Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Jonathan Fisher Research

Over the past two years a portion of my professional life has been devoted to researching a 19th century rural Maine cabinet and chair maker named Jonathan Fisher. This page will remain linked on the sidebar to serve as a resource for updates and information throughout the course of this project.

Bluehill historian, Brad Emerson has said of the research, “The furniture has been a relative unknown. Joshua’s project is really important. He is taking a scholarly and craftsman’s approach to the study and separating fact from fiction. One of the things that makes the Fisher furniture so important is that everything survived. Fisher writes about making the furniture and who he made it for, the tools he made it with survive. It’s really an extraordinary thing. It’s going to tell us more than we ever knew about Fisher’s position as a cabinetmaker in the community and as someone who made furniture for himself and his neighbors. It’s going to be an important addition to the history of early furniture making in New England and Maine. This is another part of the story. It’s been waiting for someone like Joshua to come along and take it apart and put it together.”

Fisher's landscape of Bluehill. Courtesy: Maine Memory Network


Fisher's desk and bookcase
Jonathan Fisher was born October 7th, 1768 in New Braintree, MA. He spent his youth in manual labor as well as drawing and painting. As a child, he decided to pursue academic study and eventually graduated from Harvard for ministerial training. Jonathan accepted a call to minister in Bluehill, Maine in 1796. Throughout his life and ministry in Bluehill, he sought to capitalize on the lack of skilled artisans in the frontier community by making furniture, straw hats, and household items for sale while providing decorative painting, well drilling, and bookbinding services, to name a few. Though never formally trained in a cabinetmaking apprenticeship, Fisher’s manual dexterity and aptitude were remarkably sophisticated for a rural artisan.  

Fisher built numerous articles of furniture from 1798 through the 1820s. He fabricated a variety of chairs, chests, stands, tables, and even common domestic items for both personal use and on commission. Fisher’s surviving furniture exemplifies the conservative vernacular taste so prevalent in preindustrial New England. Additionally, among his countless ingenious devices, the windmill which powered his sawmill, lathe, and grindstone is most remarkable.

Molding made by Fisher


Most preindustrial cabinet and chair makers have had little if any of their story survive. Some makers have furniture attributed to them but no tools survive. Others may have tools but only one or two pieces of furniture. Few have any meaningful documentary evidence (if they do it is usually restricted to ledgers alone). Welcome to the dilemma of the furniture historian.

In contrast to these, the most exciting element of the Fisher story is the overwhelming body of surviving artifacts from his life and work.  The house Fisher built survives as a museum to this day as well as much of his furniture (which is on display in the museum) and his chest of woodworking tools. Astonishingly, beyond the abundance of material evidence, all but two years of Fisher’s 35 year daily journals survive in the archives of the museum. Quotidian entries abound such as, “Spent most of the day in sawing out legs for light stands” and, “Turned four chair posts for Mr. Ellis” and, “Purchased of Mr. Clark 22 feet of pine board and worked upon a chest.” This level of documentation combined with the overwhelming number of surviving artifacts is unparalleled by any other preindustrial cabinet or chair maker.


Fisher's Workshop built in 1811
Because of his prominence in Maine history, numerous scholars have discussed aspects of Jonathan Fisher and many museum exhibits have highlighted him. Fisher was a multifaceted individual and although many of these facets have been discussed, surprisingly, no one has concentrated on the parson’s furniture making. I’m working to fill that gap.

My research compiled thus far has been well received and I am now under contract with Lost Art Press to develop a book manuscript. The objective of the book is to tell the story of Jonathan Fisher as a rural multifaceted preindustrial furniture maker. Biographical information will lay the ground work for the heart of the book which focuses on his workshops, tools, and extant furniture. Discussion of his motivations, aesthetic preferences, and clientele will also be presented. Finally, both the furniture and the tools will be displayed in catalog format for a more detailed look at the objects.

Fisher's "mahogany" grain painting
This important story provides fresh insight into furniture making in rural New England before the Industrial Revolution. It is my hope we will benefit from better understanding this aspect of our cultural heritage. If you are interested in the development of the research feel free to follow along at the blog here. Updates, sneak peaks, upcoming events, and publishing information will all be made available here at The Workbench Diary. Thank you for your interest.

If you would like to contact me regarding this research, you can email me at:

Some of Fisher's molding planes


See what Christopher Schwarz has been saying about it:

And what Don Williams has said about it:

The Jonathan Fisher House:


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