Beyond New England Thresholds

Beyond New England Thresholds

Beyond New England Thresholds

Beyond New England Thresholds

Excerpt

An old white house in the sun was taken as a symbol of rural New England in the first book of this series. Smiling and serene, framed in ancient elms, it personified many pleasant externals of this historic corner of America. But behind its sunny facade, across its inviting doorstep, there lies another symbol, more intimate and revealing, the hearth.

No more fitting theme could be found for the present volume, which is devoted entirely to early interiors, than the hearth. From the pioneer days, when newly arrived English carpenters built their Elizabethan manor houses around a huge central chimney stack bristling with fireplaces, until the time of McIntyre and Bulfinch, when the mantel became an exquisite plaything, the hearth was the sensitive barometer of New England life and progress. The first intrepid explorers lost no time in building themselves crude mud- and-plaster fireplaces, attaching rough shelters to this vital source of heat and cooking. The Colonial family clung close to the gigantic brick hearth in its kitchen living room during the exciting pioneer days of the 17th century. Under its broad lintel of hewn oak the good housewife kept pots stewing and spits turning. In its brick ovens she baked her corn bread and pudding and beans. On winter nights its roaring blaze warmed the whole family, huddled close in high-backed benches.

As the tension eased and prosperity rewarded the labor and ingenuity of early New Englanders, a more gracious and comfortable mode of living prevailed. Pure structural necessity gave way to a more academic viewpoint. The fireplace reflected this change, and became the central motif of a panelled wall, at first father crude and unsymmetrical, but later finely balanced. Still the sole source of heat, the fireplace relinquished some of its utility as a cook stove. Pots and grills became rarer. Deep, well carved moldings, framing the fireplace opening, became more frequent. Responding to the artistic influence of the Renaissance, the panelled wall continued to develop refinements until after the Revolution. Then a new and delicate force began to be felt across the sea, that of the Brothers Adam. The day of the great shipping and merchant princes was at hand, and with it a scale of living which can be exemplified by the imposing mansions of Salem and Beacon Hill. Here the fireplace disengages itself from the woodwork, and becomes a cameo-like jewel set in the wall, enlivened by Dutch tiles, or perhaps by carvings from the inspired chisel of Samuel McIntyre.

As the symbolic hearth progressed from mud-and- scones to McIntyre, so did the entire house. So did the art of living and the whole institution of American taste and manners. It is the aspiration of these pages to sketch the story of this progress by means of the photographic image. No attempt has been made to cover so vast a subject completely. But its essence may be caught by a significant cross-section of typical examples quite as well as by exhaustive text and detail.

Some forty-five characteristic houses, therefore, have contributed to this intimate pictorial record of old . . .

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