The following is excerpted from Joshua A. Klein’s “Hands Employed Aright: The Furniture Making of Jonathan Fisher (1768-1847).” Fisher was the first settled minister of the frontier town of Blue Hill, Maine. Harvard-educated and handy with an axe, Fisher spent his adult life building furniture for his community. Fortunately for us, Fisher recorded every aspect of his life as a woodworker and minister
on the frontier.
In this book, Klein, the founder of Mortise & Tenon Magazine, examines what might be the most complete record of the life of an early 19th-century American craftsman. Using Fisher’s papers, his tools and the surviving furniture, Klein paints a picture of a man of remarkable mechanical genius, seemingly boundless energy and the deepest devotion. It is a portrait that is at times both familiar and completely alien to a modern reader – and one that will likely change your view of furniture making in the early days of the United States.
[Jonathan] Fisher didn’t die an active cabinetmaker. About the time he recorded paying off his debt, his shop activity waned. By March 1820, when he wrote “I am free from debt to earthly creditors,” he hadn’t made a chair or a stand for almost a decade. He had reached the ambition of every frontiersman – in the most literal sense, he had built from the ground up a comfortable life for his family and himself in a thriving coastal community. As Richard Bushman has pointed out, “Beyond the physical side of comfort – warmth, good food, restful chairs, and accessible conveniences – comfort implied a moral condition achieved through retirement from the bustle of high life and retreat into wholesome domesticity.” (1)
With all the labor he expended to get to this place in life, Fisher appreciated being able to reap the rewards. Not every family was so fortunate, though. On one visit to a struggling family whose father had been recently imprisoned, Fisher sympathized with them when he wrote, “Mrs. David Carter had with her 4 little children, three of them sick with whooping cough. Not a chair in the miserable cottage to sit in and her husband recently gone to prison for shooting some of his neighbor’s cattle and she professed to believe him innocent … Oh when will the benign sway of pure Christianity banish in some good measure from this earth this mess of human misery!” For Fisher, the lack of a chair in the Carter home symbolized the family’s economic, social and spiritual poverty.
For Fisher, though, comfort was not simply about retreat from the “bustle of life” Bushman refers to – it had much more to do with contentment. On a visit he made to the exceptionally fine house of a Mr. Codman, “Mr. Fisher was greatly surprised by its beauty and luxury and exclaimed: Brother Codman, can you have all this and heaven too?” (2) Fisher wrote in his journal on one occasion: “So craving is the disposition of man, that his wants in general increase with his riches. And besides this, his anxiety increases for what he possesses, which is a farther source of unhappiness. If riches conduce not to unhappiness, what then is wanting to make me happy? I tread on as good an earth, as the richest, I survey as fair a landscape. And breathe as pure an air, as they; yes, and may contemplate the same glorious heavens; nothing is wanting to make me happy, as happy as man can be in the world, but a good heart, a heart that delights in virtue.” (3)
It’s not that Fisher lost interest in creative work. Instead, he fixed his focus on the production of his book, Scripture Animals (4), a compendium of all the animals mentioned in the Bible, complete with his own woodcuts. This project took dedication and more than 10 years of effort to complete. Not only is the volume a fascinating insight into Fisher’s mind, it is an incredible example of the attention to detail of which the man was capable. The homemade engraving tools, though crude and primitive in appearance, were delightfully manipulated to form the finest details of hair, feathers and eyes on the boxwood blanks.
It was only a couple years after the 1834 publishing that Fisher fell into the period of his life known to all as “the long sickness.” The inside of the small cupboard door (Cat#6, p 142) twice records the event by this name, and in his letters to family, the regularity of which the event was discussed suggests it was something akin to a near-death experience. This sickness was disruptive enough that he decided to retire in 1837 at the age of 69. The church agreed to give Fisher $2 per week for one year after his retirement. After this support ran out, Fisher wrote in a letter dated November 1837, “I am now thrown upon the kind hand of God, and the avails of my own industry. I think it probable that for the present I shall work on the farm and at mechanics, and preach now and then a Sabbath and a lecture in Bluehill and vicinity … As respects temporal concerns, I may remark that I have at present a competency. I owe but little, and I have about $200 due to me ….”
The “avails of his own industry” appear to have been sufficient for satisfying his financial needs – he credited manual labor with the restoration of his physical condition: “I am able to perform nearly all the work on my farm, cheerfully and with little weariness. My labor conduces to my health … The ax, the saw, the plane, the shovel, and the hoe may many times add life and vigor to our composition as well as add years to the number of our days.” He was, by 1838, in “almost perfect health.”
Throughout his furniture-making career, it seems Fisher benefitted from a monopoly in his rural market. Undoubtedly, some Blue Hill residents preferred to order furniture from “the westward” and have it shipped to Blue Hill bay because local options were limited. The only local furniture maker documented to have worked in the first quarter of the 19th century in Blue Hill was Fisher. In R.F. Candage’s Sketches of Blue Hill, he made a mention of the “old Curtis furniture factory” on the stream at the head of the bay. This is, apparently, a reference to Robert T. Osgood (a cabinetmaker) and Ezra Curtis (a wheelwright) who shared a shop there from 1835 to 1842, although no other period resource mentions the “factory.” (5) If Osgood and Curtis were making furniture at the head of the bay, it is probable that Fisher would not have been able to favorably compete with their efficiency in division of labor and waterpower.
David Jaffe (6) has shown how the New England “move from craft to industry” began for chairmaking with countless small workshops operating “chair manufactories” on mill streams much like the one in Blue Hill.
Like most artisans, Fisher was driven by complex motivations that must be appreciated if we are to understand the role furniture making played in his life. His devotion to God was the core of all he wrote, did and made. For Fisher, the mere ability to work produced emotional gratitude: “Brisk S. mild and cloudy. Spent most of the day burning brush by the side of new field. While my hands were occupied in needful labor, I was led to exclaim in heart, hands, what a blessing they are when employed aright. The fingers are adapted to such a variety of useful occupations that they give man a great superiority over all other creatures.” This moment of reflection perfectly captures the relationship between Fisher’s manual, spiritual and intellectual activities. His manual labor provided the opportunity to ponder the glories of heaven and marvel at the beauty of the created order. The relationship among the head, heart and hands of Fisher were clearly intertwined and complex.
What was furniture making to Fisher? It was, in one sense, an avenue to indulge the artistic and creative impulse woven through the fiber of his being. In his shop, Fisher was free to design and build functional objects of beauty that still reflect his complex mind to this day. His furniture is distinctive for its perplexing fusion of micro-focus attention to detail and humble pragmatism.
Furniture making was also a way for him to make ends meet. With nine children at home, the demands on his pocketbook were real. His modest salary as a preacher was not enough to ensure everyone was fed and educated while continuing to develop his farm. Making furniture was one of the many services Fisher offered to his community. The surveying, book publishing, sign painting, pipe boring and even hat braiding were all important contributors to the flourishing of the Fisher family. The Puritan work ethic to “work with your own hands” forbid wasting time in idleness, and Fisher seems to have taken this seriously. His hands were ever employed aright.
1. Bushman, Richard L., The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities, Knopf, 1992, p 268.
2. Candage, Rufus George Frederick, Memoir of Jonathan Fisher, of Blue Hill, Maine (1889), Kessinger Publishing, 2009, p 224.
3. Smith, Raoul N. The Life of Jonathan Fisher (1768-1847) Volume 1 (From His Birth Through the Year 1798), self-published, 2006, p 42-43.
4. Fisher, Jonathan, Scripture Animals: A Natural History of the Living Creatures Named in the Bible, Pyne Press, 1972.
5. Hinckley, William, “The Weekly Packet,” Oct. 5, 1978.
6. Jaffe, David, A Nation of New Goods: The Material Culture of Early America, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, p 189.