price, John’s bureau table has not been included in this discussion with the known £6 bombé pieces purchased by various members of the Cabot family.

Fig. 13: House of John Cabot, Beverly, Mass., built ca. 1781–82. Now home of the Beverly Historical Society and Museum. Courtesy, Beverly Historical Society. Photography of image by Robert Mussey.

Of furniture purchased from Nathaniel Gould and incorporating the bombé form, it is possible to place with the Cabot family a minimum of one desk and bookcase; five bureau tables (four priced at £6 and one, descended from Andrew Cabot, at an inflated price of £12); and one chest-on-chest. It is also entirely possible that the actual number of pieces Gould sold to the Cabots with the bombé shape was more than double this quantity. This speculation is based on the fact that all of the known family purchases were bombé in form, and that the pricing of the families’ other recorded purchases were very close to those prices of surviving examples. Small differences in pricing can be accounted for by differences in carving, foot construction, or specified hardware.

The original request for information on the Prickett bombé desk and bookcase led to a significant discovery of the ledgers and account book of a highly skilled Salem cabinetmaker. The manuscripts, encompassing twenty-two years of production and recording meticulous details about specific forms, provide furniture scholars with a treasure trove of information. The findings have not only led to firm attributions—as to when an object was produced, to whom it was sold, and the prices paid—but as the ledgers are further analyzed, our understanding of eighteenth-century culture will be increased. This article has covered only one family and one specific form, the bombé. The Cabots’ enthusiastic embrace of the handsome form is echoed in the high regard collectors hold for it to this day.

Figs. 14, 14a: Interior views of John Cabot house, now Beverly Historical Society and Museum. Both the mantel and window seat contain the swelled bombé shaping so admired by the Cabots. Photography by Robert Mussey.

Kemble Widmer is a student of North shore Massachusetts furniture. He is retired and lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts

Joyce King is a researcher/genealogist specializing in Salem, Massachusetts history. A former resident of Salem, she now lives in Wakefield, Massachusetts.

1. The account books have a few entries from the late 1750s that may have been
transferred from an earlier book, and a few entries (ending in 1784) that postdate Gould’s death in 1781, possibly entered by employees completing work in the shop or the lawyer, Nathan Dane, in settling Gould’s estate.

2. See Gilbert T. Vincent, “The Bombé Furniture of Boston,” in Boston Furniture
of the Eighteenth Century, ed., Walter Muir Whitehill (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia for the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1974), 192–195. Of the case pieces originating in the same shop, the desks are located at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; desk and bookcases are in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dallas Museum of Art, and the Mead Art Museum; four drawer bureaus (referred to as bureau tables in the ledgers) are in
the Marblehead Historical Society, Winterthur Museum, Historic New England
and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; a chest-on-chest is at the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Some of the design elements suggesting a Salem origin are: the scallop shell drop; extended knee return brackets; the carving of the feet, which incorporate side claws that are thin in crossection and descend vertically from the first knuckle; exposed dovetails on drawer blades; and uppercase backboards extending through the open area of the tympanum in the bonnet.

3. See L. Vernon Briggs, History and Genealogy of the Cabot Family 1475–1927, Volume 1 (Boston,: Charles E. Goodspeed & Co., 1927), 36.

4. “The Documentary and Artistic Legacy of Nathaniel Gould,” in American Furniture, ed. Luke Beckerdite (Milwaukee: Chipstone Foundation, 2008), 1–25.

5. Entries for a teaboard (undated month, 1757) and a standtable (April, 1757) are recorded. It is not known whether Gould had actually relocated to Salem by that time or was still in Charlestown.

6. Sometime between April and August 1763, colonial currency was revalued at a ratio of £7.5 “old tenor” equaling £1, “new tenor” Entries in old tenor currency are converted to equivalent new tenor prices in order to make valid comparisons of form, wood and decoration.

7. The sales to Rebecca Orne, Joseph Lee, George Cabot, and Stephen Cabot occurred within months of their marriages. The purchases by Francis, John, and Andrew Cabot all occur at the time they moved into new houses. Frequently, different woods were used for bureau tables, cases of drawers, beds, and sets of chairs on large orders, particularly those involving wedding dowries. For additional comment on this practice see Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett, At Home: The American Family 1750–1870 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990), 61–62, 109.

8. No walnut or cherry bombé chests attributed to Gould are known to survive. It is possible that these woods were also used in the bombé form but until an example is found it will be open to question whether the chest of drawers was straight sided or bombé shaped. The use of the term “plain” is also a mystery. Was this a straight-sided chest or a bombé chest with ogee bracket feet and a simple uncarved center drop?

9. See endnote 2, and additionally one in a private collection.
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