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Massachusetts Historical Society Announces Major Discovery In Its Collection

BOSTON.- The Massachusetts Historical Society today announced the discovery of previously unstudied business ledgers from one of America’s preeminent furniture makers, Nathaniel Gould. Gould is considered Salem, Massachusetts’s finest cabinetmaker of the mid-18th century, but without detailed records of his work, his legacy has been contested and enigmatic. The three ledgers found at the Society shed important light on his business practices and describe every transaction in his shop on a daily basis. The ledgers will lead to the reattribution of key pieces in museum collections and possibly point to works by Gould that have not yet been identified. Gould’s records have been in the Massachusetts Historical Society's collections since 1835, but went unrecognized because they lay cached within the papers of Gould’s lawyer, Nathan Dane. The 250-year-old ledgers were brought to light with a quintessentially 21st-century tool: a Google search.

The Massachusetts Historical Society is digitizing thousands of catalog records and documents from its collections, which made finding Gould’s ledgers possible. Researchers Kem Widmer and Joyce King, the scholars who uncovered the ledgers, have been studying Gould’s furniture for decades. Searching for the term “Nathaniel Gould” on Google, King saw an intriguing entry on the Society’s website. Widmer and King rushed to Boston to investigate. At the Society they found not only Gould’s account book, which dedicates a page or more to each customer, records credit extended, debts paid, or goods bartered, but also his two daybooks, which chronologically document all sales and purchases related to the business. The information in the paired account book and daybooks complement each other and together provide a record of Gould’s shop from 1758 to 1781—the year Gould died. Widmer and King are publishing their preliminary findings in the annual issue of American Furniture, which is being distributed this month. The ledgers will be on view to the public, free of charge, at the Massachusetts Historical Society beginning on February 12, 2009.

“This discovery is a once in a lifetime event,” said Kem Widmer, one of the two researchers who discovered the ledgers. “These three books will enable us to decipher the history of Gould’s shop and his connections to a broad network of customers, among them the leading citizens of his day, along with a vast chain of suppliers, merchants, and craftsmen. The ledgers answer many questions and, at the same time, open whole new fields of inquiry. We are just beginning to realize the implications of this remarkable find.”

“We are the oldest historical society in the United States, but we are using the latest communications technology to make our collections even more accessible to researchers, students, teachers, and the public,” said Dennis Fiori, President of the Massachusetts Historical Society. “The Gould discovery is the direct result of this digitization process and underscores both the richness of our collection and the power of new tools to help us share the Society’s information and materials.”

“Kem and Joyce’s work highlights the dynamic nature of history,” said Peter Drummey, the Stephen T. Riley Librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society. “When documents like these are found, they dramatically change our understanding of the past. The Society has an extraordinary collection including millions of pages of manuscript letters, diaries, and other documents, as well as early newspapers, works of art, maps, photographs, prints, and artifacts. As the Society’s initiative to digitize our collections continues, there is no telling when the next important discovery will take place.”

Gould’s ledgers reveal his sophisticated business acumen, while his furniture demonstrates an artist’s touch. Gould, the most prominent furniture maker in Salem from 1758 to 1781, meticulously recorded each piece of furniture he sold, noting the sales price and to whom he sold it. He often added notes regarding the wood he used and the decorative elements of the piece. The daybooks reveal that Gould’s business included a system of subcontracting to other craftsman, international export, and a monopoly on the finest mahogany imported into Salem. The account book suggests an elaborate system of credit and barter between Gould and his customers.

The ledgers also document Gould’s diverse clientele, from the elite of Salem (one of 18th-century America’s most cosmopolitan and prosperous cities), to General Thomas Gage, the royal governor and commander of British forces in Massachusetts at the beginning of the Revolution, to members of the middle class. Spanning a period from the end of the French and Indian War to the end of the American Revolution, the ledgers open a new window on this tumultuous time in the life of the nation.

Widmer and King plan to use the ledgers as the basis for a forthcoming book which will explore Gould’s work and business. They also hope to properly attribute many pieces of furniture in private and public collections which have, for many years, been incorrectly ascribed to other makers.

The Gould discovery caps a remarkable year at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The Society was recently awarded more than $300,000 in grants from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to continue digitization and publication projects in conjunction with the John Adams Papers. The Society’s collection was the main resource used to research David McCullough’s John Adams, the inspiration for the HBO, Emmy-winning miniseries on the Adams family. With funding from a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant, the Society launched an online, document-based curriculum that brings its collections into classrooms across the country, using letters, diary entries, news accounts, and public records to tell the story of the coming of the American Revolution. This Society also began a new program of free exhibitions drawing on its collections, another element of its commitment to welcoming the public to view its vast holdings.

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