comprise one of the largest and most significant groups of American joined furniture, both for their distinctive methods of joinery and decoration, and for the light they shed on patterns of patronage in seventeenth-century western Massachusetts. They were made for and owned primarily by young women whose initials are often carved or painted on the front surface, and who retained ownership even after marriage. The similarity in style and carving among the 250 or so related cupboards, chests with drawers, chests of drawers, boxes, and tables was the direct result of their production by a community of craftsmen joined by ties of training and of intermarriage, and by the force of a single powerful patron whose aesthetic predilections determined the taste of a region as well as the financial success of its craftsmen. William Pynchon (1590-1662) was a wealthy trader who founded Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1636. By the end of the century, at least one-third of the population of Springfield and hundreds of people in the wider area were financially connected to Pynchon and his son, John (1626-1703). The carved motif favored by the Pynchons, the Mannerist-inspired tulip and leaf, was employed by those joiners whose livelihoods were dependent upon William and John, and which is now specifically identified with so-called Hadley chests and other forms.
Hadley chests, made primarily between 1680 and 1740, were of mortise and tenon construction, with stiles and rails framing inset panels with elaborate low-relief carving based on the repetition of a single template. The earliest examples are related to furniture from Connecticut, suggesting a generational path of joiners who traveled up the Connecticut River training younger craftsmen. The chests can be divided into sixteen centers of production in several towns in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, with some variations in the development of design and in levels of skill. Local red or white oak was used for the visible members before 1715, and hard yellow or southern pine for bottoms of the carcass and drawers, backs, and lids. More sophisticated examples from Springfield were sometimes made with walnut and cherry on the decorative panels, and later chests included turned legs, applied balusters, and carved members. The Hannah Barnard Cupboard exemplifies the transition from carving to paint that was occurring about 1715, and may also document the earliest use of Prussian blue in the colonies.
The modern interest in Hadley chests had its seeds in the Arts and Crafts movement (1876-1916), and reached its full bloom during the Colonial Revival period (c. 1880-c. 1940). Memorial Hall, in Deerfield, Massachusetts, was one of the first museums to showcase this type of early American furniture, and acquired its first chest, initialed "WA," in 1877, three years before it opened to the public. By then, antiquarian Henry Wood Erving (1851-1941) of West Hartford, Connecticut, had already informally coined the appellation "Hadley chest," first used in print in 1901 by Luke Vincent Lockwood in Colonial Furniture in America. By the early decades of the twentieth century, Hadley chests had become emblematic of Pilgrim-century furniture, the earliest style of furniture in America, and their association with young women of long ago imparted a romantic mystique that they have maintained to the present day.
See also Furniture, Painted and Decorated.