J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Finding Nathaniel Gould’s Account Books

Last week the Boston Globe and New York Times both reported, in their different ways, on the discovery of the account books of Salem cabinetmaker Nathaniel Gould (1734–1781). Gould’s furniture is distinct and highly valued, but without his business records it’s been impossible for furniture historians to be sure of how many pieces he made and where they went. Now “three vellum-bound books...with lists of names, dates and prices scrawled on foot-tall sheets of rag paper” are answering lots of questions.

Had those account books been squirreled away in some descendant’s attic, or lost in the bowels of a small, underfunded local history association? No, they were in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, one of the country’s best and busiest. Specifically, in the papers of Salem lawyer Nathan Dane. In 1990 archivist Brenda M. Lawson catalogued them as “3 account books of client Nathaniel Gould (1758-81).”

In other words, these sources weren’t hidden at all. They just weren’t in a place where furniture experts would look for them. And the legal scholars who study the Dane collection had no reason to recognize their significance for folks in another field.

But Google’s search algorithm doesn’t care about scholarly disciplines as long as it finds the right characters. The M.H.S. put its finding aid for the Dane papers online in March 2005. Two years later, researcher Joyce King of Wakefield ran a Google search for Gould’s name, spotted the link, and told Newburyport furniture historian Kemble Widmer, “This may be important.” King and Widmer are publishing their findings in American Furniture.

Above is a desk and bookcase from Gould’s workshop, now featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It’s actually signed “Nath Gould not his work”—perhaps a signal that he didn’t get his own hands dirty on it, but offered genteel supervision to craftsmen working for him. Gould’s accounts show that he sold such a piece to Jeremiah Lee of Marblehead on 9 Apr 1775, nine days before Lee would be hiding in a cold field in Cambridge, fearing arrest by British officers.


Chaucerian said...

This beautiful piece of furniture has become a memento mori for me; in the Boston1775 post you link to, you mention that Lee died about a month after buying the piece. If I knew I had only a month to live, would I be buying furniture? But he didn't know, which is the point of any memento mori, after all.

Judy Anderson said...

According to the researchers, Kemble Widmer and Joyce King, Colonel Jeremiah Lee purchased the secretary desk and other furniture for his son-in-law Nathaniel Tracy of Newburyport, who had married the Lees' eldest daughter Mary in late February 1775, less than two months before the death of Mary's father, the Colonel of Marblehead's rebel (Patriot) militia. There's much more to both stories (the Lees and the Tracys), and the Lee Mansion and its remarkable painted scenic wallpapers and elaborate rococo carving is spectacular. (ref. Judy Anderson, Marblehead Tours and Marblehead Architecture Heritage / former curator, Jeremiah Lee Mansion in Marblehead)