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Decorated Objects

The works seen here speak to the range of individuals, communities, and traditions associated with decorating objects for everyday use and pleasure. Early American boxes survive in significant numbers, speaking to the rise of consumer culture that produced a proliferation of goods in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the absence of closets, which were mostly a later addition to American homes, the stuff of daily life required another storage solution. Chests and boxes were used to protect textiles, books, trinkets, and other items of personal value to the individuals who owned them. Paint was a common means of decorating these objects, and makers developed distinctive styles according to their community’s visual vocabulary and individual preferences. For instance, the dome-top “Compass Artist” box incorporates motifs traditional to the Pennsylvania Germans, including characteristic pinwheels, flowers, birds, and other geometric forms. A box decorated with hearts represents the favored motif of a Rhode Island furniture-maker who was also a farmer.


Two smaller boxes are decorated with watercolor portraits; they represent the projects of unknown New England schoolgirls, working in a popular mode of decoration taught in girls’ academies in the early 19th century. Pages from young Betsy Lewis’s sketchbook also document the decorative practices common to girls’ education during this period, which sought to instill virtues of care and patience through acts of illustration and copying. Although created in an entirely different context, the pair of ornamented whale’s teeth also evoke the theme of patience: scrimshaw carvings like these were often made by mariners to pass the time and stave off boredom on long sea voyages.

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