Puritan court cupboard

Thought the Puritans were dour? Think again!

Court Cupboard, 1665-73, red oak with cedar and maple (moldings), northern white cedar and white pine, 142.6 x 129.5 x 55.3 cm (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re in the Wadsworth Atheneum, looking at a cupboard. This is really special, because we know exactly who it was made for.

Brandy Culp: [0:15] Governor Thomas Prence of Plymouth Colony.

Dr. Harris: [0:19] Which would today be the southeast part of Massachusetts.

Brandy: [0:22] It’s the separatists who were journeying to America as religious pilgrims. They established a colony in 1620, and he becomes one of the most important people in Plymouth Colony. He makes significant decisions about religious tolerance, how Quakers will or will not be accepted into the colony.

Dr. Harris: [0:44] He also has to create policy about how the colony will deal with Native Americans.

Brandy: [0:49] Thomas Prence marries four times. His last wife is Mary, and in his will, he gives to her this court cupboard in his new parlor and the cupboard cloth as well as a cushion.

Dr. Harris: [1:04] If you think about what the inside of a Pilgrim’s home might have been like, you might imagine something very severe and plain. It might come as some surprise to learn that they owned furniture as highly ornamented and as beautiful as this cupboard.

Brandy: [1:20] Not only was it highly ornamented, it was vibrant with paint that included reds and black, and the oak at the time wouldn’t have had this patina, it would have been almost bright yellow.

Dr. Harris: [1:33] Almost garish, to our eyes.

Brandy: [1:36] The people that we have come to know as the Pilgrims and the Puritans enjoyed sumptuous materials and texture and color just as we do today.

Dr. Harris: [1:45] Let’s talk about that word “cupboard.” If you think about it, it’s cup-board.

Brandy: [1:50] A table was called a board, and you sat at a board in form, a table and a bench, so the suspended surface area on which you place things, and “court” means short, so we’re looking at this court cupboard with silver displayed on the top as it may have been in the period,and it’s meant for you to look at these goods.

[2:10] This court cupboard would have been the center of your parlor, which was the most important room in the house. For some people, it was one of only a very few rooms in the house.

Dr. Harris: [2:22] This is a tremendously valuable piece of furniture, but it was displaying objects that had even greater value.

Brandy: [2:28] In the hierarchy of goods in a home of this period, you have your silver, then your textiles, and most people are surprised to learn that the textiles in the home are more valued than the furniture. This object would have held your silver, your textiles, your ceramics and glass, which fall to the bottom of the hierarchy.

Dr. Harris: [2:48] I can imagine this dominating the parlor. This is something that drew your attention. Not just in its vivid coloring but these decorative forms, these bulbous vase-shaped columns on either side and half-spindles that decorate the entire front of the cabinet. We see elements that look very architectural.

Brandy: [3:07] Highly decorated and highly architectural. You have a cornice, and here’s your frieze.

Dr. Harris: [3:12] In its heaviness, it has a medieval feeling.

Brandy: [3:15] They’re throwing in ideas from medieval art and architecture. They’re throwing in Renaissance. Then there’s also this style, Mannerism, that is coming from Italy. You have this mixture. By the time they arrive, it’s like playing a game of telephone. Ideas traveling from Italy to France to Northern Europe. Then they hop from Northern Europe to England and from England to the Americas.

Dr. Harris: [3:42] The people who made this were the turner and the joiner. Someone turned the decorative items that are symmetrical. Someone joined the pieces of cabinetry together.

Brandy: [3:52] Using mortise and tenon joinery. The turner, he’s working on a lathe to create these split spindles, even the bosses that you see here, and these massive columns.

Dr. Harris: [4:05] Having luxurious furniture like this, the silver to go on top, having the textiles to go in the drawers and on the surface, these all were signifiers of that status of this very early colonist in Plymouth Colony.

Brandy: [4:21] For a separatist who believed that he was preordained, this would fit very well in his worldview.

Dr. Harris: [4:27] His great wealth signified that he had been selected by God, predestined for heaven.

[4:34] [music]

Cite this page as: Brandy Culp, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris, "Puritan court cupboard," in Smarthistory, November 1, 2018, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/court-cupboard-2/.