• 17 May 2019

In a piece written for the latest issue of PMC Notes, Edward S. Cooke, Jr., Charles F. Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts at Yale University, reflects on the questions and curiosities that shaped his new book Inventing Boston: Design, Production, and Consumption, 1680–1720 about the interconnected histories of material culture in colonial America.  

Waistcoat, fabric woven in London and tailored in Boston, ca. 1720, brocaded silk, silk damask, gold metallic braid, taffeta, linen. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (gift of William Storer Eaton, 41.887). The development of Inventing Boston follows my own path in thinking about colonial America.  I was drawn to a particular point in time—between the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries—that had often been overlooked by scholars of American material culture. Much previous work had focused upon the material world constructed by the first generations of settler colonists or the genteel lifestyles of the Revolutionary generations. A few isolated or medium-specific studies of the silver or cane chairs of this period had suggested a compelling story of awareness, adaptation, and creativity as Boston forged its own identity, related to but distinct from Britain.

Initially I sought to investigate local production of case furniture because I wanted to understand the impact of immigrant cabinetmakers and why Boston was the colonial center for japanned furniture, as well as why the work first produced during the early eighteenth century had such an impact on New England furniture production throughout the remainder of the century. So I began with the intensive study of objects made in colonial Boston by inhabitants of Boston. Such an inward focus, upon Boston-made furniture, is characteristic of much American furniture and silver scholarship. Collections and exhibitions typically celebrate the objects made in America to argue for regional stylistic developments on this side of the Atlantic. Yet close study of an object like the high chest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art reveals small details that attest to the technical sophistication that must have been learned in a London shop. So the story is more than a simple example of local production: it is a form developed in Britain made of local materials in a shop run by a recent arrival. It is truly an Anglo-American piece of furniture.

Bottle, Frechen, ca. 1660, wheelthrown stoneware with sprig molded decoration and salt glaze. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. I also wanted to integrate the study of imported objects into the story of Boston’s material world, so I developed a chapter on ceramics. The inhabitants of the port town enjoyed many different choices for consumer decisions, and ceramics afforded the ideal medium to explore a spectrum of possibilities. Local production consisted mainly of everyday lead-glazed earthenware, but the town imported a wide range of ceramics. In spite of British attempts to control trade through the Navigation Acts, Bostonians gained direct access to a wide variety of ceramics from England, the Netherlands, Germany, and Portugal. A salt-glazed stoneware bottle, produced in the Cologne area of Germany, represents the most sophisticated European ceramics of the last half of the seventeenth century. Boston inhabitants acquired these bottles either through trade with British merchants or coastal trade with Dutch merchants and used them as liquid storage vessels as well as witch’s bottles, filled with nail clippings, hair, and urine to ward off evil spirits. They sought out these products of an advanced production and distribution system, and then deployed them in a variety of ways.

As I integrated the stories of local production and imports, I realized there was a third category—imported items that served as raw materials to which local artisans could add value. Textiles are the ultimate example of this category. Tailors or upholsterers would cut and sew cloth to produce clothing, bed hangings, and upholstered furniture. A waistcoat owned by Ebenezer Storer features sophisticated silks designed and woven in Spitalfields and silk damask likely woven in Norwich, which a Boston tailor assembled for Storer. The transformation of such imported material provides yet another example of how objects in America had multiple sources.

Ultimately, the story of Inventing Boston is more than a simple local story of self-invention that highlights objects made in Boston, but rather a broad contextual study that situates Boston within a broad Atlantic world, ranging from London and Portugal to the Caribbean and New France. As an interconnected history, it analyzes and interprets a range of objects made, imported, or transformed in Boston.

Inventing Boston: Design, Production, and Consumption, 1680–1720 by Edward Cooke is published by the Paul Mellon Centre and now available to purchase through Yale University Press.

About the author

  • Edward Cooke

    Charles F. Montgomery Professor, History of Art, in the department of American Decorative Arts and Material Culture at Yale University