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Black wooden chair, with woven seat, painted with gold decoration
Side Chair, Created by Lambert Hitchcock, 1825-1835. /
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Many people believe that mass production started with Henry Ford and the Model T. But the ideas that led to this breakthrough were already being put into practice back in the early 1800s, in mills and manufactories dotting the countryside across New England. It was here that Lambert Hitchcock applied early mass production techniques to turn out chairs by the thousands—uniform, durable, attractive, affordable, and, for a time, wildly popular.

Portrait of woman with elaborate hairstyle wearing a dark dress with lace collar and holding a book
Julia Barton Hunting of Pine Plains, New York, sat on a Hitchcock chair while posing for this portrait by Ammi Phillips, about 1830. / THF95303

Invention was in the air in New England during the early 1800s. Burgeoning industries like firearms, clocks, and textiles were experimenting both with new machinery—to increase production and make up for labor shortages—and with new factory arrangements that integrated materials and activities under one roof.

Furniture making had a long tradition of handcraftsmanship, and manufacturers varied in their adoption of machine production over generations-old hand processes. Hand-crafted pieces were made to order, resulting in low production and fairly high costs. With water- or steam-powered machines to rough out the pieces, furniture makers could turn out more products at lower costs to sell to a wider market.  Neither of these processes was right or wrong—the choice was essentially a business decision.

Lambert Hitchcock chose machine- over hand-production, inspired by the bustling firearms and clock industries in his home state of Connecticut. He had started out learning the craft of fine furniture-making. But Hitchcock dreamed of manufacturing affordable furniture, using uniform parts that were quickly and cheaply made by machine, and easy to assemble.

In 1818, Hitchcock chose a site in northwestern Connecticut, where two fast-moving rivers came together. Here, using the rivers’ power to operate his machinery, Hitchcock produced a line of chairs that was so affordable he basically created a brand-new market. Before long, Hitchcock’s chair factory—in the newly named village of Hitchcocks-ville—was turning out some 15,000 chairs per year.

The price, ranging from 45 cents to $1.75 (about $10.15 to $39.40 today), certainly appealed to people. Also appealing was the idea that machines could be harnessed to produce sturdy, functional chairs that everyone could enjoy. But Hitchcock did not ignore aesthetics. His characteristic stenciling across the back chair rails served as an attractive substitute for the hand-carving on more expensive custom-made chairs.

In 1825, Hitchcock went one step further. He erected a three-story factory, arranged into sections, in which specific tools and materials were associated with logical steps in the assembly process. The ground floor held areas for rough-cutting work, like sawing, turning, and planing. On the second floor, the chair parts were bonded together with glue, then dried in a kiln until their joints were firm. On the third floor, the chairs were painted and decorated, using pre-cut stencils and pre-arranged patterns. Each of these stencils, designed to create a different part of the overall composition, was positioned on the chair back, then carefully rubbed with bronze powders to achieve the special tone and shading.

Professional male stencilers probably cut the stencils and lent their expertise, but women did much of the actual stenciling at Hitchcock’s factory. Many had learned this skill as young women at female academies popular in New England at the time. There they practiced the art of theorem painting—that is, creating stylized pictures of fruits and flowers that similarly used pre-cut stencils, metallic powders, and prearranged patterns.

Painting of bowl of fruit with other produce surrounding it
An example of a theorem painting, created in 1835 by Caroline Bennett, a young woman who would have attended a female academy. / THF119757

Women also worked as seat rushers and caners, while children often did the painting and striping.  At its peak of production, in the late 1820s and early 1830s, Hitchcock employed over 100 workers.

Lambert Hitchcock was innovative in his manufacturing techniques: integrated work processes, division of labor, and application of fast and inexpensive, yet still attractive, decorative techniques. Hitchcock was also an assertive salesman, opening retail stores in Hitchcocks-ville and Hartford (the state capital), selling chairs wholesale to dealers and store owners, and distributing his chairs far and wide through the network of itinerant Yankee peddlers.

Unfortunately, Lambert Hitchcock also made some costly mistakes. He located his factory in a very isolated area, with deplorable roads to Hartford and other markets. In 1844, Hitchcock moved his factory to a town called Unionville, banking on the construction of a new canal. But, alas, the canal construction was halted, and a new railroad bypassed the town. For all his tremendous contributions, Hitchcock died at the age of 57 with few assets to his name.

But Hitchcock’s name and his chairs lived on. The chairs were so popular during their heyday that many competitors tried to imitate both their aesthetics and production techniques. To this day, chairs of this general style are referred to as Hitchcock (or Hitchcock-type) chairs. Hitchcock chairs were also painstakingly reproduced by succeeding generations of artisans, a tribute to the genius and foresight of Lambert Hitchcock, a true American innovator.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran in March 2008 as part of our Pic of the Month series.

decorative arts, Connecticut, 1830s, 1820s, 1810s, 19th century, manufacturing, home life, Henry Ford Museum, furnishings, entrepreneurship, by Donna R. Braden

Two-story white house with black shutters, surrounded by lawn and a few trees

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With Greenfield Village reopening soon, you’ll find something new at the Noah Webster Home!

Room with patterned floor and walls containing a large, set table with many mismatched chairs
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We have reinstalled the formerly sparsely furnished Webster dining room to better reflect a more active family life that took place in the Webster household at the time of our interpretation: 1835.

Painting of man with white hair in dark suit and white cravat, sitting in an armchair and holding a piece of paper
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Noah and Rebecca Webster moved to their New Haven, Connecticut, home in their later years to be near family and friends, as well as the library at nearby Yale College. This painting of Noah dates from about this time.

Painting of seated woman in dark dress with light collar and hat
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The Websters moved into their comfortable, newly-built home on Temple Street in New Haven in 1823. This portrait shows Rebecca Webster from about this time as well.

Room with table and four chairs, as well as fireplace with doors on either side,
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New research and evolving historical perspective often lead us to reinterpret Greenfield Village buildings. So, furnishings change to reflect these richer or more accurate stories. This is what the Webster dining room looked like in 1947.

Dining room with elaborate furnishings, including set table and chairs and two sideboards
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In 1962, the Webster house was refurnished to showcase fine furnishings in period room-like settings—rather than reflecting a household whose elderly inhabitants started housekeeping decades before.

Room with patterned blue wallpaper containing fireplace, bed, chest of drawers, chairs
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In 1989, after meticulous research on the house and on the Webster family, the home was beautifully transformed, and its furnishings more closely reflected the Webster family’s lives.

Narrow room with one window, chair and desk, two dressers, and other furnishings
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You could imagine the Websters living there. This is Rebecca Webster’s dressing room.

Mostly empty room with patterned floor and wallpaper, containing a few chairs and side tables
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Yet the dining room was sparsely furnished. The 1989 reinstallation suggested that the Websters were “in retirement” and “withdrawn from society,” and didn’t need or use this room much.

Pair of boots lying on patterned blue floor next to chair with tub; rags nearby
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The dining room was presented as a seldom-used space in the Webster home during the mid-1830s. This detail showed boots being cleaned in the otherwise unused room.

Part of carpeted and wallpapered room showing fireplace, sideboard, table and chairs
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Webster family correspondence and other documents paint a picture of a household that included not only family activities, but more public ones as well, during the 1830s and beyond.

Black-and-white photo of tree-lined road with houses with low fences along both sides
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Daughter Julia Goodrich and her family lived down the street and were frequent visitors. The Webster house appears at far right in this photo of Temple Street taken in the 1920s.

Oval painting in elaborate gold and dark frame of woman in white dress with dark curly hair standing between two large columns
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Webster children and grandchildren who lived farther away came for extended visits. Daughter Eliza Jones and her family traveled from their Bridgeport, Connecticut, home for visits.

Canopy bed in a room with patterned carpet and wallpaper
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At times, some Webster family members even joined the household temporarily. They could stay in a guest room in the Webster home.

Engraving of street scene with trees, buildings, people, and an oxcart in the foreground
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Webster’s Yale-attending grandsons and their classmates stopped in for visits and came to gatherings. This print shows Yale College—located not far from the Webster home—during this time.

Room containing bookshelves, armchair, and table and side chairs
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The Webster family home was also Noah’s “office.” He had moved his study upstairs in October 1834, met there with business associates and students.

Room with patterned carpet, green walls, table and chairs in middle of room and additional chairs around the perimeter
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Guests—including visiting clergymen, publishing associates, Yale faculty, and political leaders—would have called at the house or would have been invited to gatherings in the home. This is the Webster parlor.

Long set table with mismatched chairs in room with patterned carpet and wallpaper
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To help reflect the active family life that took place in the Webster household in 1835, the new dining room vignette suggests members of the extended Webster family casually gathering for a meal.

Mismatched chairs along side of table; fireplace in background
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The room’s arrangement is deliberately informal, with mismatched chairs. Hepplewhite chairs that are part of the dining room set are supplemented by others assembled for this family meal.

Corner of set table with mismatched chairs; fireplace behind
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A high chair is provided for the youngest Webster grandchild.

End of table covered with cloth with dominos and plate of scones on it; additional dominos on patterned floor below
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The grandchildren’s domino game was quickly set aside as the table was set and three generations of the family began to gather.

Corner of set table with chairs; fireplace with mantel behind and patterned wallpaper on walls
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The dining room furnishings, like those in the rest of the home, reflect a household whose elderly inhabitants started housekeeping decades before. The Websters would have owned most of their furniture, tableware, candlesticks, and other items for decades. The Connecticut-made clock on the mantel would have been a bit newer, since it dates from 1825–1835.

Wooden chair with back slats in shield shape and dark blue satin seat
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But the Hepplewhite style chairs—no longer in fashion—would have been purchased more than 30 years before.

Table containing white dishes with blue pattern; wallpapered wall in background
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The early 1800s Chinese export dishes would have likely been bought decades before. Quite fine and fashionable when new, the sturdy dishes would have survived to be used at everyday meals and for family gatherings many years later.

Clear glass lamp with etched pattern on tablecloth with dishes and silverware at place settings nearby
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The Websters would have acquired other furnishings more recently--including newly available whale oil lamps, which provided brighter lighting than candles. In coastal New Haven, whale oil was readily available.

Window with curtains surrounded by wallpapered wall
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Stylish curtains of New England factory-made roller-printed cotton fabric are gracefully draped over glass curtain tiebacks and decoratively arranged.

Meat roast (partially sliced), jello mold, and round loaf of bread on plates on table, with place settings nearby
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Do stop by the Noah Webster Home when Greenfield Village opens this spring and see what the Websters are having for dinner as they “gather” with their children and grandchildren! And for even more Village building makeover stories, see also this recent post from Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life Donna Braden.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life and Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.

Connecticut, 19th century, 1830s, 21st century, 2020s, Noah Webster Home, home life, Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, furnishings, food, by Jeanine Head Miller, by Charles Sable, #THFCuratorChat, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

The Noah Webster Home in Greenfield Village. THF 1882

Many of the homes of Greenfield Village are often admired for their architectural design and the historic furnishings displayed within them, but the really true connections are made when all of this can be combined with the stories of the people who actually lived there. The Noah Webster House, originally from New Haven, Connecticut, is no exception.

Portrait of Noah Webster, painted by Samuel Morse in 1823, and Rebecca Greenleaf Webster, painted by Jared Bradley Flagg, c. 1835.

This was home to Noah Webster’s family, and their descendants for nearly 100 years. It was purchased by Henry Ford in 1936, dismantled and shipped to Dearborn to become part of his collection of historic buildings. Greenfield Village combines the homes and workplaces of both notable Americans and those that lead everyday lives. Most show life as it was before fame. In the case of the Webster House, the opposite is true.

By the time Noah had the house built in 1822, the American Revolution was nearly 50 years past and he was among the last of the old patriots. He was viewed as one of the great American scholars and intellectuals, and a true celebrity. The Websters' New Haven home, through the 1820s and well into the 1830s, was essentially an American salon, welcoming notables in the worlds of politics, art, education, and literature. According to recent biographer Harlow Giles Unger, during the early 1830s “the Webster home was a center of social activity-for the Yale faculty, for visiting clergymen, the old Federalists, and for noted figures.” In a letter written by Rebecca Webster to her daughter she states, “I have had a large party with as many of the faculty as we could cram in. The party went off well, for all seemed happy.” In addition to notable guests, a growing brood of Webster grandchildren (20 by 1836) came for frequent and extended visits. When the oldest grandsons attended Yale starting in the early 1830s, Rebecca entertained them and their friends with musical parties, “old-time frolics”, and at least one costume ball. Continue Reading

Connecticut, women's history, Noah Webster Home, home life, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Jim Johnson, African American history, 19th century

In tribute of today’s #MuseumWeek theme, #souvenirsMW, I thought I'd share with you one of the many special moments I have had working in the Benson Ford Research Center. You see, today’s theme encourages you to “share your souvenirs and memories of visits: photos, mugs, books, postcards, encounters and special moments” that you have had at a museum. In a broader sense, this theme focuses on the memories you’ve created and how you have documented those memories. It’s in this broader theme of memory, that I would like to point out the significance that museums and archives have in not only creating memories for you, but also preserving the memories of the past.

Object ID: 2015.0.9.1

Continue Reading

Connecticut, 18th century, by Ryan Jelso, archives, African American history

In the 1800s, the local post office was the epicenter for community events, functioning as both the town hall and gossip center.

Guests who have visited Greenfield Village recently may have noticed that our own historical "gossip center" - the Phoenixville Post Office, where you can purchase today's stamps and reproduction post cards - has been undergoing some necessary renovations, but luckily it's only for a short while! Let's take a closer look at what has been completed in the past month as we prepare for its re-opening in the next few weeks.

When the Phoenixville Post Office was moved to Greenfield Village from Connecticut in 1928, it was placed on a foundation that was smaller than the building. This size difference caused the entire building to shift, bow out and lean forward with time. This movement also caused the front door to lean and become crooked.

Post Office Front Door

To fix the problem, our team of builders and engineers lifted the whole building (about an entire inch!) and straightened the door, as well as extended the porch in front of the post office to prevent rotting of the natural wood. A very daunting project for only a month of work!

Floor of the Post Office Doorway

Even though the Phoenixville Post Office will re-open to the public very soon, there still are a few things that need to be finished up for the renovation to be totally complete! Builders will replace the siding and roof as well as re-paint the exterior of the post office, although it will stay its original color.

Connecticut, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, collections care, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford