Longfellow House - Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site has a large museum collection consisting of thousands of objects, many of which are not regularly displayed in the house's furnished exhibit rooms. Every month, an object will be featured on this page, providing a look at an unusual piece from the collection.
For February, our Object of the Month is a gift given to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on his 73rd birthday in 1880.
Many people are familiar with the story of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “chestnut chair”, commemorating the poem “The Village Blacksmith” and given to him in 1879 on his 72nd birthday by the children of Cambridge. The following year Longfellow received a book that was meant to accompany the chair. The panel shown above is the inside front cover of that book, it incorporates a piece of carved wood taken from the "spreading chestnut-tree" and depicts the general scene described in the poem, with children looking in on the blacksmith as he works at his anvil.
Fellow Cambridge resident Phoebe Horsford sent Longfellow a letter of presentation along with the book. Horsford’s husband Eben, an American chemist and amateur archaeologist best known for his theories regarding the settlement of the Boston area by Norse explorer Leif Eriksson, is named in the letter as the designer of the book’s binding, which apparently was problematic and is cited as the reason for the year-long delay in completing the volume. The book consists of roughly alphabetical handwritten lists, in penmanship resembling Phoebe Horsford’s own, of 599 children from Cambridge who donated money to have the chestnut chair made for Longfellow. Among the children listed is Cornelia Conway Felton Horsford, Phoebe’s daughter, who carried on her father’s work investigating possible Norse ruins in both Europe and New England.
The carved panel on the inside of the book’s front cover is attributed to the artist James Priestman. Priestman, about whom not much has been uncovered, was apparently Canadian born but is known to have been in Boston by 1872. He seems to originally have made a name for himself with his woodcarvings, that were sometimes used as molds from which parian ware plaques were made, an example of which is held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Later on in his career, Priestman gained some esteem as a designer of pottery, designing pieces for Chesapeake Pottery of Baltimore, Maryland in the 1880s.