Joined Across Centuries
In the 1960s when Allan Breed was a young boy in Reading, Massachusetts, he began hanging around the stalls of dealers in “old stuff” at local antique auctions. Sharp-eyed and quick-witted, he picked up more pointers from dealers than perhaps they anticipated, and in eighth grade he purchased his first piece of furniture, a Chippendale mirror that he still owns as a reminder of where his furniture career began.
Today, Breed makes high-end reproductions of antique furniture from museums and private collections at his shop in the former Salmon Falls mills in Rollinsford, where he has carried on the cabinetmaker’s trade since 2003. His skill in reproducing antiques reaches back to the 17 th-century work of joiners, who made chests, chairs and other furniture for early colonial households. Breed has copied a turned chair from Pilgrim Hall Museum, a paneled chest in the collection of Historic New England and a painted press cupboard at Yale University Art Gallery, among many others over his 40-year career. So, when OBHS approached him about reproducing a late 17 th-century joint stool, the task was not a daunting one.
For the Unwilling Immigrants exhibition, now on view at the Counting House Museum through 2021, OBHS decided to feature the stories of four Scots who came here as prisoners of war in the 1650s. One of those exiles was James Grant, who became a carpenter in the fledgling community of “Barwicke.”
Evidently Grant made furniture as well as timber-frame buildings, since his 1684 household inventory includes a cupboard, chests, chairs, a round table and “three Joynt stooles”—far more furniture than his compatriots—in addition to carpenter’s tools and lumber.
To breathe life into that faded inventory, OBHS asked Breed to reproduce an original oak stool, dated about 1670 to 1690, that was kindly shared from a private collection. The new stool is made of red oak and pine rubbed with linseed oil and red ochre, a finish commonly found on 17 th-century stools. Breed used a kit of about 16 traditional tools, including tools used by carpenters like Grant, such as a froe for splitting oak stock, a drawknife for shaping parts and a smoothing plane for the pine seat.
Seeing furniture craftsmanship at close range over decades has given Breed an appreciation for the work of his predecessors. “Their joinery was sophisticated,” he notes, “and the pegged joints remain tight after almost four centuries.” Breed is also impressed by the efficiency of 17 th-century craftsmen, who concentrated effort on visible parts of the furniture only. Another outstanding feature of their painted work is the vibrant color that he finds hidden in joints and carved surfaces, which animated dark interiors of 17 th-century homes.
In a humble stool there are lessons learned across 15 generations and nearly four centuries of craftsmanship in New England. OBHS is grateful to Al Breed for his joinery and for his enthusiasm in bringing the story of a fellow craftsman to life.