Ephraim, Mary, and the Chest

December 18, 2014 · Collections ·
Cabinetmaker Ephraim Grant produced this chest-on-chest for Mary Smith, presumably of Stonington, Connecticut, ca. 1790. Such imposing pieces provided storage space for textiles, clothing and other personal belongings. CHS 2014.184.0

Cabinetmaker Ephraim Grant produced this chest-on-chest for Mary Smith, presumably of Stonington, Connecticut, ca. 1790. Such imposing pieces provided storage space for textiles, clothing and other personal belongings. CHS 2014.184.0

As a history museum curator I am ever on the lookout for objects that tell a story (or maybe multiple stories if I am lucky). In particular, I see value in stories that help us better understand, appreciate and, frankly, connect with those who have gone before us. In this vein, we recently acquired such an item for the CHS collection—a ca. 1790 chest-on-chest (think two chests of drawers stacked one atop the other) made by a young cabinetmaker named Ephraim Grant for a mysterious woman named Mary Smith in a quiet Connecticut village known as Milltown.

Ephraim Grant (1764-ca. 1797) hailed from the northern part of the town of Stonington, in extreme southeastern Connecticut. Today Stonington is best known as a town with strong ties to the sea, particularly yachting and commercial fishing. In Ephraim’s day, maritime pursuits (shipbuilding, whaling, sealing, coastal and West Indian commerce) based in the busy harbors at Stonington Village and Mystic helped define the town. But the northern part of Stonington was more agricultural in nature, featuring extensive forests along with farm and pasture lands. The eastward flowing Shunock River provided waterpower for multiple saw and grist mills in an area that came to be called Milltown, now North Stonington Village. Though only eleven miles due north as the crow flies from Stonington Harbor, this part of town had a different feel and even political outlook (Jeffersonian Republican), so much so that by 1807 this area was established as a separate town, North Stonington.

Grant is believed to have worked in or near Milltown, now North Stonington Village, seen on this 1868 map detail from ATLAS OF NEW LONDON COUNTY, CONNECTICUT. CHS Collection

Grant is believed to have worked in or near Milltown, now North Stonington Village, seen on this 1868 map detail from ATLAS OF NEW LONDON COUNTY, CONNECTICUT. CHS Collection

Research indicates that cabinetmakers like Grant were few and far between in Stonington’s coastal zone, but that there were multiple joiners’ shops in the north part of town. There is even some evidence to suggest that, in addition to the activities of individual cabinetmakers, furniture production may actually have occurred on a larger scale, quite possibly for export to the wood-starved West Indies through the ports of Stonington and New London. While perhaps not on the factory scale of later furniture makers like Lambert Hitchcock, the possibility that chairs and other furniture were produced in quantity in this quiet place at an early date is significant as an example of how the Industrial Revolution would ultimately transform the nation’s economy and society.

We do not know if Ephraim Grant was involved in any mass production of furniture, but his probate inventory lists not only a variety of cabinetmaker’s tools but a significant quantity of lumber. We do know that he is the only cabinetmaker from this region known to have signed a piece of his furniture. In fact the inscriptions on the reverse of the piece are as extensive (and unexpected) as you could imagine: “Mary Smith Her Draws [sic] Made by Ephraim Grant of Stonington”. Trust me, this type of documentation is very rare in furniture of the period. What also ties the piece in with the regional furniture making tradition of southeastern Connecticut is the use of multiple wood varieties in a single piece; in fact, Grant incorporated seven different woods in its construction, suggesting he used what he had available in the shop. The native cherry so typical of Connecticut case furniture is joined by maple, butternut, chestnut, birch, pine and sycamore in this chest. Amazing! A dark opaque finish (perhaps simulating more expensive mahogany) would have masked the obvious visual differences of grain and color among the variety of wood types. This clever technique was not meant to deceive, but it helped keep the product affordable.

The primary decorative feature on this relatively simple chest is this carved shell on one of the drawer fronts. CHS 2014.184.0 detail

The primary decorative feature on this relatively simple chest is this carved shell on one of the drawer fronts. CHS 2014.184.0 detail

While Ephraim died young, only six or seven years after completing this piece for Mary Smith, this chest has served to preserve his memory in a modest way. In time we hope additional information will come to light to better tell his own tale. As for Mary, well, her story remains to be discovered and told. As it turned out (not surprisingly), there were multiple Mary Smiths in the region at the time this chest was crafted, and to date the efforts of several crack genealogists have failed to identify which Mary Smith owned this chest. Investigative work is continuing and I hope to be able to update this story in a later posting.

 

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