In 1712 Martha Bridgman of Northampton, Massachusetts, was twenty-two years old; church records show that in this year she married Hezekiah Root. This moment in time is memorialized not just in church documents, but also in a family heirloom that is inscribed with her initials “M.B.”

From the 1680s to the 1730s something new was happening in the Connecticut River Valley where Martha Bridgman lived. A distinct style of furniture–chests, cupboards, and boxes featuring ornate, shallow carvings of stylized flowers, plants, and other shapes–came into popularity. The distinguishing decorative elements became associated with Hadley in western Massachusetts. Martha Bridgman’s chest is in this unique style and comes down to us as an object on long-term loan at The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York.

Image

Hadley Blanket Chest, 1710 ca., depth 19.5 in, height 36 in, width 44 in (Height: 36″ Width: 44″ Depth: 19 1/2″ to 20, Wood (Oak), Iron, Wood (oak), iron, The Farmers Museum Collection, Cooperstown, N.Y. EXT/F0001.1953L

One characteristic of the Hadley style is that almost every piece has initials or a full name incorporated into the design. Martha Bridgeman’s initials “M.B.” are inscribed on the front of the chest on the central panel below two stylized leaves. Martha Bridgeman’s chest features a drawer at the bottom and a hinged top that opens to reveal a deep compartment for storing textiles and other goods.

Looking at this piece I cannot help but imagine the personality of Martha Bridgman. What in Martha Bridgeman’s character made her, her family, or her betrothed choose to order a chest with such whimsical carvings? Although today the colors are muted, originally the chest would have been vibrantly painted in blacks, yellows, and reds. We can only guess what these stylistic choices say about her personality, but by looking at scholarship on this type of furniture we can glean important information about what a chest like this might have meant to her.

Chests such as this were common during the time period as part of a young woman’s dowry.  A woman’s dowry was her inheritance given to her by her father at the time of her marriage.  Chests served as a place of storage for valuable textiles, silver, and other items that were considered “moveables” and thus part of a female’s inheritance (Ulrich 252- 254).  While women received moveables, male heirs received land and buildings (Ulrich 253). The initials on this piece of furniture mark Martha Bridgman’s possessions as she entered into a union with Hezekiah Root.  Although Root would legally own the items, Martha Bridgman by marking the chest with the first letter of her maiden name placed a type of claim and ownership over the chest and its contents (Ulrich 273).

So why do we have the Martha Bridgman chest today? Material culture scholar Laurel Thatcher Ulrich makes the claim that by marking a piece of furniture with initials an item becomes “less portable, less exchangeable”— an “inalienable possession” clearly belonging to an individual and family.  Marked furniture is passed down through generations of family members as an heirloom precisely because of this personal connection. After Bridgman’s death in 1759, the chest came into the Campbell family of Cherry Valley, New York, and it has remained with the family to this day.  There is no clear connection between the Root family and the Campbells, but Martha and Hezekiah had ten children and the mid to late eighteenth century was a time of migration into upstate New York from established places like Massachusetts.  Any one of the children, probably female, might have taken the chest as they married into the Campbell family.

Unique and personal, Hadley style furniture continues to catch the eye of scholars and connoisseurs.  It is the personal aspect that drew me to this particular chest.  I wanted to know who M.B. was and what this chest said about her life. I would like to think that by using the initials of her maiden name Martha Bridgman was making sure her identity would not be lost after marriage.  This chest is marked to show a sliver of independence and a great deal of memory.

Mary Bryn Alexander, CGP 2014

For further reading on this subject please see:

Hoffman, Ronald, Mechal Sobel, and Fredrika J. Teute. 1997. Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America. Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press.

Images from the Fenimore Art Museum/New York State Historical Association and the Farmer’s Museum collection include fine art, folk art, photography, Native American Indian art,  and farm related objects. Images of objects in the collections are available for scholarly or commercial publication, personal reproduction or research. Photographic images must be requested through the Rights and Reproductions Department.

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