I used to love hearing stories about my family growing up.  They allowed me to see my relatives in a completely different light.  The story of my uncle drilling a hole in the floor of his childhood home, in the interest of finding out what was below him (spoiler alert:  it was my livid grandfather), always cracked me up—even if details suspiciously changed every time I heard it.

A wood box in the New York State Historical Association’s (NYSHA) collection embodies family lore and, moreover, its relationship with objects.

In 1996, NYSHA received a “bible box” on long-term loan from the Unadilla Historical Society.

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Bible Box, circa 1640, wood, 15.25″ x 28.5″ x 9″, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0065.1998L

During the 1600s, the family bible was the most common book to be found in the home and some families kept these books in wooden cases.  These cases were both utilitarian—they protected their contents from climate, rodents, and thieves—and decorative.  The box from the Unadilla Historical Society, for example, has a vine and tulip motif, shallowly and skillfully carved across nearly its entire 29” front surface.

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Bible Box front detail, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0065.1998L

Also, the box’s lid holds a handwritten note, which suggests that a Joseph Loomis brought the box from England to Connecticut in 1638.  The note goes on to declare that Loomis physically brought the object across the Atlantic Ocean on the ship Susan and Ellen.

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Bible Box opened / note detail, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0065.1998L

David Phelps Loomis, Unadilla attorney and descendant of Joseph Loomis, displayed the box at the Old Unadilla Fair Grounds around the Civil War.  Along with the box, D.P. Loomis presented a note—the same handwritten note attached to the box today.

Now, place yourself in Unadilla, New York, during the 1860s or 1870s.  Imagine walking through the Old Fair Grounds and coming upon this box and its story.  Not only can you see the box’s flowing carvings, but—thanks to the note written by D.P. Loomis—you can envision Joseph Loomis bravely sailing across the ocean with the box, a testament to the object’s importance.

Sorry, but I’m here to burst your historical bubble.

While the box shares some characteristics with 17th-century English furniture, the wood used suggests it was made in New England.  The Unadilla example’s sideboards are oak (similar to English examples), but its lid is made of pine, a wood commonly found on 17th-century Connecticut River Valley furniture.  I guess you could say we are able to use the box’s construction to deconstruct D.P. Loomis’ note.

But, even though the story may not lend us a 100 percent accurate account of the box’s origins, we shouldn’t completely disregard the note.  In fact, it’s a perfect example of family lore.  For D.P. Loomis, the story of Joseph Loomis travelling aboard the Susan and Ellen puts the box in a completely different (and I’d say more exciting) environment than if it just sat on a table in his ancestor’s Connecticut home.

Either way, the note taps into what attracts people to historical objects—the stories!

What stories did your family share?

– Eric Feingold, Cooperstown Graduate Program 2014

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