Oak Furniture Colchester
A young Windsor furniture maker's "fateful liaison" with an unmarried woman in June 1766 helped pave the way for the Connecticut Valley's golden age of furniture production.
Eliphalet Chapin's wayward ways with a neighboring damsel named Hannah Bartlett and his subsequent refusal to marry her led to a paternity suit — and to Chapin's hasty departure for the bustling port of Philadelphia, then the American colonies' leading furniture design center.
Although it's not known where he worked, Chapin incorporated many of Philadelphia's sophisticated rococo design features into his own design lexicon.
"It's almost a story of redemption, " said Richard C. Malley, head of research and collections at the Connecticut Historical Society. "He's a young guy, he made a mistake, he went away and was transformed in a couple of different ways — as a craftsman and, ostensibly, as a citizen."
In a landmark 2005 volume on Connecticut Valley furniture, Susan Schoelwer details the lawsuit, which began in January 1767, according to Hartford County Court case files:
"To Wm. Wolcott, Esquire, one of his Majesty's Justices of the Peace for the County of Hartford comes Hannah Bartlett, Jr., of Windsor in the county, a single woman & informs said Justice that your informer is now pregnant with a child which when born will be a bastard babe begotten on her body by fornication by Eliphalet Chapin of said Windsor on or about the 20th day of June last past & your informer prays that the said Eliphalet may be made to answer unto this complaint & stand chargeable with the maintenance of said child when born..."
Schoelwer, former director of museum collections at the Connecticut Historical Society and now curator at George Washington's Mount Vernon, writes that Chapin missed several court appearances and was evidently a flight risk. A 50-pound writ was issued, and two parcels of land totaling about 30 acres that he owned in Enfield were attached.
But four years later, in 1771, with help from his brother and money he'd earned in Philadelphia, Chapin was able to regain title to his land and to re-establish himself — "despite a lingering shadow of disrepute" — setting up shop in East Windsor, which split off from Windsor in 1768.
While Chapin's predicament was "far from uncommon and in many respects unremarkable, " Schoelwer writes, the paternity suit and his four years in Pennsylvania were a transformative experience that "pried him loose from Connecticut Valley woodworking traditions."
Native Stands Of Old-Growth Cherry Trees
The Connecticut Valley was largely rural at the time. The region's furniture tradition included elaborately carved and painted "sunflower" oak chests by Peter Blin in Wethersfield and others up into parts of Massachusetts in the late 1600s and early 1700s, but furniture generally was quite plain. Connecticut was separated from European and English style centers, Malley said, so there was always something of a lag.
"When we transition by the middle of the 18th century, we get into Queen Anne styles, for which Wethersfield was certainly one of the centers, " Malley said. "And you get into cherry as the primary wood."
Cherry trees grew all over the state, he said. "People find that hard to believe today; even I do. But apparently native stands of cherry — and these are old-growth — they were quite common."
Malley said Chapin's paternity suit "was probably a good thing" in terms of furniture history. Chippendale styling was becoming popular in Connecticut and Chapin streamlined it for more provincial Connecticut tastes and infused it with some distinctive flourishes.
Antiques expert and dealer Leigh Keno, who is president of Keno Auctions and well-known with his twin brother Leslie Keno for their appearances on 18 seasons of "Antiques Roadshow" on PBS, agrees.