Paneling to Ponder

Pan-1I love woodwork that looks really beautiful, really old, and that asks a lot of questions. Just like this does.

PanIGHouseThis paneling is in the hall chamber of a house built in Peabody, Mass, in 1670 or a little later and moved to Ipswich, Mass, in 1928.

There’s no doubt that it’s beautiful, there’s no doubt that it looks old, and it does ask plenty of questions. Just my cup of tea!


The paneling is obviously not original but was a “Georgianization” of the original vertical sheathing. I would guess it was done about 1735-1750 when many Massachusetts owners of “old fashioned” first period houses wanted them updated to the latest Georgian style.

Pan-2The plethora of small fielded panels over the fireplace is very unusual. Paneling is Georgian,for sure,  but most houses were updated with larger panels, the largest of all typically being over the fireplace.

I wonder if this was done by a woodworker newly arrived from England? English trees rarely grew as large as those in New England, so English panel-makers, out of necessity, made smaller panels.

The fluted pilasters with large molded capitals are explicitly architectural – more directly architectural than most American interior decoration – again, possibly an English influence?

Pan-4There is a good range of panel sizes, but all of them smaller that typical American ones.






Pan-3The pinwheel capitals on the large, flanking pilasters are crude and not at all architectural, though the motif was popular on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, the tops of these pilasters are disappointing all around – far less satisfying than the confident capitals of the smaller pilasters within the overmantel itself. That’s a question I doubt we’ll ever answer.






Pan-5The post and beams, presumably oak and originally visible, have been sheathed with thumb-nail molded pine boards – commonly done in New England when first period houses were Georgianized.




Rooms and Their Uses

Then comes the big question of WHY?

The parlor (left) and the hall (right) on the first floor (and the parlor chamber on the second) retain their first-period boarded sheathing – they have not been Georgianized and remain “old fashioned.”

Post and beams in the parlor (not sheathed) and tight-grained first growth pine sheathing in the parlor chamber.

But upstairs, the hall chamber was modernized into the only fashionable room in the house – almost unheard of for a second-floor room.

Let me speculate that in the 1740s the parlor was used as some sort of a work room, such as a retail store. This meant that that the fashionable room had to be moved upstairs, so up went the master bed, the comfortable chairs, the games table, the candle stand, and possibly a long case clock. As a consequence, a second-floor room, the hall chamber, became the private, fashionable space where the family could relax with some privacy. Certainly possible, though not typical.

I’m concluding, therefore, that the first-floor rooms were work rooms: the hall for the household work – cooking, spinning, candle-making and so on, and the parlor for an unidentified commercial activity. That’s my guess: do you have a better one?

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