The Kneeland and Adams Shop Research Project

By CHRISTINE RITOK & KEVIN G. FERRIGNO

The Decorative Arts Trust recently awarded a research grant to Historic Deerfield in support of a project focused on the 270-page ledger kept by Hartford, CT, cabinetmaker Lemuel Adams (1769–1850). Furniture historian Kevin G. Ferrigno discovered the ledger at the University of Miami (FL). The document provides an unprecedented record of the cabinetmaking business in Hartford during the 1790s, and Ferrigno and Historic Deerfield’s Associate Curator Christine Ritok are mining the data to spearhead a long-term study of the interrelationships among Connecticut River Valley cabinetmakers working during the Federal period.

The ledger contains, among other features, the daybook—or record of daily transactions—of the prestigious shop of Adams and Samuel Kneeland (1762-?), who were in partnership in downtown Hartford between 1792 and 1795. The ledger details the establishment of their business, the identities and tenures of their journeymen and apprentices, and the full range of their wares by form, date, price, and customer.

Prior to the discovery of the ledger, very little was known about the Kneeland and Adams shop or its output. The few objects previously attributed to the shop include a high-style chest, a set of six urn-back chairs, mirrors at Winterthur and The Connecticut Historical Society, and a chest at The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. We now know from the ledger that the partnership produced hundreds of objects.

The ledger also provides unique insights into the relationships of Kneeland and Adams with their competitors in the Connecticut River Valley as well as the firm’s purchases of large quantities of exotic imported mahogany, which they had milled for their own use as well as for sale to their competitors. In addition to business records, the ledger contains a vast amount of personal information regarding Adams, about whom little was previously known. A detailed genealogy dated 1792 reveals that Adams was born in Milton, MA, that his partner Kneeland was his first cousin, and that their uncle was the renowned Boston-area cabinetmaker Stephen Badlam. Ritok, Ferrigno, and their colleagues Christina Keyser Vida, Carol Loomis, and Katherine Fecteau are developing an understanding of these relationships and their impact on Hartford furniture making.

The ledger devotes several pages to a letter book kept by Adams as a record of his correspondence with family and friends over a 20-year period. They describe Adams’ move south with his family from Connecticut to Norfolk, VA, for unknown reasons before returning to Connecticut, and, finally, his relocation to his parents’ farm in New Hampshire. The letters document Adams’ evolving career as a cabinetmaker, merchant, lawyer, and distiller and suggest the financial pressures that influenced all craftsmen at this time.

Funding from the Decorative Arts Trust enabled the hiring of Fecteau, a recent graduate of the MA program in Public History at UMASS Amherst and former Curatorial Intern at Historic Deerfield, to complete an important phase of this project. She will focus on completing background research on the shop’s principals and journeymen, assist in identifying additional objects to the shop through object and customer research, and complete the transcription of the ledger. The project’s long-term goals include developing an exhibit at one or more venues, producing a publication based on the ledger, and creating and maintaining an online resource accessible to the public.

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