“Massachusetts Style” Cabinet

by John Werry on February 21, 2011

Massachusetts cabinet

Some might be tempted to put a New York attribution on this Neo-Grec cabinet, including myself, but not so fast this time.

This one was made in Manchester, Massachusetts by John Bigwood in 1875.  We know this because he took the time to sign it as such in a hard-to-reach spot in a hidden compartment in the top.  After I write this, I’m going downstairs to my credenza and looking for hidden compartments.

It was owned by the same family for over 100 years and made the trip from Massachusetts to San Francisco in 1890 by boat  – the long way …

… around Cape Horn.

I’m guessing that it arrived at the same time the Panama Canal was finished in 1914.  I’m also thinking a trip around two continents cost about $200 and the cabinet cost the same.

1850 Census

John James  and Susan Bigwood lived in Manchester, Mass and he was 26 at the time of the 1850 U.S. Federal Census as seen below.  He was recorded as a “chair maker”.  He was from Frome, England but he apparently met his wife in Manchester as is shown from this record.  John Jr. was 9 months old at the time.

John Bigwood Census Massachusetts Style Cabinet

1860 Census

However, by the time of the census in 1860 when he was 37, Susan was no longer in the picture and he was married to a 23 year old Irish woman.  Thomas was a new addition to the family and is 4 at the time.  John Jr. is now 11.

John Bigwood 1860 Massachusetts Style Cabinet

1870 Census

By 1870 there were 2 more children, Charles and Benj (sic). The tick marks in the columns after country of birth below represent “father of foreign birth” and “mother of foreign birth”.  Notice that 13-year old Thomas is the sole child with a non-foreign mother.  He must have been a son by Susan and not Mary.

John Jr. is now living in Danvers, MA working as a cabinetmaker and is married to Adelia.

John Bigwood 1870 Massachusetts Style Cabinet

So, the natural question is whether John Jr. made the cabinet or whether John Sr. did.  I’m guessing that John Sr. made it, otherwise it would have had Jr’s town inscribed in it instead of Manchester.  Unless Jr made the trek to Manchester to work each day…

1880 Census

John and Mary are the only ones listed in the household by 1880.  John Jr. is in Danvers, MA. and Thomas is a cabinet maker in Chelsea.

John Bigwood 1880 Massachusetts Style Cabinet

My Takeaway

Now that we have this cabinet for reference I think we can take away a few of the carving and incising details for reference on future cabinet identification adventures.  The feet/base area has some unique elements;  as does the acanthus, palmette and bell flowers on the corners; the rope around the door, etc.  Not the mere presence of them, but how they are done.

However, the inlaid panels cannot be used for identification purposes.  I’ve seen them elsewhere on cabinets by other makers, especially the narrow ones along the underside of the top.

Big thanks to David Monk for sharing his great John Bigwood cabinet with us.  Anyone else have some interesting pieces with stories?  Please share.

John Bigwood Massachusetts Style Cabinet

John Bigwood 2 Massachusetts Style Cabinet

I’ve enhanced the signature darkness so that it is more visible

John Bigwood signature Massachusetts Style Cabinet

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

woodwright February 21, 2011 at 11:36 am

It’s a gorgeous cabinet and in super shape. But I wonder if the top repair was done by John Bigwood or if it was made by him? The writing looks like it was done by the same hand. The original maker obviously would not have known that the top was to be repaired at a later date and would not have written “Top Rep” and have dated when the repair was done. And most likely the repaired would not have known who made the cabinet and signed the makers name – they would have signed their own name. The other option to consider is that it was made by John Bigwood, and and signed, and at a later date – he also did the top repair and dated it when the repair was done. If he signed this piece – he might have been in the habit of signing all of his work – there may be other pieces out there by him that bear his signature. woodwright

Reply

John Werry February 21, 2011 at 12:18 pm

I’m inclined to believe that it was originally signed “John Bigwood Manchester, Mass” originally without the repair and the two dates.

When it was repaired I think it was he who did the repair and added the 1875 construction date and the repair information.

I say this because it looks as if the second pass is darker writing than the first. See here:
signature 1

However, when I look at this one, the top of the repair writing has a lighter look to it:
signature 2

Reply

David Monk February 21, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Just a small clarification. The signature actually reads “Made By John Bigwood”.

woodwright – Perhaps John B. didn’t specify a date for the build as it wasn’t finished in a day, while the repair was. :) To me, it looks like the person added the top-repaired info might have done so as an afterthought just before sealing the back of the cabinet. The space where the writing was done is quite small. That could explain why they accidentally started writing in line with the original script and had to write around the 1875?

John H – I agree with your assessment. I have a hunch that the family that owned this cabinet had a vacation home in Manchester and took the cabinet back to John B. for repair.

John W. thanks for the great write up. It will be interesting to see if other John B. items surface.

Reply

John Hutchinson February 21, 2011 at 4:51 pm

John, excellent work as always! My two cents from the cabinet building and restorer’s perspective, (= four cents) is that the Mr. B., made the cabinet and did the repairs. Knowing New England families, as I do (six cents) they would have gone back to the original maker. As do people now, when they have something exceptional built and there is a problem down the line.
John, RVR

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woodwright February 22, 2011 at 12:43 am

As I thought about it – even before I saw the replies of John W., David & John H. I was feeling the same way about it as everyone else. I didn’t know that it read “made by” – that makes it conclusive it was made by him and I suspect signed and dated 1875 when made. I also agree that he probably did do the repair and added the date which had to curve around the 1875 which was already there. The owners knew the builder and who better to trust repairing it than the builder himself – with whom they already had a relationship with. Excellent detective work. woodwright

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Ulysses Dietz March 15, 2011 at 9:59 am

This is the kind of out-of-left field documentation that keeps us interested after a lifetime in the field. Manchester Mass, for God’s sake! Who woulda thunk? And I’ve always felt that Massachusetts Victoriana was not well enough understood or documented…because in Boston it all became bad taste by 1900 and was shunned. Good work, all.

Reply

charles zatzkin February 7, 2014 at 4:51 pm

I have just finished restoring a victorian fireplace mantel. Hand carved Gryphons and canthus leaves abound. This was written on the back of the piece:

Benj F. Bigwood
Manchester, Mass
April 28th 1890

Reply

John Werry June 4, 2014 at 10:31 am

Must be the son mentioned in this blog post.

Reply

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