Magnificent in its unrestored state, this chest over drawers illustrates the work of an important shop tradition active in Southeastern Massachusetts in the late seventeenth century. While it has lost some applied moldings and the lid to the till, it is nevertheless a remarkably intact survival from this time period and retains its original applied turned ornament, cleats and drawer pulls. Its current paint surface, an old layer of black and red, was applied probably in the nineteenth century after the chest lost some of its moldings and its palette suggests an attempt to imitate tortoiseshell. Owned by a direct descendant of the original owner, the chest has passed through seven generations of the Thacher family and its careful preservation and lack of alteration makes it a fascinating document of its time and its three hundred-year history.
Outwardly, hallmarks of this shop tradition comprise sawtooth and double-notched carved rails, front panels with applied geometric panels and applied turned ornament with extra astragal rings in the columns. These details, Frances Safford argues, are notably more elaborate—almost to the point of “fussiness”—than the “sober, measured schemes” on Boston-made furniture of the same era. Construction details seen here and on other forms ascribed to the same tradition include drawer fronts nailed to drawer sides, the lack of dovetails in the drawer construction, use of white cedar and a “high degree of finishing on all hidden areas.” The latter is exemplified by the fastidiously chamfered rails and muntins framing the chest’s four-panel backboards (Frances Gruber Safford, American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 2007), p. 284). The closest parallel to the chest offered here is one now in the Wadsworth Atheneum that was found in an attic in Scituate, Massachusetts. Dated 1691, the Atheneum chest appears to bear an identical scheme, the only variation being the decoration of the top front molding, the lack of glyphs on the uppermost front rail and the applied turned ornament on the stiles below the lowermost rail, some or all of which may illustrate later alterations. A second chest, also ascribed to Scituate, is also closely related and differs primarily by having a central lozenge decorated front panel, rather than the squared pattern seen here and in the Atheneum chest (figs. 2, 3) (Robert Blair St. George, The Wrought Covenant (Brockton, Massachusetts, 1979), pp. 38-39, figs. 20, 21). This shop tradition may have been based in Scituate or nearby Marshfield, both in Plymouth County. As indicated in Safford’s cataloguing of a cupboard from this group, the shop may have been based or had off-shoots in Barnstable County, a possible origin supported by the history of this chest.
Bearing the incised initials PT on the upper front rail, the chest was made for the Honorable Peter Thacher (1665-1736) of Yarmouth, Barnstable County, Massachusetts and is currently owned by his direct descendants. During his time, Peter Thacher was one of the most prominent figures in Yarmouth and among the offices held by him were town treasurer, Justice of the Peace, Judge of the Superior Court and representative to the General Court. In 1693, he married Thankful Sturgis (1675-1745) and given the dates of similar chests discussed above, it is likely that the chest offered here was made around this time or perhaps shortly before his marriage. Peter’s grandfather, Antony Thacher (1588-1667) hailed from Somerset, England and immigrated to America in 1635. He settled initially in Marblehead (then part of Salem) in Essex County, but soon after, was one of the three original grantees of Yarmouth in Barnstable County. In 1680, Antony’s son, Colonel John Thacher (1639-1713), built the Thacher family homestead, the eastern part of which was the residence his son Peter, the first owner of the chest offered here. In his will, Peter designated various items to his children, including a bedstead to his son Peter (1712-1775), who, probably because he bore the same initials, also inherited the chest in the present lot. The chest descended along the male lines and remained in Yarmouth throughout the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, the chest was owned by successive generations living in Boston and Roxbury and the current owner’s first memory of the piece was when it furnished the Brookline home of her great aunts, Elizabeth Bates Thacher (b. 1875) and Mary De Wolf Thacher (b. 1877) (for more on the Thacher family members in the line of descent of the chest, see John Reynolds Totten, Thacher-Thatcher Genealogy (New York, 1910), pp. 68-82, 92-95, 113-116, 166-167, 304-305, 419-420, 596-597).