STURBRIDGE, MASS. — In the Middle East and even parts of Europe, it comes as no surprise when new archaeological sites are uncovered. Imagine what it would be like to have a similar experience in the United States where such hidden historic treasures are a rarity? In 2007, nearly 375 years after the settlers first came to this country, the oldest known toymaking shop was found buried underneath a thick cover of vines and weeds on the Hersey estate in Hingham, just south of Boston.
This toy shop is the only one known to have survived from the pre-industrial era. Just like an Egyptian tomb that was never raided by grave robbers, the small craft shop revealed many of the artistic wooden pieces made by the original owners. This find is of great interest to historians, collectors and dealers in Americana. To commemorate this historic event, a number of these special items have been unveiled at Sturbridge Village in an exhibit titled “Bucket Town: Four Centuries of Toymaking and Coopering in Hingham” that will remain on view through January 18.
Hersey Farm, established during the Revolutionary War, survives on its original 18-acre site with many of its outbuildings and original Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century farm contents intact, such as plows, wagons and stoneboats that dragged huge items. About seven years ago, the Hersey family began restoring this property and carefully removed decades of growth over one of the old buildings. They broke the rusted lock, opened the door and traveled back in time. Here stood a shop — complete with the original tools and wares — run by Hersey craftsmen from the 1830s to the turn of the Nineteenth Century. This shop exemplifies the excellent work made by scores of Hingham professionals, recognized across the new nation and abroad not only for their coopering, but also their toymaking.
Hingham residents are pleased about this find, but do not question its veracity. Their town was once so well known for its coopers that it was called “Bucket Town.” To the curators of the Old Sturbridge Village (OSV) Bucket Town exhibit — Christie Jackson, the museum’s senior curator of decorative arts, and Derin Bray, an art and antiques dealer and consultant — the toy shop discovery still seems “too good to be true.” This major OSV undertaking with 180 exhibit items provides a closeup view of a major piece of history, which has only received scant coverage in books about toymaking and New England crafts.
There is now a better idea of how this industry developed and evolved over time and the types of items produced. According to David A. Schorsch of Woodbury, Conn., catalogs listing the items made by these early artisans are rarely found. The Hersey toy shop acts like a Rosetta Stone of these American crafts. This is a “landmark exhibit” of the geniuses in coopering and the birthplace of toymaking.
“One of my favorite statistics,” says Jackson, “is in a newspaper from about 1818 that reports how 500 Hingham men were in the coopering business, or roughly 38 percent of the males of the total population. That works out to about one person per household. It’s hard to think of an industry having such an impact on the economy today.” The Hingham toy shop is also a “great platform for telling a story” of how early American economic enterprise responded to the needs of the people.
First called Bare Cove, the town of Hingham was settled gradually between 1630 and 1640, as groups of families moved in, initially from the West Country in England, then from the East Anglian counties of Norfolk.
According to Jackson, numerous settlers became coopers and the streets were lined with bucket-making shops. Thomas Lincoln, who arrived from southwest England, was considered the first cooper in the town. In 1636, he called himself a maltster and an occasional carpenter. Coopering developed into a major trade by the mid-1600s, with 30 craftsmen joining Lincoln in the trade by 1700. Unlike their peers in Boston, who were making barrels, casks and kegs, the Hingham coopers were skilled in fabricating pails to transport milk and water; tubs for curing meat, dyeing fabrics and laundering; churns for making butter; strainers and hoops for cheeses; boxes to store spices; and a number of different woodenware to carry related goods.
Since these woodenwares were a necessity for settlers, Hingham craftspeople rose to the occasion. It was not until the mid-1800s that these products were sold in wholesale stores in cities like Boston. Earlier, they were purchased onboard the Hingham Station packets at Long Wharf. “The shipping records in Boston,” explains Bray, “were loaded with woodenware that was going up or down the coast, overland, to Canada or the West Indies.” Jackson adds that the Hingham buckets also traveled with prospectors out to the Gold Rush and even with the missionaries to Hawaii.
The Hingham coopers also made many of the canteens for the Continental Army, although being paid little for their efforts due to the shortage of funds. Today, very few canteens survive with reliable histories of ownership. In his book Bucket Town: Woodenware and Wooden Toys of Hingham, 1635–1945, Bray describes a decoratively painted example used by Lieutenant Noah Allen of Sandisfield in Berkshire County, Mass. Although its place of manufacture is undocumented, Hingham is a strong possibility.
Another brightly painted example — impressed around 1822 with the mark of its maker, “E BURR” of Hingham — is among the best documented pieces from this era. It was one of 26 canteens purchased by the Independent Boston Fusiliers, a wealthy volunteer militia. Regardless of what the Hingham coopers made, be it pails or pantry boxes, they exemplified high standards of proportion, color and finish.
As with any other industry, coopering sales went up and down depending on demand. By the mid-1800s, major changes were also occurring in New England, including the use of steam for manufacturing. Whether craftspeople such as Rueben Hersey were perceptive enough to see the end of their coopering trade in the decades to come or just happened to stumble upon another way to use their skills is unknown. Whatever the reason, Hingham artisans started making such items as mini-boxes, which were often gifted to a child of a certain age, and then fabricated miniature furniture, which Bray says were occasionally mistaken for salesman samples but were actually children’s toys.
It is difficult to imagine a child’s world without toys, yet, although the history of toys dates back to the earliest civilizations, these playthings were quite sparse in colonial America. Factors such as austerity, religious beliefs and the role of children kept such luxuries at a minimum. What were considered professionally made toys in the Eighteenth Century — dolls, carved animals and soldiers — were typically imported from Europe, most often Germany, and intended for wealthier families.
The Hingham artisans once again had the right skills at the right time to please buyers. A new market was opening up for their new children’s creations. Hingham was becoming a resort area, with steamships arriving daily from Boston. In the summertime, the population exploded. Thousands of people wanted to enjoy the scenic views and beaches, and hotels were opening everywhere. Utility toys, such as dollhouse furniture, were ideal tourist gifts.
“Many of the toy furniture pieces reflected the finest furniture of the time,” explains Jackson. Around 1910, Hingham artisan Augustus Hudson crafted a miniature table with a detailed octagon top and a pedestal base that was at the peak of style. Other furniture re-created the colonial period, which was becoming popular. In the late 1880s, George W. Fearing began to craft miniature colonial furniture. Similarly, Loring H. Cushing made precise miniature pieces such as highboys and lowboys by following the full-size examples in his neighbor’s home.
The woman’s voice was quieter than it is today and very little is known about any specific female handiwork, says Jackson. However, many of these women played an important role, handling the smaller handiwork and furniture decorations. One of Jackson’s favorite items in the OSV exhibit is a much-used and worn 9-inch tack hammer from the late 1800s. Owned by Jenny Cook, it was used to assemble a variety of playthings. Most of these items were held together with tiny iron fasteners.
Even as the Hingham artisans were producing such detailed and finely made toys, steam industrialization was taking away their monopoly. In 1869, William Tower opened a mechanized factory that made wooden toys with machine-cut and -turned parts held together with riveted tinned iron hoops. Less attention may have been paid to detail and construction than earlier handcrafted items, but the business was very successful. According to Bray, at one time Tower produced more than 100 different toys, including dollhouse furniture, tenpin sets, game boards, carts, nests of pails and miniature gristmills.
The company sold thousands of puzzles and educational sets like Tower’s Log Cabin, with a miniature old-fashioned farmstead, an interlocking fence and well sweep with a tiny bucket. Companies throughout the United States followed suit and began to mass produce children’s playthings.
For a while, the Hingham craftspeople had an upswing in business with the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement and the emphasis on handmade items. As factories expanded and began to produce metal toys, the Hingham artisans began to close their businesses. After a good run, the dozens of Hingham shops disappeared — except, that is, for the one on Hersey’s property.
The OSV exhibit and Bray’s extensive research and book are a valuable addition for historians, collectors and dealers. Schorsch, an expert in American folk art, explains how many of the early toys are incorrectly identified. Not only are they sometimes believed to be made by Shakers because of their fine craftsmanship, but many of the small children’s gift boxes are wrongly been labeled as pill boxes.
The book Bucket Town: Woodenware & Wooden Toys of Hingham, Massachusetts, 1635–1945 by Derin Bray serves as the exhibition catalog.
Old Sturbridge Village is at 1 Old Sturbridge Village Road. For information, www.osv.org, or 800-733-1830.