© Yelena Yasen. American Furniture in the Brooklyn Museum. Education Department. Brooklyn Museum. 1980
American Furniture in the Brooklyn Museum
Information for Children
New York was founded by the Dutch about three hundred years ago. They began to live in Manhattan Bay at the beginning of the 17th century. They gave the name of New Amsterdam to this place. It was later renamed to New York.
At that time Manhattan, Brooklyn and other areas of future New York City were covered with thick woods. A narrow Indian trail made a path where Broadway is now. There were a lot of wild animals and many fresh streams in the forests.
The first Dutch settlements appeared among these beautiful natural landscapes. They were pretty small in the beginning, but little by little these settlements increased and started looking like the Dutch cities with traditional wind mills on the out skirts.
A ten years old boy, Jan M. Schenck, arrived in New Amsterdam with his older brother Rolof during that period. For two months they both sailed from their native Holland across the Atlantic Ocean with their parents. Jan slept on a tiny berth on the open deck of the ship—each person was allowed to bring only one chest with him.
New Amsterdam was not the final destination of their difficult voyage. From there, they continued by boat to New Amersfoort, a little town in Brooklyn. In that town J. M. Schenck grew up and became a prosperous miller. In 1675 he bought the Mill Island in New Amersfoort and built there a wind mill and a house for his family. Many years later Mill Avenue and 63rd Street crossed here.
It is hard nowadays to find original houses of the first American settlers in the city—times destroys them. But museums preserved some of these houses. In 1952 the J. M. Schenck house was dismantled and brought to the Brooklyn Museum. It was reconstructed there and furnished in exact same way as it would have been furnished in Colonial times.
The Dutch brought to America their traditions of architectural design: their houses had high steep roofs thanks to which they could have had two attics in their houses. One attic was for storage—there were no canned goods at that time and people needed to store enough food until the next crop. Another attic was used as a bedroom for children. J. M. Schenck’s five children slept on the straw mattresses there.
The Dutch brought with them their national customs too. Who doesn’t know today a kind Santa Claus? The tradition of children waiting for Santa Claus to bring them gifts was born in Holland, but in Holland the Saint Nickolas used to come to the Dutch children before Christmas with a little servant, who helped him to carry gifts.
Children used to start the Christmas morning by ice-skating. The skating-rink looked very festive with multiple brightly painted sleighs looking like swans, boats, and dolphins. As it began to get darker, the children went home, where they used to sing Christmas songs while they were waiting for Saint Nicholas and his servant who were flying to them on the white horse.
In the Jan M. Schenck house this special event could have taken place in the parlor, the most beautiful room of the Dutch house.
On Saint Nicholas Day the whole family gathered in the parlor, around the bright flaming fireplace. In preparation for the Saint Nicholas’ arrival a fresh linen table-cloth was laid upon the rug. Brass candlesticks standing all around the room were polished up to the point so that they looked like gold. A sheet was placed on the floor prepared for the sweet shower.
All of a sudden, the door would open, Saint Nicholas and his servant entered the room, and a shower of sweets—cookies, candies, and nuts—would fall upon the floor. After receiving the gifts the children had set around the father to hear some Bible stories, which he was telling them while pointing to this or that tile around the fireplace. The fact of the matter is that the fireplace tiles illustrated different Bible legends.
But beautiful tiles were put on the fireplace outside walls not just for decoration. They were supposed to prevent spreading the fire. During the winter, parts of the room, which were far from the fireplace, were covered with frost in the morning. People then were very afraid of fire accidents, and so they allowed themselves only small smoldering fires during the night. For the same reason the beds in the house were built right into the wall, so that they could be the warmest places in the entire house to sleep in. It is interesting that the beds in the J. M. Schenck’s house look like two huge chests with curtains hanging to the right and the left of the huge kas—just to preserve warm air in the beds’ areas.
The very solid oak or walnut cupboard, the kas, was the most important piece of furniture in the parlor. It was built to last for hundreds of years and was handed down from one generation to the next as a family treasure.
And it is not by accident the two Dutch portraits are placed on the far wall in this museum’s room. Dutch people liked to adorn the best room in the house by hanging Dutch paintings on the walls, which, by the way, crossed the ocean to the New Land just like people.
To conclude an observation of this historic room, let’s pay attention to Chinese porcelain items arranged all over the parlor. Their blue glaze surfaces provide a bright artistic contrast to the red Turkish carpet placed on the table, and so not only they make the room really beautiful, but also create some kind of exotic spirit here.
The everyday family’s gatherings took place, however, in the second room of the J. M. Schenck house; it was arranged for ordinary, everyday needs. We can’t really say that this room is simply the kitchen. It was the dining room, and the place for household work, and a comfortable place for the Bible readings. The Bible as an important house treasure was kept in the secretary desk (slant-front desk) standing against the right wall.
The lady of the house could lay out her sewing on the large simple table—all the clothes were sewn at home at that time. She could sort out the bed-clothes on this table and then fold them with the help of the linen press. An unusual-looking object standing against the left wall is just that—the linen press, which, by the way, happens to be the most beautiful object in the room. It has interesting figurines’ legs, and two carved lion-heads adorning the press’ central part. The other pieces of furniture in this room are much simpler. For the most part, in the 17th century furniture had quite simple shapes.
From these simple shapes everything began many centuries ago. From the beginning of human civilization a simple rectangular chest was used for many purposes in everyday life: for storing cloths, or as a table, or chair, and sometimes as a bed—in early times people slept on the chest tops. Little by little the drawers appeared in the chest which made it more convenient. Then legs were added—much more convenient.
Beginning with the 17th century great historical discoveries changed the world, and it was also a century of important changes in domestic life (different kinds of furniture were widely invented then because people’s needs were becoming more diverse); also it was time when people ceased to be afraid of crossing the oceans. Merchant ships of different countries began to connect New and Old Lands. J. M. Schenck and his brother Rolof were two persons among thousands of people who wanted to live on the new continent. Settlers who arrived to America during that period tried to build warm and cozy houses as soon as possible. But where could they find furniture? It would be too much to bring furniture from Europe. The voyage by the ocean was difficult enough by itself. That is why Jan and Rolof had to carry only things of the most important necessities with them for their travel.
Furniture craftsmen soon appeared in America. Sometimes they made very simple objects; sometimes they decorated them like the linen press in J. M. Schenck house. Tables and chairs of different forms, secretary desks, cupboards for dishes and clothes were the types of furniture which were widely built up during that period.
Little by little craftsmen began to create furniture designs that included curved decorations, which by that time were already widely used in Europe. So gradually furniture objects lost their rectangular “chest” shapes and were transformed into something much more graceful. To see that change, let’s now move from J.M. Schenck’s house to the Cupola house in the Brooklyn museum, and for that matter, to another period of American history.
Many new things happened in America by the beginning of the 18th century. A long time ago New Amsterdam had already been renamed to New York. In 1664 the British had annexed the Dutch colonies to the English possessions in America. Since 1670 the British played the most important role in the American way of life. Many people followed the English influence in furniture design and in fashion because there were a lot of English colonies to the South and to the North of New York.
In one English colony, North Carolina, Sir F. Corbin arrived from England in 1756. He became very rich from buying and selling land, and so eventually could afford to buy a big beautiful Cupola House in Edenton, once major port town in the colony. The house looked very elegant because of the Cupola on the roof, a pediment above the entrance, and numerous big windows. Rooms from this house were also reconstructed in the Brooklyn Museum.
Elegance was an important new thing in the 18th century, and so it became quite important to wealthy colonists. To appreciate the elegance of F. Corbin house let’s come inside of the parlor and look around. One can find many curved shapes here—in the sofa back, in the piano forms, in the little card table standing against the window. And the chairs’ legs, which look like the legs of fantastical birds!
Truly, furniture of the 18th century has a different look. What kind of activities could have taken place in the F. Corbin’s parlor—probably, some kind of entertainment? Let’s imagine a music party in this room: somebody is sitting on the sofa listening to the music and examining the decoration above the fireplace—several graceful statuettes which are… kind of… dancing to the sounds of music.
Mr. Corbin could invite for a tea party a few friends and, possibly, people to whom he wanted to sell some property too. People are talking; soon they will go into the dining room for dinner. The room across the parlor is much larger and much more convenient to have a dinner party.
There is a big round table here which is just right for dinner. The dinner would be prepared by servants and slaves. After dinner they would have tea around the little tea-table. Wine could be served around the marble-topped table. A dinner ceremony came to be almost like a performance with several acts. But where is the scenery for the performance? Well… the blue painted curved walls create a pleasant mood; the big cupboard is built right in the wall to display beautiful dishes—in this environment Mr. Corbin, probably, felt very successful.
People who lived in such elegance came to think of themselves as kind of actors and actresses. Imitating European nobility, wealthy ladies wore very high and complicated wigs. Sometimes, a woman couldn’t get into her carriage because of the wig; all the way to the ball she had to kneel between the seats.
At that period people went out rather often. They liked different parties and balls very much. To imagine how a woman got ready for the entertainment, let’s come into the bedroom of F. Corbin house.
The graceful little vanity-table standing against the right wall was really convenient for the lady to use. The bed in this room looks elegant too like most of the furniture of the 18th century. It is surrounded with splendid curtains from the ceiling to the floor, which is quite different from the beds in the J. M. Schenck house (looking like the huge chest—just to remind you). The bed in the F. Corbin house is less warm, but much more graceful.
And it would be difficult to imagine the lady of the J. M. Schenck house sitting before the mirror for several hours to prepare herself for dancing the minuet, fashionable European dance in the 18th century. The reason is that even a rich woman of the 17th century was often very busy by doing things at her household—sewing, cooking, and especially, cleaning—Dutch women almost worshiped neatness.
In the 18th century a wealthy English lady wouldn’t do heavy domestic work; her typical activities were quite different—caring for the flowers, letters’ writing, preparing for the balls, entertaining guests. Embroidery was very fashionable. Ladies could embroider very beautiful things which looked like the fire screen design in the F. Corbin parlor.
There were servants and slaves for all other jobs. The kitchen was just for them, and so the owner of the house did not spend a lot of time in the kitchen like he used to in the J. M. Schenck house’s “kitchen.”
The kitchen was no longer the main room, and so, not by accident, it is separated from the main rooms in the Cupola house. Of course, the house owner could come here to watch the servants, to check his books, while standing for some time at the high slant desk. This desk was designed just for a standing person who could leave at any minute.
We chose two houses at the Brooklyn Museum’s furniture exhibition to show you: every century and every country brings something special. Many things like customs, tastes, and circumstances have an effect on our environment.
It seems that the form of a sofa back or a chair leg doesn’t matter. But objects changed because of changes in human life, so today these objects can tell us about domestic life of different periods. They can tell us what is common between us and people who lived before us, and what was special just for them. Ordinary objects which sometimes look like modern ones, and sometimes don’t… can “speak” to us. It is amazing, isn’t it?
Brons, Stephen H. The Challenge of America. By Stephen H. Bronz, Glenn W. Moon and Don C. Cline. Introduction by O. Handlin. New York, Toronto, London, 1968.
Cable, Mary, American Manners and Morals. A Picture History of How We Behaved and Misbehaved, New York, 1969.
Comstock, Helen, American Furniture, 17th, 18th, 19th Century Styles, New York, 1962.
Earle, A. Morse. Home Life in Colonial Days. London, 1899.
Hults, D. Niebrugge. New Amsterdam, Days and Ways; the Dutch Settlers of New York, New York, 1963.
Reynolds, H. Wilkinson. Dutch Houses in the Hudson Valley before 1776, New York, 1929.
Schwartz, D. Marvin. The Jen Martense Schenck House. The Brooklyn Museum.
Schwartz, D. Marvin. American Interiors, 1675 – 1885, New York, 1968.
Singleton, Esther. Dutch New York, New York, 1909.
Brooklyn Museum, Education Department’s Materials: The Southern Colonial Rooms at the Brooklyn Museum, The Cupola House, the Jen Martense Schenck House and others.