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Saturday, 09 February 2013 06:24

Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture

On the morning of May 11, 1972, fifty people gathered in the double-parlor of the Higginson House, an elegant Federal dwelling on Boston’s Beacon Hill that serves as the home of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. The moment marked the start of a two-day conference on Boston furniture of the eighteenth century. Organized by Jonathan Fairbanks, then curator of American decorative arts and sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Walter Muir Whitehill, president of the Colonial Society, the event brought together such seasoned speakers as Richard Randall and Dean Fales as well as four young graduate students from the Winterthur program in early American culture. During the afternoon the conference moved to the Museum of Fine Arts for more presentations and a tour of a small exhibition of Boston masterpieces entitled A Bit of Vanity, Furniture of Eighteenth-Century Boston. The event concluded the next day back at the Colonial Society’s headquarters. Over the next year, speakers turned their talks into papers, and in 1974 the Colonial Society published Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century. The volume quickly became a standard reference for anyone interested in early American furniture.

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The New-York Historical Society holds one of the finest collections of early American silver in the nation. A trove of nearly three thousand objects, it is remarkable for being composed almost entirely of silver donated by descendants of the original owners, who preserved their inherited tankards and teapots as tangible links to New York’s past. Appreciated today for their workmanship, aesthetic qualities, or rarity, these pieces have additional layers of meaning conferred by the patina of successive generations of use. The richly documented objects open a window onto silver’s symbolic meanings, its role in sustaining kinship ties, and its ability to convey the ambitions and achievements of its owners.

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