Friday, January 24, 2014

Jonathan Fisher, 19th Century Furniture Maker

* All photographs taken and used with permission of The Jonathan Fisher House

For the past few years I’ve had a desire to do some research on an 18th/19th century Blue Hill, Maine cabinetmaker/turner named Jonathan Fisher. Finally about six months ago I began dipping my toes into his story. This past fall, at the prompting and encouragement of my friend Don Williams, I began to dig deeper.

An 1888 photograph of his barn where he built furniture

 The only of his "kitchen" chairs to retain original surface paint

Fisher was the first settled minister in the mid-coast Maine town of Blue Hill arriving in 1796 from Massachusetts with his newly wed wife Dolly. Fisher spent the rest of his life in this frontier town ministering to his congregation. In addition to the ministry, he spent significant investment of time and resources on business ventures. Entrepreneurially minded, he was always set out to establish himself as a proficient artist/craftsman in this rural community. It was his education at Harvard where he acquired many skills that proved useful to his entrepreneurial ventures. Between surveying, painting, bookbinding, hat making, digging wells, and building furniture he had wide variety of ways to bring in income. Fisher also designed and built his own house, founded a seminary in Bangor, a school in Blue Hill, grew vegetables, raised livestock, and incessantly tinkered with countless inventions.

A card table attributed to Fisher

His turning chisels survive.

In the 1950s the Jonathan Fisher Memorial acquired the property to preserve this story of a rural Maine minister/farmer/craftsman. Fisher’s house eventually became a house museum open to this day.

Fisher's artist box of pigments
A 'mortice chisel' now missing its handle

What interests me most is just how much from the man is extant. Not only is his house in good condition but there are tons of letters, artwork, tools, furniture, and utilitarian objects crafted by Fisher’s hand. One of the most unique treasures that researchers of Fisher have is his extensive diary. From 1795 to 1835 he faithfully recorded journal entries of his every day activities. This is a selection from February 1801 …

“23. Planed clapboards. Turned one spool. Mrs. F. came home. 
24. Went to Mr. H’s. P.M. made part a drawer for my book case. Evening conference at my house. Mrs. Dorr tarried over night. 
25. Finished my drawer. Made one door for my book case. P.M. Mrs. Stevens and Mrs. Faulkner made us a visit. 
26. Worked upon my book case. P.M. made a visit with Mrs. F. at Col. Parker’s. 
27. Worked at stuff for a book case door and drawer. P.M. wrote sermons.”

A crude molding plane

A large portion of his journals survive and have been translated from his esoteric shorthand and typed into a book. I was fortunate to be able to make a copy for myself so that I could highlight and annotate to my heart’s content. I just last week finished the Diaries after working my way through the two published biographies of him. The first biography written was titled Jonathan Fisher, Maine Parson 1768 to 1847 by Mary Ellen Chase. In the past few years a new biography was published by art history professor Kevin D. Murphy. This one, titled Jonathan Fisher of Blue Hill, Maine: Commerce, Culture, and Community on the Eastern Frontier, has provided a fresh look at the way Fisher sought to establish a social and religious prestige for himself in this developing frontier town by his establishing himself as a competent minister, artist, and intellectual.

A nicely formed candlestand

A backsaw and mitrebox

From this reading I was able to get a good introduction to the man through these secondary sources. Building on this foundation, I then moved to primary sources.

This winter I have been spending a few hours each week over at the Fisher House examining objects and digging through the archives to see what I tidbits of information about his woodworking I might unearth. Thanks to the openness and generosity of the Fisher House board and volunteers, I have found an overwhelming amount of information about the man. The biggest task is sorting through all of the extant records, letters, diaries, drawings, etc. to glean relevant information for my area of study.

Fisher's desk and bookcase
Carving on a child's desk
Wooden latch under another stand

In this beginning stage of object examination, I have many questions and many suspicions. Not all of the furniture in the museum has credible attribution to Fisher’s hand. I have begun sorting through to try to figure out what’s him and what’s not. It is a large task. My other goals are to begin to understand how his furniture making fit into his life, his motivations and inspirations for making it, and the environment in which it was created. And these are just the beginning questions. During the course of my research I will undoubtedly be sharing thoughts and findings here on the blog. I appreciate any insights or questions you all might have as I think through these things out loud.

A tool list from Fisher's probate inventory

Thoughts? Questions? Leave a comment below!


  1. So much has been said about Fisher and maybe because of this he is, to me, quite hard to understand. I think you have summarized nicely some of the questions that remain. Great photos too.
    I find it hard to fathom how and why he was so meticulous with everything he did. His record keeping alone, on his life and on the vital statistics of the families in the area, are both as equally substantial as they are in-depth.
    Keep up the good investigating Josh.

  2. Thank you, Rick. I would love to get together again soon to discuss this story some more. Thanks for all your help thus far.

  3. Hello Joshua,
    Thank you for enlightening me on this subject. I am excited to learn as you learn. What a wonderful project and in very capable hands. Keep up the great work.

    bob k.

    1. Thanks, Bob. I look forward to sharing more as the research takes shape into something presentable.