Rufus Porter School of Folk Art




The history of decorative arts in America includes a colorful chapter between the years of 1778 and 1840 when itinerant wall stencilers roamed New England country roads, painting their colorful folk art in homes, inns, and taverns along the way. This period of time in pre-industrial America is known as the federal period.

Federal period New England was a time of great change. It was the first time in the history of our young nation that everyday folks were able to turn their attention to endeavors other than survival. The War for Independence was over, the economy was growing, and commerce was thriving. Folks began to focus on those things that would make their lives more enjoyable, and more comfortable. They had a desire to bring design, color and pattern into their lives. They wanted to enhance their living spaces and to make the interiors of their homes brighter and more pleasing. Beautiful handmade wallpaper imported from Europe offered a means to this end. However, most could simply not afford it. The roaming New England folk artists with their creativity, eye for design, and good old yankee ingenuity, provided a quick and affordable alternative to expensive wallpaper. Using the method of stenciling, they would divide the walls into panels and then fill the panels with wonderful folk art motifs, many of which were symbolic of basic virtues and values. The lively and colorful folk art that the itinerant wall stenciler left in his trail brought a new kind of texture and joy to the lives of rural New Englanders. Seeing their art today still strikes a chord in our hearts…reminding us of the uncomplicated and ordinary times in the villages and towns of 19th century New England.

After the end of the Revolutionary war, thousands of miles of new and improved roads were created. Previous to this improvement travel was arduous, long and often dangerous. These betterments allowed individuals selling goods and services to gain quicker and easier access to the once isolated villages and farming communities throughout New England. The hardy travelers that made their way along the highways and byways of rural New England included the likes of country peddlers, doctors, lawyers, preachers, and the itinerant wall stencilers.

The itinerant stencilers would travel by horseback and by foot. Some pushed carts and others wore heavy leather packs on their backs. It was usually an interesting and exciting event when the stenciler arrived in town! Along with his colorful pigments, sturdy brushes, and stencil kit, he would bring intriguing news about far away people, places, and events. When a family would hire the itinerant stenciler, it was common for all to gather around while he would paint a “sampler” of his designs and motifs in some inconspicuous place in the home; for instance, on the attic walls, or on a wall hidden in a closet. The family would then pick and choose the designs and patterns that were most pleasing to them.

The itinerant stenciler would live with the family during the time that he was beautifying their home. Often, his only payment for stenciling the walls in a home would be his food, drink and lodging. We know that some of the early stencilers were farmers by trade, so they would practice their craft during the winter months. Consequently, they often toiled and traveled under harsh conditions. Even when the stenciler secured work, and was safely off the cold, snowy roads, it was not unlikely that many of the rooms he was employed to decorate had no heat! However, when his job was done, and it was time to move on to the next town, the lively and colorful folk art that he would leave behind would brighten and warm even the coldest of rooms with a cheerful and homespun glow! Beautiful flower baskets, graceful willow trees, wildflower sprays and simple vines plump with berries would adorn the walls in a wash of color. The lives of rural New Englanders were enhanced by this simple and quaint decoration, and the dark interiors and plain plastered walls of their homes were made bright with the hope and promise of spring.

Early American wall stenciling was but one facet of the folk art phenomenon that sprang forth out of the life and times of federal period New England. In “The Flowering of American Folk Art” , Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester tell us that folk art distinguished itself from the “fine arts” in that it was created on the farms, in the villages, and in the humble homes of everyday New Englanders. It was art created by the common man for the enjoyment of the common man. As such, it was often primitive, sometimes naïve, and yet always charming in its simplicity and form.

It is believed that early American stenciling had its roots right here in Massachusetts. The earliest recorded stenciled wall is found in Marlborough at the old Abner Goodale homestead. In 1778, when Goodale was home recuperating from wounds he suffered in the Revolutionary War, he had the walls of his home stenciled. This sprucing up of his homestead was done in preparation for the arrival of his soon-to-be bride, Molly Howe. Molly was the daughter of Ezekiel Howe, owner of the Red Horse Tavern (now known as Longfellow’s Wayside Inn) and it is located just down the road in Sudbury, Massachusetts. The Abner Goodale homestead still stands today and is owned by the descendents of Molly and Abner Goodale. Although we will never know for sure, there is reason to believe that the stenciling in this home might have been the work of Moses Eaton, Sr.

Many of the artisans who stenciled walls in New England remain nameless. The Eatons, junior and senior, are the stencilers that we know the most about. You may be familiar with their signature pineapple, and weeping willow motifs. Moses Eaton Jr. (1796-1886) grew up on his father’s farm in the small New Hampshire town of Hancock. His father, Moses Eaton, Sr., formerly of Dedham, Massachusetts, and a veteran of the Revolutionary War, was also a stenciler. Surely, Moses Eaton, Jr. learned the fine art of wall stenciling from his father before striking out on his own. Most of the walls attributed to Eaton Jr. have been found in southern New Hampshire and along the coast of Maine. However, there is also evidence that he passed through eastern and the central Massachusetts. A c1823 Greek revival home on Main Street in West Newbury, Massachusetts still has original Moses Eaton stenciling in a second floor bedchamber.

In Bolton, Massachusetts, Moses Eaton, Jr. left his legacy of red and green designs and motifs in several rooms of a lovely old colonial, the Caleb Wheeler, Jr. House. And along Great Road in Acton, a stately c1800 Federal, known as the John Robbins House, was also visited by Moses Eaton, Jr. Here, he decorated the walls in the entryway and stairwell with his signature folk art motifs, including oak leaf clusters with hearts.

There are two distinct genres of early American stenciling: Classical and Folk Art. The classical or “border-style” of early American stenciling is characterized by graceful and elegant swags and festoons outlining the tops of walls, along with complementary border designs that come down the corners and run along the chair rails and baseboards. During federal period America there was a renewed interest in classical design and all things Roman and Greek. This interest was sparked by the mid 18th century discovery of two ancient Roman cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the multitude of ancient artifacts that subsequently came to light. The graceful swags seen in many of the “classical” style stencil designs are very reflective of this neoclassical influence in federal period decoration.

The “Borderman” is the moniker given to the un-named itinerant artisan who stenciled so many New England walls in this elegant, classic style. This style of stenciling can be viewed in the Governor Franklin Pierce homestead in Hillsboro, New Hampshire and in the Dutton House at Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, VT.

In contrast to the elegant classical style of early American stenciling, the folk art style is typified by all-over wall design in imitation of wallpaper. The designs, patterns and motifs were often primitive, and naïve, but the results were always sure to charm. The inspiration for the stencil designs in this category often came from nature. Walls stenciled in the folk art style are resplendent with flower baskets, oak leaf clusters, wild flower sprays, wreaths, willow trees and graceful vines. The walls in the Stencil House at the Shelburne Museum demonstrate this folk art style of early American stenciling. In addition, the cheery and colorful stencil designs found in the homes, inn, and taverns visited by Moses Eaton, Jr., provide abundant examples of this genre of wall stenciling.

So much of the history surrounding early American stenciling did not come to light until the 1920’s, when there was a burgeoning interest in 19th century folk art. Individuals like Electra Havemeyer Webb (Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, VT) and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection, Williamsburg, VA) began collecting all of the wonderful things that remind us of 19th century America and make up the body of things classified as “folk art.” Items like old weathervanes and whirligigs, stitched samplers, colorful quilts, ship figureheads, along with shop and tavern signs, were all collected and studied. They also collected examples of the decorative arts that were popular in 19th century America; for example, both the Stencil House and the Dutton house were relocated to the grounds of the Shelburne Museum in order to provide a wonderful exhibit of early stenciled walls. When these private collections were eventually made public, everyday Americans became interested and excited about displaying folk art in their own homes. In the 1920’s, research pioneers like Janet Waring, Edward Allen, and Nina Fletcher Little often risked life and limb entering dilapidated and compromised houses in order to photograph, document, and trace early stenciled walls. Their research was the first to give us a clear understanding of the history and importance of early American stenciling. Their research also laid the foundation for many future researchers to build on…folks like Margaret and Edward Fabian, Jessica Bond, and Ann Eckert Brown. Without the dedication and passion of all these individuals, and many others, we might never have known the popularity, prevalence, and importance of early American stenciling in 19th century New England.

Janet Waring, in her 1937 groundbreaking book, Early American Stencils on Walls and Furniture, summed up the importance of early American stenciling in this way:

Whether we like their work or not, whether we smile at its crudity or envy its daring, it is nevertheless a part of our country’s cultural heritage and one amply justifying recognition in the history of the young nation’s decorative arts. Moreover, a return to this type of wall treatment still offers an endless field for both traditional and new achievement. Original motifs and arrangements can be duplicated in the restoration of old houses, while the large planes of modern architecture, with their absence of moldings and cornices, present spacious surfaces and fresh possibilities for this simple tool which has served the world through so many ages in defining clean-cut patterns.”

 

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