Rufus Porter School of Folk Art


Like the itinerant artisans who roamed the New England highways and byways in the early 1800s, I also had my journeys. My travels were in search of the walls that these itinerants so skillfully stenciled with their bright and cheerful folk art motifs and designs…the walls that brought joy to the men and women who lived and toiled on the farms and in the small towns of rural New England.

I met so many kind people in my travels…folks who graciously opened their homes and inns to me so that I might see first hand the historic folk art therein. Their kindness not only furthered my education and understanding of early stenciled walls, but also gave me the opportunity to gain a deep appreciation for the incredible talent and artistic skill possessed by these old-time artisans.

Some of the original walls that I saw were timeworn and faded. Other walls were pristine and bright, with the red and green motifs still vibrant and bold. But regardless of the condition, all of these walls with their simple decoration spoke to the talent, creativity, and Yankee ingenuity possessed by the “common man” artisans who painted them.

One of my first stops was to the Shelburne Museum of American Folk Art, located in Shelburne, VT. This museum is the perfect venue to experience the beauty of the two styles of early American stenciling; folk and classical. The walls in the c1804 Stencil House are alive with an eclectic mix of folk art designs and motifs, presenting a wonderful example of the folk art style of early American stenciling. In the Stencil House, the seemingly limitless variation of designs and motifs are all arranged pleasantly within panels formed by vertical streams of roses and dainty little flowers. The myriad of patterns have harmony. Beautiful roses in full bloom, graceful grapevines, proud eagles, clusters of flowers, and simple trees with birds perched in them, all skip across the walls in a symphony of color.

Also located on the grounds of the Shelburne Museum is the Dutton house. In contrast to the folksy and somewhat whimsical style found in the Stencil house, the stenciling in the Dutton House demonstrates formal country elegance. The graceful swags and festoons that drape across the walls in the Dutton House illustrate the neoclassical influence in decorating that was pervasive in federal period America, and exemplify the classical genre of early American stenciling. Strolling through each room in the Dutton House, I marveled at the intricate borders outlining each wall, and I pondered the life and times of the prolific ‘Borderman’ who stenciled these walls, and so many others across New England, with such a classic style.

The artistic legacy of Moses Eaton, Jr. and his father, reaches far and wide across New England. You may be acquainted with their wonderful folk art style of wall stenciling. The weeping willow (colonial symbol of long life) and the pineapple (colonial symbol of hospitality) are a couple of their well known motifs. However, these familiar motifs are but two of the many designs that we know to have been painted by the Eatons. The beauty of nature was surely their inspiration. Walls attributed to Moses Eaton Jr. are stenciled with colorful sprays of flowers, pine boughs, flowing vines, oak leaf clusters, flower baskets and more. He added hearts to certain designs to honor the love of a new bride and groom. His designs and motifs were big, bold, and bright. They were lively and daring. At the same time, they were lighthearted, imbuing a certain sweetness and charm. His red and green motifs made a unique statement on walls of buff or those washed with raspberry, yellow or soft gray. This simple farmer with a flair for design and color left a lasting impression not only on the lives of the families whose homes he stenciled, but also on the history of decorative arts in New England.

During the summer of 2003, the Heritage New England (SPNEA) traveling exhibit, known as “Cherished Possessions” made a stop at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. I learned that Moses Eaton Jr.’s stencil kit was one of the items in this exhibit, and I was curious to see the tools belonging to the man I had come to greatly admire. So, my husband and I, along with our canine companion, Lucy, made the trip to central Maine. Arriving at Colby, I was eager to get to the exhibit and find that one special item. After strolling through the entire exhibit, perhaps it was fitting to find that this simple, unobtrusive box was the very last item. It certainly was not a beautiful item like so many of the others that I saw on this day. And perhaps, only an enthusiast of early American stenciling would understand the sheer beauty and joy that sprang from this little pine box so many years ago, in so many homes, in so many places. I quickly crossed the room, and resting before me, in a protective Plexiglas enclosure, was Moses Eaton, Jr.’s stencil kit. It contained several large round brushes and several worn stencils cut from thick, sturdy paper.

I had read so much about this famous stencil kit, and how its discovery shed a bright light on the identity of the individual who stenciled so many walls in New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. I love the story of how it came into Janet Waring’s possession…thoughtfully given to her by the descendents of Eaton’s daughter, Mary Richardson. Standing there, alone in the room, gazing at the old wooden box, something struck me. Imagine how talented this simple farmer and itinerant stenciler, Moses Eaton, Jr., must have been. Imagine the beautiful results he achieved using only the crude tools laying in the old wooden box before me. Imagine creating the charming all-over wall designs and patterns without the benefit of one registration mark! It was truly something to ponder. When I turned away from that old, worn stencil kit, and started my journey home, I had a new appreciation for the talent and skill of the man who owned it almost two hundred years ago.

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Having read about the abundance of early American stenciling found along the coast of Maine...from Portland to Blue Hill and points in between, I decided to seek out some of these walls. Many of the walls are attributed to Moses Eaton, Jr. as many of the designs and motifs can be matched to the patterns found in Moses Eaton’s stencil kit. However, how odd is it that not one piece of documentation has ever been found that would, without a doubt, confirm the true identity of this down east artisan who was so skilled with stencil and brush. Thirty years ago, Margaret and Edward Fabian studied over 400 early stenciled walls in homes, inns and taverns throughout New England. It turns out that the research done by the Fabians, over a span of seven years, is one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on early American stenciling in New England. Their work is a treasure. Many of the walls that they photographed and studied were located in Maine. When they wrapped up their visits to Maine, Margaret put an interesting footnote on her years of research. Apparently, the more research she did in Maine, the more doubts she had that all of the walls commonly attributed to Moses Eaton, Jr., were in fact stenciled by him. We know that it was common for stencilers to copy each others designs and patterns. Did a nameless artisan copy some of Eaton’s patterns, and then trudge the rural Maine coastline beautifying homes with his pigments, brush, and stencil? One thing we can be sure of is that in many coastal Maine towns, a gifted stenciler, perhaps Moses Eaton, Jr., left a trail of wonderfully decorated walls, still admired today for their beauty, and for the insight they provide into the history of decorative arts in New England.

One of our trips to Maine afforded us the opportunity to visit a wonderful museum in Kennebunk, Maine called the Brick Store Museum. Here we saw a section of a wall saved from the c1750 David Thompson House of West Kennebunk. On one of his trips Down East, sometime between the years of 1820-1840, Moses Eaton, Jr. traveled along West Kennebunk Road and arrived at the c1750 David Thompson House. Here, he offered to stencil the walls in the home with his colorful repertoire of folk art designs. The designs and patterns Eaton chose for this home are, in my opinion, some of his most beautiful offerings. He covered the walls with cheery folk art designs that spoke to the beauty of nature, and the coming of spring. The pineapples, maple leafs, flower sprays and sunflowers that graced the walls in the David Thompson house surely brought joy to the families who lived there…reminding them of warmer days in the midst of the long Maine winters. Unfortunately, the home was destroyed in the early 20th century, but not before some of the early researchers had the opportunity to photograph, document and save a portion of the stenciling.

In 1978, Margaret and Edward Fabian visited an 18th century home in Waldoboro, Maine. The home had original stenciling, likely done by Moses Eaton, Jr. A search on the web, led me to an article in Down East Magazine about the Blue Skye Farm, formerly the Abijah Waterman House (c.1775) located in Waldoboro, Maine. My heart skipped a beat when I first visited the Blue Skye Farm’s website. There, I saw a lovely picture of the living room, resplendent with beautiful antiques, an oriental rug, and huge fireplace. Just barely visible in the background of this picture, I could see cheery red and green pineapples and oak leaf clusters, on a wall leading up a flight of stairs. This indeed was the same home where the Fabians had documented the charming red and green stenciling in the front hall and stairway.

I sent an e-mail of introduction to the owners of the Blue Skye Farm, which is now operated as a country bed and breakfast, and it was not long before I had a date to see my first Moses Eaton wall in the state of Maine!

In 1980, the Fabians also visited an establishment known as the Old Falmouth Tavern, in Falmouth, Maine. Here again, they documented extant stenciling in the tradition of Moses Eaton, Jr. I dropped a note to the Falmouth Library, seeking information on this tavern. A kind librarian replied to me, indicating that she thought the tavern I was referring to was now called the Quaker Tavern Inn. Imagine my delight, when I went to the Quaker Tavern Inn website, and was immediately greeted with a picture of one of the inn rooms, whose gray plastered walls were covered with wonderful red and green pineapples! I contacted the innkeeper, and in no time, had myself another date with history!

On a cold and blustery October day in the year 2003, my husband and I headed for Maine in search of Moses Eaton! Our first stop was the Blue Skye Farm, located in Waldoboro, Maine. Waldoboro was delightful…a quintessential New England coastal town. Its quaint streets were lined with 18th and 19th century homes, and stately trees that glowed with the bounty of autumn. Wending our way towards the outskirts of town on a hilly country road, we arrived at our destination in short order. The Blue Skye Farm was a big white federal, perched atop a windy hill and surrounded by rolling fields and woods. What an idyllic setting for my first glimpse of a Moses Eaton wall!

Innkeeper, Jan Davis, kindly welcomed my husband and me inside the home, whereupon we found ourselves in the same hallway once photographed and documented by the Fabians in the late 1970s. The walls complete with Moses Eaton Jr.’s Maine-style pineapples and oak leaf clusters greeted us just as they had greeted so many other visitors over the last 180 years.

The frieze design of “three big oak leaves” was one of Eaton’s favorites. The oak leaves were stenciled with bright red and green, and the design circled the entrance-way and continued up the stairs to the second floor landing.

The walls were divided into panels by red “turned bud” verticals. The baseboard design was the same as a design found at the Richardson House (now the Parsonage) at Old Sturbridge Village. It was comprised of scalloped edged leaves and berries. Within the panels created by the turned bud verticals, were “Maine” pineapples (smooth leaves at the crown instead of pointed, serrated foliage), oak leaf clusters, and interesting red medallions comprised of four “fan” flowers. Many of the motifs were quite a bit brighter than some of the others. The innkeeper stated that around 1900, some of the patterns had been “touched up’.

It was certainly a joy to see these well preserved walls, almost 200 years old. We lingered for quite some time, taking pictures and admiring the beautiful handiwork. After receiving an interesting tour of the old house and stretching our legs with a leisurely walk around the farm, we jumped back into our car and continued our wayfaring journeys through Maine, in the footsteps of Moses Eaton.

In no time, we arrived at our final destination of the day, the Quaker Tavern Inn, located in Falmouth, Maine. The inn was a pleasantly weathered colonial, forever framed in my mind by giant maple trees with brilliant yellow autumn foliage. The owner of the Quaker Tavern, Donna Little, greeted us warmly with a hammer in hand! Always a project to be attending to when you live in a 200 year old home!

The Quaker Tavern Inn (formerly the Old Falmouth Tavern) was built in 1780 by a family of Quakers and it is registered as a National Historic Landmark. Donna has been the faithful keeper and protector of this wonderful home and the cherished stenciling, for over 30 years. Here she raised a family, and now runs the home as a bed and breakfast. Donna Little welcomed the Fabians into her home over 26 years ago, when they too arrived to see the stenciled walls. She explained that several rooms in this home had originally been stenciled, but that only the stenciling in one small bedchamber remains intact and original. We eventually made our way upstairs to the room I had been very eager to see. Upon entering the small bedchamber, we were greeted by the simple beauty of the stenciling on plain plastered walls.
                 
The stenciling on three of the walls was very traditional Moses Eaton. Like the Blue Skye Farm, here we found some of Moses Eaton Jr.’s favorite patterns arranged on the walls with red and green symmetry. The designs and motifs in the little inn room at the Quaker Tavern included the “three big oak leaves” frieze, a chair rail stencil of small green marching leaves, diamond and petal verticals, Maine pineapples and oak leaf clusters. However, the stenciling found on the overmantle was quite unusual. Although the “three big oak leaves” frieze was carried completely around the room, and the stencil of small leaves marched along the top of the mantle, the design found over the mantelpiece included hand-drawn trees with sponge-work foliage, small stenciled birds, and prancing horses. These horses are similar, to the horses seen in the Hall Tavern Ballroom, Historic Deerfield, and at the Mather house in Marlboro, VT. So, who is responsible for this unique overmantle with prancing horses and free-hand trees, so unlike the traditional stenciling done by Moses Eaton, Jr?

As we wrapped up our visit at the Quaker Tavern Inn, and drove away towards home, I thought about how the passage of time had been kind to the stenciling in the little bedchamber; the red and green patterns still so alive and bright. I thought about the little room and its peaceful spirit. Today, it is fitting that this room with its symbolic pineapples is still welcoming the tired and the weary who seek no more than a restful night of sleep.

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I had always read that Moses Eaton, Jr. stenciled walls in Massachusetts; however I searched for years for some evidence. Recently, I had the good fortune of finding several homes that were most likely visited by Moses Eaton, Jr.

In the lovely coastal town of West Newbury, Massachusetts a circa 1823 Greek revival home has beautiful stenciling in one of the upstairs bedchambers. Red and green motifs and designs are striking against canary yellow walls.  Eaton stenciled around the top of the walls with his interesting “acanthus leaf” frieze, and he chose the pretty “rose and leaf” border for the baseboard and overmantle. The room was divided into panels by an unusual vertical stencil called “lighted candle”.  The panels were filled with flower sprays and oak leaf clusters. The overmantle included primitive flower baskets, and Eaton stenciled two lone weeping willow trees in the space between the front windows. Years ago, the stenciling was authenticated by Historic New England/SPNEA as the work of Moses Eaton, Jr. I had the opportunity to see the stenciling while the home was up for sale. It is my hope that the new owners enjoy the historic stenciling found in the little bedchamber, and that the timeless tradition brought to this home by Moses Eaton, Jr. endures.

In the spring of 1815, newlyweds Dolly and Caleb Wheeler, Jr. became the proud owners of a home located in the heart of Bolton, Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter, it is believed that the Wheelers hired itinerant stenciler, Moses Eaton, Jr. to brighten their plain plastered walls. He filled several rooms with gay patterns and designs that spoke of the hope and promise of spring. Like the home in West Newbury, Moses Eaton, Jr. chose the “acanthus leaf” frieze for one of the rooms. Stenciled hearts, cheery and red, along with sweet flower sprays, dance beneath the wonderful “pine tree and crossed boughs” frieze in the front hallway, greeting all who enter the big colonial home with homespun warmth. The front parlor sports a seldom seen frieze of small star-like flowers with delicate leaves. Surely, the hearts that Eaton incorporated into two of his well-known designs, and stenciled in the hallway and parlor, were symbolic of the love and devotion of the recently wedded couple.

The historic walls in the Caleb Wheeler, Jr. home were found by the present owners, after removing multiple layers of wallpaper. They carefully researched the faint designs and patterns that they found on the walls. They contacted Historic New England/SPNEA, and it was determined that the folk art found on the walls in the Caleb Wheeler, Jr. home exactly matched some of the patterns found in Moses Eaton, Jr.’s stencil kit. With the assistance of a neighbor who possessed an artistic flair for the art and craft of stenciling, the owners were able to lovingly recreate the stenciling, thereby restoring each room to their previous splendor.

Along Great Road in Acton, Massachusetts, a stately hip-roofed colonial home, known as the John Robbins House, was also visited by Moses Eaton, Jr. It is believed that Eaton traveled along Great Road sometime around 1830, and at the John Robbins house he left in his trail several walls full of cheery folk art design. This home has a very interesting history, as it was one of the four “Lottery Houses” built in Acton around 1800. In 1794, Harvard sponsored a lottery in order to raise funds for a new dormitory. Four neighbors from Acton purchased the winning ticket, and some of the winnings were used to build this home. Originally, the stenciling filled the center hallway and continued up the stairs and around the second floor landing.

However, due to the poor condition of the walls, most of the stenciling has been painted over. At the top of the stairs, two panels of the extant stenciling remain. Closely inspecting the wall, it appeared to me that Eaton washed the walls in raspberry or salmon-pink before stenciling his signature red and green motifs. Like the homes in West Newbury and Bolton, Eaton chose the interesting “acanthus leaf” frieze to top the walls in the John Robbins House, and he placed bold red medallions amongst the leaves. Eaton stenciled a baseboard of large green leaves, and divided the walls into panels with his “diamond and petal” vertical. Filling the panels, we find a circular “four fan flowers” motif and oak leaf clusters. Eaton incorporated hearts into the oak leaf clusters, perhaps in celebration of a new bride beginning her new life in the John Robbins House.

Today, an art gallery makes its home at the John Robbins House, continuing the artistic spirit of this great old home. The cheery Moses Eaton stenciling at the top of the stairs provides a charming historic backdrop for the 21st century art that surrounds it.

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In the 1969 fall edition of the Decorator, Bernice Perry of HSEAD wrote an article about the stenciled bridal chamber in Temple, NH. It is believed that Moses Eaton, Jr. passed through Temple sometime around 1825, and stenciled the room. At the New Hampshire Historical Society’s Tuck Library, while poring through Margaret and Edward Fabian’s research, I came across a copy of this article, along with all of the Fabian’s research regarding the bridal chamber. Margaret and Edward Fabian visited this home in April of 1978. The pictures they took at that time showed me a bright room with beautiful red and green motifs, quintessential Moses Eaton, Jr. I decided to find out what had become of this home and the “museum quality” walls in the upstairs bridal chamber.

My letter of inquiry to the Temple, NH Historical society was kindly passed along to the owner of the rambling farmhouse that was built in 1781 by Elias Colburn, and where the bridal chamber is found. Soon, I had an invitation to view these historic walls.

On a clear and cool day in March of 2005, my husband and I made the trip to New Hampshire. Bumping our way over the winding frost-heaved roads in Temple, we finally arrived at our destination. Beyond the snowy fields and an old stonewall, we could see the venerable farmhouse. This pastoral setting, with the farmhouse in the distance, looked exactly the same as the picture published in the Decorator, 36 years ago!

We pulled down the long driveway, with snow piled high on either side. When we reached the rambling farmhouse, the owner beckoned us to enter through a side door, as the normal entrance was blocked by several feet of snow! A recent snowstorm had made quite a delivery of the white stuff to this quaint little town in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire.

Inside the farmhouse it was warm and cozy. Sun poured through the living room windows, illuminating the lovely room that had such a nice aura of yesteryear. Immediately, my eyes fell upon the attic door with the two heart cutouts, just as Bernice Perry and Margaret Fabian described it so many years ago. Our hostess ushered us through the attic door with the hearts, and we climbed the dark stairs. Upon reaching the bridal chamber, my expectations were clearly exceeded. The walls were stunning. The Moses Eaton green and red motifs and patterns on natural gray plastered walls were still so lively and bright. The gay all-over pattern seemed as if it could have been stenciled yesterday! I just love the motifs and patterns that Moses Eaton, Jr. chose for this tiny attic room. I think that some of his most enchanting designs are found here. Eaton Jr. stenciled the baseboard with a pattern of large leaves, and topped the walls with his festive “arch and candle” frieze. The pretty “rose and leaf” pattern was also used as a border along one edge of the wall. The walls were divided into panels by his diamond and petal verticals. Primitive flower baskets graced the over-mantle, and green wreaths, oak leaf clusters, and darling little flower sprays with heart accents filled the panels in a lively display. Years ago, another research pioneer working in the field of early American stenciling, had the opportunity to visit the stenciled bridal chamber. After seeing the stenciling, Ken Jewett of Peterborough, New Hampshire, stated that these walls were in the best state of preservation of any original work he had ever seen.

It is believed that the bridal chamber was stenciled for Jane Parker, the young bride of Nathan Colburn, who was the son of Elias Colburn. A picture of Jane Parker now hangs in the bridal chamber. The flower spray design, stenciled with a heart accent, surely was symbolic of the love and devotion of the newly wedded couple. Although it was chilly, we lingered for quite some time in this little attic room. I took a number of pictures, which will help me to reproduce the historic patterns and motifs found in the bridal chamber, sometime in the future. This room was just a delight, and decidedly “museum quality”, as noted by Ken Jewett in 1969.

I am grateful to the present owner of this home for taking the time to show me the treasured walls in the bridal chamber. I have seen quite a few more walls attributed to Moses Eaton, Jr. over the years since my visit. However, none could surpass the beauty and timeless quality of the walls found in the bridal chamber. In a day and age when things move way too fast, it is good to see that time has virtually stood still in the little attic room of the house built by Elias Colburn in 1781.

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In the winter of 2008, on a clear and sunny day, I find myself pulling into the January-thawed driveway of the Moses Eaton, Jr. House. This delightful cape, located in the rural New Hampshire town of Harrisville, was purchased by Eaton, Jr. in 1835 when he was 39 years old. It was located just down the road from his childhood home in Hancock. He married Rebecca Plant of Dublin, New Hampshire, and they had two daughters and a son. He stenciled the soft salmon-pink walls in the front parlor of his home with beautiful red and green folk art patterns and motifs. In his later years, he farmed his land, and on occasion, continued his stenciling journeys around New England. In 1886, at the age of 90, Eaton died at his home in Harrisville. The descendents of Moses Eaton Jr.’s daughter, Mary Richardson, continued to live in this home until the year 2002.
                   

The circa 1782 Moses Eaton Jr. House is a cape style home, with an attached barn. An ancient maple tree, 200 years old, stands proudly in the front yard. Behind the house, I could see the snow covered fields that used to bloom with the crops that Eaton, Jr. grew. Ancient stone walls line the property. What a lovely setting.

I stepped into the house onto beautiful antique wide pine floors, so wonderfully worn and reminiscent of life in 19th century New England. Entering the dining room, bright orange walls and an inviting fire warmly greet me. Boarded up since the early 1900’s, the current owners restored the 18th century fireplace to its former glory. The dazzling color for the walls in the dining room was chosen from SPNEA’s palette of historic colors. Peeking beyond the dining room, I could see the front parlor…the only room Moses Eaton, Jr. stenciled in his home. The soft salmon walls with red and green folk art motifs were calling me! When I finally crossed the threshold into the parlor I was awe struck by the beauty of it. The combination of salmon pink walls with red and green motifs was striking and altogether charming!

                 
Shortly after the current owners moved into the Moses Eaton, Jr. House, Polly Forcier of MB Historic Décor recreated the historic stenciling in the front parlor, restoring the walls to their prior splendor. Most of the walls in the parlor had been covered with wallpaper for years. When the paper was removed, the original stenciling was beyond repair. However, one small section of the wall, found behind the door that leads out of the parlor, remained untouched by wallpaper. This single panel of Eaton’s original stenciling wears the passage of time like a badge of honor, and it provided the necessary information to enable the reproduction of the stenciling in the room.
                     
The patterns Eaton, Jr. used in the parlor include the “bell and swag” frieze, a pretty rose and leaf design which tops the chair rail, and a “diamond and petal” vertical design which divides the room into “panels.” Eaton then filled the panels with lively red and green floral motifs. He stenciled one solitary flower basket in a place of honor, nestled between the two front windows. Many of the folk art motifs that the itinerant artisans stenciled in the homes of rural New Englanders were symbolic of basic virtues and values. The patriotic “bell and swag” frieze symbolized love of country, as well as the liberty and freedom recently bestowed on a young America. The flower basket was the symbol of friendship. During times of hardship, 19th century New England families often relied on the generosity, kindness, and friendship of neighbors. The flower basket motif was symbolic of these remarkable bonds and lasting friendships, so integral to survival in post–Revolutionary War America.
After we left the front parlor, I received a complete tour of the house, including a brief visit to the attic…the same attic where Moses Eaton Jr. laid his stencil kit to rest for the last time. Here, the kit rested for many years before Eaton’s descendents presented the kit to Janet Waring in the 1920’s. This was also the same attic where records regarding the family were kept by Luther Eaton, the “antiquarian” of the family. Luther was Moses Eaton, Jr.’s only son. After the death of his father, he continued to live alone at the farm. He never married, and upon his death, the farm passed to Eaton’s daughter, Mary Richardson. The story goes, that one day Luther decided to purge the attic of the years and years worth of papers and records that he had accumulated throughout his lifetime. He hired a local paper peddler to cart off the seemingly unimportant papers. Knowledge about the life and times of Moses Eaton, Jr. and his travels as an itinerant stenciler might not have been as elusive, save for the innocent disposal of these papers! Clearly, Luther had no way of knowing the impact of his father’s artistic legacy on the history of decorative arts in New England!

Visiting the 19th century home of Moses Eaton, Jr. was the high point of my many journeys in search of his legacy. It was such a thrill crossing the threshold into the house where Eaton lived, worked, raised a family, and stenciled his joyful folk art. Being in the presence of so much history was an honor I will not soon forget.

Putting the finishing touches on my research into the life and times of Moses Eaton, Jr., I recently sat down with Megan MacNeil, curator at Historic New England, and held in my hands the aged stencils used by Moses Eaton, Jr. and his father. We went through each stencil one by one. I marveled at the brushstrokes of red and green still apparent on the stencils, along with stray bristles from the large round brushes still clinging tenaciously to the paint. Some of the stencils appeared to be barely used and Megan and I laughed about some of the stencils being “new!” We came across at least two stencils, cut with smooth edges and seasoned with their coats of shellac, but with no visible signs that they were ever put to use! Other stencils were thick with paint, resulting in small flecks of paint dislodging and falling to the table, even with the most gentle of handling. The stencil of quaint little flower heads, part of the primitive flower basket motif that Eaton, Jr. stenciled in his own home, had so many layers of red paint, that the once smooth and beveled edges of the openings were no where to be seen! Some of the stencils had interesting little idiosyncrasies. For example, beautiful, old-fashioned handwriting was visible on a couple of the stencils. Was this perhaps the penmanship of Eaton himself!? It was also fascinating to see that the paper used to cut two of the stencils in the kit had a previous purpose. The “bell and swag” stencil was cut right over a previously painted motif…the pineapple. Perhaps Eaton stenciled the pineapple on the paper as a “test” of some sort, or to show a potential client this charming pineapple design! Whatever the purpose, the paper was later recycled into a working stencil! An interesting little circular motif with a multitude of tiny little petals was cut from paper that had been previously stenciled with the little urn motif… the same motif that is found stenciled on the lid of the kit. This practice of “re-purposing” paper was surely an example of the frugality and thriftiness of the Eatons.

Moses Eaton Jr., a simple farmer with a penchant for decorating, left a lasting impression on the history of decorative arts in New England. The lives of rural New Englanders were enhanced by his simple and quaint decoration, and the dark interiors and plain plastered walls of their homes were made bright with the colorful bounty of spring. The folk art legacy of Moses Eaton, Jr. will always occupy a special place in my heart, and his enchanting designs and motifs will forever remind me of the fascinating history and traditions of 19th century New England.



Around 1820, Lydia Eldredge Williams of Ashfield Massachusetts stenciled several rooms in her home with a beautiful tulip design. The tulips she stenciled were not unlike a tulip design found on the floor of a small room at Howe’s Tavern (now known as Longfellow’s Wayside Inn) in Sudbury, Massachusetts. In her book Early American Stencils on Walls and Furniture, published in 1937, Janet Waring mused, “…what was the connection between the stenciled tulip she used and an identical pattern still dimly seen on the floor of a small bedroom adjoining the Lafayette room at the Wayside Inn, Sudbury? Over the stenciled pattern in the tavern I placed a tracing taken directly from the walls done by Lydia Williams, and in scale and design they were practically alike. Did she, on some momentous visit to Sudbury, copy it (the distance was a drive of eighty miles), did she merely spend a night at the inn on her way to Boston with Abel, or was the drawing brought to her by some “traveled friend,” who knew her fondness for ornament? Perhaps the pattern came to Ashfield by the medium of an itinerant peddler; if this were the case, the floor at Sudbury and the walls at Ashfield could easily be contemporary.”

Interested to see this historic tulip stenciling, I contacted the Wayside Inn. Mr. Leblanc, the head of History and Preservation at the inn, informed me that the tulip stenciling found today at the inn is not original. A fire at the inn in 1955 had all but destroyed the little bedchamber where the tulip stenciling graced the floor. Luckily, a portion of the stenciled flooring survived the fire. From that piece of flooring, the tulip design was copied and reproduced in the same little room. Mr. Leblanc kindly offered to show me the piece of original flooring with the tulip design, and I quickly took him up on his offer.

On February 9, 2005 at 10am, I was greeted at the front desk of the Wayside Inn by Mr. Leblanc. This was my first trip to the Inn. It was just beautiful. From 1716-1861, it was operated as a tavern by several generations of the Howe family. It was renamed the Wayside Inn in 1897. Several of the fictitious characters in the well known “Tales of a Wayside Inn” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were based on Longfellow’s real-life interactions with the folks that frequented the tavern.

We made our way to a lovely old room with an ancient fireplace, long wooden tables, and black Windsor chairs. Winter sunlight, reflecting off the snow outside, streamed through the old windows. I sat down, and Mr. Leblanc went to retrieve the historic piece of pine board flooring, that dated back to the 1790’s. Soon he returned with the treasure. The ancient board with the tulip stenciling was an amazing sight, and I was astonished at the timeless beauty of the stenciling. The delicate and highly-artistic tulips were a pretty shade of gray, and the design was still well-defined against the aged board. I can only imagine how pleasant the little inn room must have originally looked with this design, so graceful and decorative, circling the perimeter.

I told Mr. Leblanc about Lydia Eldredge Williams and how around 1820 she had stenciled several rooms in her Ashfield, Massachusetts home with a tulip pattern, known to be identical to the pattern found at the inn. I told him that it has always been a mystery how it came to be that the tulips she stenciled on her walls…out on the western frontiers of Massachusetts…were so similar to the tulips stenciled at his inn, 80 miles away. Alas, we will probably never know the exact relationship between the tulips stenciled in Sudbury at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, and the tulips stenciled by Lydia Eldredge Williams in her Ashfield home. However, I had one more stop to make before putting “The End” on the “Tale of Two Tulips”.

On a cold, gray, and windy day in February of 2005, my husband, and I, along with our canine companion Lucy, sped along snowy roads in western Massachusetts. Our destination was Ashfield, the 19th century home of Lydia Eldredge Williams. Ashfield greeted us like a postcard. It was a classic New England village. Traditional white-washed homes lined snowy Main Street. Small churches, with steeples white, dotted the landscape, and completed the picture of this rural New England town that is nestled in the shadow of the Berkshires.

As a snow squall buffeted our car, we made our way to the outskirts of town. We drove up a country lane surrounded by rolling hills. Sprawling farms and snowy fields lie fallow in the midst of winter. It was not long before we came upon the stately, federal period home known as the Ephraim Williams house. The house was just stunning. Built in 1797, the big, white federal had huge twelve over twelve windows, and an ancient center chimney. We pulled into the driveway and parked in front of an old barn. Our host immediately came out into the cold and extended his hand in greeting. I commented on the beauty of the snowy field stretching out behind the house, and the owner stated that on a clear day you can see clear over to Haystack Mountain in Vermont.

A roaring fire greeted us as we entered the living room, so inviting on this bitter cold day. Our host regaled us with interesting stories about the history of the home and past occupants, as we started our “tour.” He had some very colorful and entertaining stories, indeed.

Lydia stenciled two rooms in the home with the famed tulip design. The first room was found on the second floor, adjacent to the master bedroom. A picture of the tulip stenciling in this room is shown as the top picture in Figure 26 of Janet Waring’s Early American Stencils on Walls and Furniture. At some point, between the time that Janet Waring photographed the room (in the 1920s) and the 1960s when the present owner moved in, the walls had been spackled and covered with wallpaper. The tulip design under the wallpaper eventually revealed itself to the new owners, and the walls were stripped free of the paper.

It was exciting to finally be able to see the “famous” tulip stenciling done by Lydia. I marveled at her work, and felt privileged to be standing there in the presence of so much history. Along with the wonderful tulip design, I saw the interesting free hand border design and the mysterious little stacks of wood with red flames rising from them that Waring documented in her book. The significance of the little stacks of wood that dot the walls all around the tulips is unknown. However, thinking back to the moment we entered the Ephraim Williams home, and thinking about how great it felt to come in from the cold and be greeted by a warm fire, perhaps the flaming logs reveal Lydia’s personal symbol of “welcome” and “hospitality”. In this room, I spent quite some time taking pictures of the tulip design. Later, at home I was able to closely inspect Lydia’s tulip pattern, and the one found at the Wayside inn. My inspection revealed that the two patterns are indeed very similar, but yet decidedly different. I was a little surprised. My expectation was that the patterns would be identical. However, after carefully re-reading Waring’s description of the tulip stenciling in Sudbury and that in the Ephraim Williams house, she does in fact state: “In scale and design they were practically alike.”

The last room on our tour of the Ephraim Williams house was found in the attic, at the top of a steep set of stairs. This attic room was the same bedroom as seen in Janet Waring’s Early American Stencils on Walls and Furniture, Figure 26, bottom picture. I stood in the middle of the little cold room and marveled at the well preserved condition of the walls. The walls appeared not to have changed a bit since Waring photographed them in the 1920s. Our host explained that this little room had the good fortune of never seeing wallpaper. Like the room downstairs, here too we see the graceful black tulips, dividing the walls into well-spaced panels. In addition to the tulips, we also find a maypole-like freehand design and the familiar stacks of firewood, with flames, although much tinier than those found in the room downstairs.

It was really a treat to see first hand the creativity of Lydia Eldredge Williams, 19th century wall stenciler. It was also interesting to learn that for the last 40 years, the present owner has sought to preserve and protect the historical stenciling in his home. To this day, the walls provide a wonderful reminder of the talented and industrious artist who made this place her home almost two hundred years ago. It really was a thrill researching this “Tale of Two Tulips”. Being able to compare the two tulips side by side and provide a small footnote to the research done by Janet Waring 85 years ago was rewarding. It is also good to know that the historic contributions made by Lydia in her home, and by an anonymous stenciler at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, have not been erased by the passage of time.

With sincere thanks, we bid our host a fond farewell. And after a stop at the Ashfield Historical Society Museum for a quick tour, we started our journey home. It was now time to close the book on this Tale of Two Tulips. As a cold wind swirled around our car, we were warmed with memories of the little stacks of firewood that danced across the walls of the Ephraim Williams house.

 

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