The Puritans, like many other groups, often say one thing and do another. The Puritans said they despised idols and symbols, yet both are found in both their furniture and their gravestones. They believed in Calvinist predestination, so they often accumulated huge amounts of wealth 1. They lived seemingly above the land, not on it. These contradictions all seemed to make sense to them. Though they questioned their morality in church, they rarely questioned it at home.
The Puritans had a rather unusual view of nature. They brought over their own crops, including rye, oats, and various grains 2 and cleared large areas of dense forest to allow the kind of agriculture most prevalent in Europe 3. The economy was based on the land, and many of the most important people in society were rich farmers. The agrarian identity of the Puritans is remembered even today in the holiday of Thanksgiving. Similarly, this idea is represented in Rhode Island gravestones from the early 18th century and furniture from the Connecticut Valley of the same period in the incorporation of organic forms. What Fairbanks calls abstract foliage is present on the gravestones of Samuel Whipple and more clearly on the graves of Marcy Smith and Mary Dexter in the North Providence Burying Ground. The same motif completely covers the chest with one drawer at the RISD museum, and partially covers the HS chest.
This evidence suggests that the Puritans had a very structured and idealized view of how nature and life should be based on European life. They often adjusted what was around them to suit this view, even if serious changes were necessary. The Puritans preserved this idealized vision of English life not only in terms of agriculture, the two chests which were present in the RISD museum had long gone out of style in Europe, yet were still common in North America4. The Puritans, the evidence suggests, took Europe at the point that they left it, and, to create the idea of home, preserved it perfectly. Ironically, in trying to create their view of nature, they moved it far from its natural state in North America.
The Puritans added symbolism to both their furniture and their gravestones. Symbolism on gravestones is well documented in Ludwig’s Graven Images. Symbolism is present on furniture as well, for example, the reversed heart present on the chest with one drawer at the RISD museum or the woodwork of the HS on the chest from RISD. A heart is a quite common motif in European folk art5, and not surprisingly, it is seen as early as 16746. The heart, according to Ludwig, symbolized love. The HS here is written with unusual lettering involving two crossing lines, perhaps to simulate the work of needle and thread. As these chests would most likely have been used by a woman 7, the fact that the lettering invokes needlepoint moves beyond coincidence and likely symbolizes women’s domestic role in society.
As the Puritans absolutely feared and avoided such symbols in worship, why are they present in their daily life? The answer, I believe, can be found in their treatment of crosses on gravestones. Crosses were absolutely one of the worst symbols according to the Puritans and Protestants. The Catholic Church they left was awash in crosses and the Puritans wanted to leave what they considered “popery” behind 8. Yet we see some crosses snuck into gravestones, often hidden in text or ornament 9. The Puritans believed in the power of these symbols, fearing that the faithful would confuse the symbol and the symbolized. It may be that some thought their relative could use that little boost to try to make it into the favor of the divine and were willing to ask the carver to put a little cross on the grave. In a similar manner, the carvers and joiners of furniture may have wanted the furniture to look like something representative of the person, and if that person was a female, a female-implying design may have been used. Similarly, the inclusion of a heart on a chest may have been included in the hope its power would grant a happy home.
An item’s technic function was seemingly quite outweighed by its sociotechnic and ideotechnic. A chest was a chest and a gravestone was a gravestone, but a carved chest was a status symbol and a slate gravestone showed the importance of the deceased. It is logical to question why the Puritans, a seemingly stoic and protestant work-ethic based society would spend such time carving these things, as certainly carving did not help, at least in the technic sense, a life in the wilderness. The answer, it seems, is that societal status was reflected in items. Very few remaining examples of basic chests remain, probably because they didn’t look like anything worth preserving, but also because the owners were less fiscally solid, and may have sold them or used them for firewood.
The decorations tell the societal status of the owner. These decorations are seen only on certain parts of artifacts, seemingly, only certain parts contribute to the value of an item. For example, the back of the vast majority of gravestones were neither decorated carved, or even flattened. The interior of the furniture examined was unstained and very plain. The sides of both pieces of furniture were simple in construction. In some rare cases, usually prior to 1780, the sides of a chest are plain boards and the front is heavily decorated10. While this extreme is uncommon, it is reflective of the selective vision of the Puritans.
It seems likely that at least part of the reason for such complex carvings is they differentiate rich and poor. The rich can afford to pay for such luxuries; the poor bought wooden gravestones and basic furniture. Because financial success in life denoted one as chosen by God11, these differences clearly denote a person as one of the chosen, and thus such furniture was produced. Of course, the more skilled the carver, the more elaborate the carvings. Thus the best carvings were turned out by the carvers paid the most by the rich, at least partially in an effort to show their class status. A possible explanation for the geometric motifs seen on stones and furniture alike is that they add to the difficulty of the piece and thus increase its value.
It’s a mischaracterization to call the Puritans total hypocrites. While the Puritans did do some things that intuitively would be against their faith, they toiled for their faith. They crossed oceans for their faith. They lived against the elements and produced extremely complex doctrine and discussion on theological issues. They spent so much on gravestones not only because of their social class, but because they cared about the person buried. They created an ideal that was so high that even they could not live up to it.
1 Anderson, Richard H. “Unit 10: The interaction of Religion and social class,” 1997, UC Denver http://soc-pc1.cudenver.edu/socrelig/Strat&Relig.htm
2 Fussel, G.E. “ Societal and Agrarian Background of the Pilgrim Fathers,” Agricultural History, Vol. 7, Number 4. Available at: http://chla.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=chla;idno=5077685_84_005;node=5077685_84_005%3A3
4 Fairbanks, Jonathan L. “American furniture, 1620 to the present,” 1981, R. Marek, New York, NY.
5 Fairbanks, Jonathan L. “American furniture, 1620 to the present,” 1981, R. Marek, New York, NY. Page 324
6 Ludwig, Allan I. “Graven Images,” 1959, University Press of New England, NH, Third Edition. Page 160
7 Fairbanks, Jonathan L. “American furniture, 1620 to the present,” 1981, R. Marek, New York, NY.
8 Ludwig, Allan I. “Graven Images,” 1959, University Press of New England, NH, Third Edition. Page 60
9 Ludwig, Allan I. “Graven Images,” 1959, University Press of New England, NH, Third Edition. Page 133
10 Fairbanks, Jonathan L. “American furniture, 1620 to the present,” 1981, R. Marek, New York, NY. Page 14
11 Anderson, Richard H. “Unit 10: The interaction of Religion and social class,” 1997, UC Denver http://soc-pc1.cudenver.edu/socrelig/Strat&Relig.htm
A Node Your Homework Production. I wrote this paper for American Civilization 0125 at Brown. It generally discusses similarities between Puritan Gravestones
. My pictures of the two can be found at http://community.webshots.com/user/rigravestones. I got an A-.
Title: The Mindset of the Puritans as Expressed in Furniture and Gravestones